Using Visualisation and Mental Rehearsal in the Classroom

When students turn up in your classroom they bring with them invisible inhibitors to learning. Based on prior experiences, they have formed concepts. A concept is a deeply held belief or perception that an individual has formed as a consequence of an experience that was emotionally significant.

“”Research has shown there is a 90% correlation between the concepts students hold and their perceived ability to learn within the school system.” — Dr Tony Townsend, Professor of Education

John Joseph describes these concepts: “An emotionally powerful concept (EPC) is one that creates significant changes in the body, including the brain structures that map the body and influence thinking. These EPC’s either support learning and are positive or they create avoidance of the learning opportunity, and are negative. A simple example is a student who comes with the concept that ‘I am dumb at maths, I hate writing’ or ‘I am only an average student’. We can only behave in accordance with our belief system and so despite your best attempts to convince a student otherwise, you are up against an invisible inhibitor to learning well in your class.”

How can we change these concepts?

The slow, tried and true way is for teachers to do what they have always done — to support a student to gradually develop competence and mastery by becoming successful at the task they have the negative concept towards. They cannot keep thinking they are dumb at maths once they have mastered long division!

Or you can use creative visualisation or mental rehearsal.

Mental rehearsal has been around for years. Peak athletes and performers have been using it for ages. How is it then that we are not been teaching our children the true power of this activity?

I am deeply grateful to Chicken Soup for the Soul author Jack Canfield for teaching me the power of visualisation by taking me through many exercises using the imagination. My educated brain may have refused to believe the power because, at the time, it filtered all experiences through the educated mindset of “where is the proof and the research to support your hypothesis?”.

I believe we haven’t been teaching our children this art because it has been difficult to prove the benefit of mental rehearsal was real. The sceptical analytical minds of educators and the educated thus dismissed it as being dubious. Thankfully the area of brain and mind research has been growing exponentially over the last 15 years, leading to the understanding of why it can assist students to unblock potential. The key is that anything vividly imagined with emotion is seen by the brain as real. This means that if you pretend strongly enough you can overcome the mental resistance that exists within us all. We all run an interior video of our ability to do certain things — just ask someone to stand up in front of a crowd of people and reveal something personal! The concepts that are locked into our unconscious mind can be changed permanently over time.

An exercise to understand the power of visualisation

The following exercise can help you understand the power of visualisation and is excellent to do with students when you want to introduce mental rehearsal in your classroom.

Stand with your feet comfortably apart a little. Keep your feet still during this activity as it will require you to turn from the waist. I encourage you not to force any movement, just do what feels comfortable for you. 

Raise your left arm straight out in front of you. Turn slowly to the left leading with your arm – to as far as is comfortable for you. When you get to that point allow your eyes to observe whatever your hand or fingers are pointing towards. Make a mental note of that point; this is point one. 

Then, without moving your arm, visually line up a different point that is further in the direction you were turning toward, at least 30 centimetres further around. Take a mental picture of this point; this is point two.

Slowly untwist as you bring your arm back to the front. Put it by your side.

Now close your eyes. Imagine you are repeating the exercise. Imagine lifting your left arm up easily and effortlessly turn slowly to point one. Effortlessly pass that point to line your arm up to the second point that was almost behind you, at point two. It feels easy, your body feels comfortable and you find yourself lined up to a place which is much further around than you were first able to turn. Imagine bringing your arm back to the front, and slowly to your side. Then imagine it one more time using the same instructions and imagine it feels so easy and effortless that it almost feels like you could turn all the way around.

Finally open your eyes and actually do the exercise. Where does your arm now face? Is it at point one or nearer to point two? Most of you will find you have easily lined up to point two. (Jack Canfield FSS, 1998 Santa Barbara California, USA)

What does this visualisation exercise show? It is not meant to demonstrate how inflexible some of us are, but rather that we can change our performance easily when we change our inner perception. If we can see something with the mind then the chances are much better that the body will follow.

Our brain cannot distinguish between real or imagined images. 

This is the key to the power of visualisation.

Albert Einstein believed that imagination is more important than knowledge. A healthy imagination that is encouraged and brought forward from early childhood is important. People can then imagine with enthusiasm and creativity.

If you sit in a chair right now and imagine flying in a small plane at 20,000 feet, you are sitting in a comfortable seat with your seatbelt on. Chances are your body starts to feel little sensations as if you really are flying. Now imagine you are at the back of the plane and are ready to jump with a parachute through an open door. My Dad used to always wonder at why anyone would want to leap out of a perfectly good aeroplane but imagine you can feel the rush of air whizzing past you. You can see how far down the ground is, you can feel the safety equipment in your hands. You again start to feel body sensations — if you are afraid of heights you will feel your heart start to race, butterflies in the stomach and the palms of your hands becoming sweaty; or you may feel exhilaration.

