You may be wonder how I came to write a book and create cards and posters for counselors and therapists to use to help students become more aware of how their thoughts affect their happiness. In 2014, Dr. Jesse Payne of Corban University and the author of CHANGE YOUR BRAIN, CHANGE YOUR LIFE (before 25), was presenting a series of “Brain Changer” offerings for School Counselors in Salem-Keizer School District. Dr. Payne has a very effective way of connecting some of the key concepts related to brain research, outlined in Dr. Daniel Amen’s books and putting ideas that promote brain health and a sense of well-being into very practical terms for teens and young adults. In fact, Dr. Payne is piloting a program for high school and middle school students across the United States. As he was addressing School Counselors serving elementary, middle and high school levels, he respectfully addressed the importance of educating even our youngest elementary school children about understanding and caring for their brains.
So, while Dr. Payne was instilling excitement in elementary level counselors, I could find no curriculum available for young students about ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts). Having sat on the sidelines of hundreds of peer mediations, I began to think about patterns in student’s conflicts and the nine ANTs in our cards and posters began to dance around in my head. I imagined students appearing in my office suffering and feeling hopeless when they lacked the skills to resolve conflicts in ongoing small group work or social circles. Stories began to emerge and ANTs played a key role in each.
Now ANTs have played an important roll since the 1970’s as a reflection tool used in CT, Cognitive Therapy with Dr. Aaron Beck and are utilized today by a variety of therapists embracing CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). Clients become aware of how their spontaneous thoughts and perceptions can impact their emotions and behavior. Questioning strategies can empower individuals to see an upsetting situation from a different perspective, thereby influencing a change in their thinking.
As an elementary school counselor in a poverty school, I have put a good deal of time and energy in to creating peaceful pathways of communication. I train 4th and 5th grade students to facilitate peer mediations with modified curriculum from “Peaceworks”. I emphasize awareness around our needs and feelings as we make requests using non-violent communication, honoring the good work being done by Marshall Rosenberg. So, when I found various online articles and blogs about ANTs, I was seriously conflicted by “killing the ANTs” or “stomping out the ANTs” or spraying them into oblivion. I could just see some of my energetic students spiraling into a frenzy of stomping and killing negative thoughts. This could be the undoing of years of groundwork embracing “bucket filling”, “being cool”, “compassion games” and “random acts of kindness”.
Finally, I envisioned an episode where work place stress had driven me to succumb to my own ANTs and my screenwriting partner, Bill Stoneham, uttered the phrase, “Don’t Feed It.” I knew instantly that my ranting was feeding the issue and making me feel worse. And so the concept for my first book was born. Elementary students seeing ANTs in the garden in their minds, munching on seeds thoughts of fear, worry, frustration and loneliness. The more negative seed thoughts planted, the more ANTs would appear. If there is no ANT food, the ANTs simply go away. In the first book, DON’T FEED THE ANTs, there are simple suggestions to replace negative thoughts with positive ideas or actions. In addition, there are a series of simple questions children can ask themselves about their ANTs inspired by the work of Byron Katie.
I am fortunate to have embarked on this creative journey and been joined by my talented and generous illustrator, Patti Nelson Stoneham. It is my hope that our collaboration provides useful tools for therapists and counselors working with small children, inspiring these young people to become resilient in relation to their own emotional intelligence.