Cristina Evans, M.Ed. and David Murphy, M.Ed., Ed.D.

Have you ever had a friend walk into a store where you are shopping and not say hello?  Do you automatically start thinking that you must have done something to offend her or she is not as close of a companion as you had thought?  Have you ever heard your child respond to earning a lower than expected grade with “I’m going to fail this class!”?  Have you found yourself or your child chronically worried or stressed, and struggling with anxiety?

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You are not alone.  Even the most optimistic person is not immune to negative thoughts, but for those with executive function deficits, the destructive chatter of self-doubt can be relentless.  Regulating emotions may be a significant challenge however the good news is that through direct instruction,  strategies can be taught and utilized to stop those negative thought patterns.

Through a research-based process, students and adults develop an awareness to catch their negative thoughts. They also can make a connection between their actions and the underlying beliefs that lead to certain emotions or undesirable behaviors. For many students and adults, awareness of thoughts does not come naturally. For individuals with ADD, this is even more so. Since EFD is a cognitive-based disability, its takes time, attention, and effort to rewire the brain and form new neurological patterns. Two prominent researches, Jeffrey Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding, developed a 4-step process to help adults with obsessive compulsive disorders (OCD) to change bad habits, end unhealthy thinking, and take control of your life. This process is described below.

The four steps to combat automatic negative thoughts called relabel, reframe, refocus, and revalue.

​When working with students and children, a similar process has been developed to help them recognize and eliminate problematic and negative thoughts. Experts call these thoughts ANTs – Automatic Negative Thoughts.  A few ANTs are fine and expected at times, as visually presented with the image below of a picnic.

The Angry Ants: Therapy Game for Negative Thoughts created by Mental Fills Counseling Tools shows how a few ants are not a problem on a picnic day.  More than a few can be tolerated but do start to affect the positive feelings of the picnic.

A picture depicting automatic negative thoughts(ANTs) surrounding a picnic basket with food.

​     Eventually the negative thought pattern can multiply the ANTs and lead to an overwhelming feeling of despair destroying what would have been a positive experience.

A picture depicting automatic negative thoughts(ANTs) surrounding a picnic basket with food.
A picture depicting automatic negative thoughts(ANTs) surrounding a picnic basket with food.

The first step in taking back control of thoughts is to recognize that the thought is indeed an ANT.  These are the negative, unhelpful, doubt inspiring thoughts and often they aren’t even true!  The best way to identify if a thought is an ANT is to ask yourself a few questions:  Is this a true?  Do I know for a fact that this thought is the truth?

Once you have identified that your thought is an ANT, take a moment to identify what type of ANT it is.  Psychologists have categorized anywhere from three to twenty different types of ANTs.  Coaches at Effective Effort Consulting focus on the most common four listed below.

Types of ANTs listed by Effective Effort Consulting

After identifying the type of ANT, the student is encouraged to replace the thought with a more positive one.  This type of therapy is called: Stomping Your ANTs and utilizes a 3R approach.  Students recognize, relabel and replace their thoughts leading to a more positive pattern.

3Rs - Recognize, Relabel and Replace

Here’s an example of this approach:

  1. Recognize –  “I got a 67 on my Science test.  I’m going to fail this subject.”– Is this thought absolutely true? “No.  I cannot predict the future and really have no idea if I’ll fail Science this year.”
  2. Relabel – “Magnification – I’m exaggerating the situation as I’ve gotten 90s on all other quizzes this year.”
  3. Replace – “I don’t like this grade but will make flash cards for the next quiz on Friday and get a better grade.”
Executive Functioning Assessment from Effective Effort Consulting


Schwartz, J. , Gladding, R (2012). You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life

Mental Fills Counseling Tools. ANGRY ANTS: Cognitive Therapy CBT Group Activity for Automatic Negative Thoughts, Teachers Pay Teachers, 

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