Some people feel anxious in small spaces and have the same body sensations if they imagine themselves in such a space. The body physiology follows our mind and whatever we imagine.

There is a true story in the second of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen. It is about a Vietnam prisoner of war, Major James Nesmeth, who spent seven years as a prisoner imagining he was playing 18 holes of golf on his home golf course. Every day he would play, stroke by stroke while actually being imprisoned in a cage. In this way he kept his mind distracted from his daily discomfort and was able to keep going. Eventually, when he was rescued and able to return home, he shaved 20 strokes off his previous golf score when he played his first real game of golf since his imprisonment.

There is also an often-quoted experiment with a group of young basketball players. They were divided into three groups. One group practised every day over a three-month period. Another group did no training while the third group mentally practised every day.

The results showed conclusively that the third group improved almost as much as the first group, without even touching a basketball.

Can you see the implications for kids at schools who are underachieving? Can you see the implications for the isolated child with few social skills? Can you even see the possible benefits for creating the potential for a peaceful world one day? When I returned from Jack Canfield’s intensive training I felt more confident about bringing creative visualisation into my classes as I was no a stranger to the concept.

Many children and teenagers have the worst possible vision of themselves: I am dumb, fat and useless; no one likes me, I am ugly and no-one cares. Some of these children come from very loving families yet the inner critic, or the ego voice runs an inner dialogue that criticises; it reinforces negative messages we have heard in our childhood.

With deep relaxation, particularly with positive visualisation, this critical voice can be quietened so that the unconscious and conscious minds can hear some of the positive messages that reassure young people.

In 1998 I was given a small class of low achievers in English. They were all boys. I decided to work at changing both their mental and emotional perceptions of English classes and their inner beliefs and perceptions about how well they would perform at the end of term. We created the My Best Report Ever visualisation. It involved taking the students into a quiet relaxed place and imagining taking home their very best report ever — how Mum reacts, how Dad reacts and how proud they feel within themselves.

The students enjoyed the activity as they were able to feel positive about themselves and the body followed the mind. What they didn’t realise was that their inner perceptions of their potential also changed in time. By week four they had begun handing in good work in Maths and they were very surprised by that — as was their maths teacher. Every one of those boys took home the best report they had ever achieved! They were further surprised because they improved in all their subjects and not just English, where we did the exercise.

Dr Gerald Jampolsky, the Director of the Centre for Attitudinal Learning in the US, created an Accelerated Learning Technique for remedial readers at the elementary level. A group of remedial readers used an audio tape at home every night for a three-month period and at the end of the time they were re-tested and they had all increased their reading ages, some by as much as four years! The best news was this was achieved without extra tuition or extra work. I have created a visualisation similar to Gerald’s on my School Mastery bundle/CD called I Can Read Easily. The teachers using this audio have noticed instant changes in attitude towards reading and of course as students moderate all learning through their emotions this is the first step to changing performance.

Visualising success

If we can remind students to vividly imagine the highest possible outcome or vision for themselves then we really give them the best opportunity to achieve positive results. It must be always linked to a high emotionally pleasant state. If they use the guided visualisation at home before going to sleep it seems to accelerate the changes because the unconscious is able to embed the new concepts faster and deeper.

Real worriers and people with depression have a tendency to frighten themselves with their own negative patterns of thought, especially about the future.

They do the worst case scenario and the “what if I fail?, I am not good enough” thought patterning and virtually talk themselves into despair and hopelessness.

Mental rehearsal can improve hidden attitudes and concepts and students can learn how to apply it to other areas in their lives. Among my resources, Creating Success and My Best Report Ever visualisation is in the School Mastery bundle along with I Can Read Easily and Accepting Myself — a self-esteem building visualisation. I’ve had reports that these tracks have been shown to help final-year students build confidence and reduce fear, so I have also included them on my audio/eBook resource bundle for adolescents: Your Kit Bag for a Very Bumpy Ride.

Finally, mental rehearsal helps by empowering students to better manage their mental patterns and thinking loops.

firmly believe that with more awareness of the power of inner thought patterns, visualisation and language we can help turn around the high levels of failure and low achievement that exist in some of our schools.

We can give our students the tools for life that allow them to manage their negative feeling states and their emotionally destructive patterns before they get to puberty when everything accelerates and becomes even more unpredictable.