Bringing out the best in all students

Maggie wrote for Teachers Matter about what she learned from neuro linguistic programming and how this can have an impact in the classroom.

In early 1991 I attended a course about NLP and it fundamentally changed the way I taught and the way I thought. Technically NLP stands for neuro linguistic programming but its creators, Richard Bandler and John Grinder, in the mid 1970s referred to NLP as “an attitude and a methodology that leaves behind a trail of techniques”. Essentially the creators of NLP undertook detailed observation of people who were excellent in their field, especially those who were able to facilitate positive changes in other people’s behaviour. By studying these experts Bandler and Grinder were able to work out the ‘how’ and then teach others to do the same.

“NLP is the modelling of excellence to find patterns of excellence so that these patterns of excellence can be duplicated.” — Gary De Rodriguez

To be honest, I was blown away by what I learnt as it opened my eyes to things I had never considered and it helped me understand so much about the art of teaching. It was the first time I’d learnt about how important the unconscious mind is in our lives, especially in the classroom – and how to create moments of connection, reflection and suggestion that make things happen on a profound level.

OK by now if you haven’t already turned the page, many of you will be tiring of the lack of ‘specifics’ in this article so far. That’s a perfect example of poor rapport – the unconscious mind likes specifics, direction and an intention. This is why at the beginning of a lesson – teachers usually give this sense of direction.

“Today we will be continuing the work from yesterday for the first half of the lesson and then we will do a mini test on the key concepts of the topic.”

NLP would suggest that if you have a lesson plan on the white board, the unconscious will already get the student started on some level to get the task done. So instead of waiting until everyone is present, settled and listening – valuable moments of class time – the lesson has started.

One of the mind-blowing concepts for me was the speed of unconscious processing that NLP unveiled for me and that I have further pursued in my readings.

Conscious vs unconscious processing:

  • Eye –10 millions bits per sec/40 (conscious processing)
  • Ear –100,000 bits per sec/30
  • Skin – 100,000 bits per sec/5
  • Smell – 100,000 bits per sec/1
  • Taste – 1,000 bits per sec/1

This is why we have visual cues around rooms that help remind students of preferred behaviour, periodic tables or in early years’ classes letters and numbers. The students’ unconscious mind is constantly taking in visual stimuli WITHOUT the students being aware.

How often have you assumed that everyone in the class has understood your directions to a task? If you know that every person filters the stimuli that they receive through their brain and their central nervous system, as well as through their past experiences, most of which are deep in the unconscious mind,you will wonder at how we communicate at all. There has been a lot written about learning styles VAK – visual, auditory and kinaesthetic – however there’s very little written in an education context about the power of language around non-literal language and unintended blockers to success.

What happens when I write ‘don’t think of a blue elephant!’? This is a great example of how the unconscious mind does not take any notice of non-literal words:

Count the number of ‘f’s’ in the next paragraph.





Many people struggle to see there are 6 fs – because the non-literal words have less meaning to the unconscious mind. So often in class we tell students what we don’t want them to do rather than very specifically saying what we want them to do, so we are being less effective communicators. Unconscious processing is why we can read the following piece:

Olny srmat poelpe can raed tihs.

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae.

One of the changes I made in the classroom after my NLP course was to help students upgrade their language. Essentially we can use life-negating language or life-enhancing language – remember the unconscious is constantly processing language depending on how it hears/sees/senses the words. The way we have been taught to speak or learnt to speak has a huge influence on how we think and program our unconscious mind. The continuous use of negative non-conscious language prevents us from achieving many of our positive outcomes and goals and thus also contributes to us sustaining resourceful emotional states and behaviours.

When we use generalisations instead of specifics we disengage our emotions and the unconscious mind takes little notice and thus positive change is unlikely. Remember our unconscious mind takes notice of specifics, that are emotionally charged and it takes language literally.


Life-Negating Language                      Life-Enhancing Language

Isn’t it a nice day?……………………………..It is a nice day.

Wouldn’t you like to go?……………………..Would you like to go?

Don’t you like Maths?…………………………Do you like Maths?

I want, I wish, I need…………………………..I require, I choose, My choice is…

I should, ought, have to………………………I choose, I will

I would……………………………………………..I will

I must, I’ve got to……………………………….I will

I might, I am supposed to……………………I will

I’ll try………………………………………………..I will, I am, I can

I hope………………………………………………My choice is…

Probably, perhaps……………………………..I will, I choose

It’s hard……………………………………………It’s a challenge, It’s an opportunity

Many students who are underachieving will be using life-negating language both outwardly and as inner self-talk. In a way it’s a form of invisible self sabotage! The “I can’t…” disappeared from our class and there was a noticeable shift in effort. When I explained why I was helping the students to upgrade their language, it was OK to help them and there were many times they upgraded mine!

Communication is made up of:

  • 7% WORDS
  • 38% TONALITY

The NLP model is also one that encourages the notion that failure was simply the result of a poor choice: ‘I did not put enough effort into my assignment, I did not train hard enough for the race or I thought I knew enough to pass – and I made a mistake.’This was another classic mind challenging moment for me in the course – is this possible? Given I was sceptical as to how you would prove such a thing, I followed the reasoning. Now that I had an understanding of how the unconscious was working, and how students are influenced by teacher’s expectations (Pygmailian Effect, 1975) and from my own prior experiences it did make sense. We communicate powerfully by who we are – how we connect non-verbally, intuitively and silently. Professor Rupert Sheldrake writes about morpho-genic fields and essentially this follows the same reasoning. Have you noticed that when teachers who win awards speak of their careers they often talk of the love they have for children, their passion for making a positive difference and how much they are committed to their work? Essentially they will be constantly communicating these messages to their students and this will create a powerful rapport making students feel safe and valued and so maybe a large percentage of their communication will be non-verbal. It is a mutually beneficial relationship and much of it is invisible and unconscious.

What do you do if something you chose to do did not get you the results you desired?

You try something different.

This is being behaviourally flexible. You then explore other options and then consider the feedback that you get from your new choice. You will keep trying different ways of achieving the desired results until you succeed. Many students do not have this flexibility. They fail in their eyes and do not try other ways of achieving the desired outcome.

The only failure is when you give up and do not try to find another way of getting the result you desire!

As a classroom teacher, a counsellor and a parent I improved on so many levels because of that NLP course. It gave me fresh eyes with which to view others, my communication and my ability to facilitate positive change in our schools, homes and our community. As in any new training I took from it what helped me grow as an educator and person.

There are plenty of books on the shelves that explore the information and yes I did have concerns with the commercialisation of the NLP ideology in later years as a pathway to living amazing lives. However, I guess it’s a bit like Christmas – just because it’s become commercialised does not mean it is without its magic. The concepts at the core of NLP are still valid and enormously beneficial for teachers.

Maggie wrote this article for Teachers Matter Magazine.

Download: 19 Bringing out the best in all students.pdf