How Negativity Bias Can Get in the Way of Your Child’s Success

School Stress 101: What’s Going on in Your Child’s Head and How to Help

To protect us, our brains naturally pay more attention to unpleasant experiences. So, the pile of negative memories grows faster. The tendency our brains have to pay more attention to negative stimuli and build up these negative memories is what we call negativity bias. In this episode, I give you three actions you can take with your kiddo to help stop this bias from standing in their way to success.



This season of the podcast is all about what’s going on in your child’s head when it comes to school and how you can help them overcome the stress and anxiety that may be getting in their way of doing and feeling their best.

In this episode, we’re talking about negativity bias.

As an adult, you’ve probably experienced how this pesky bias can get in the way of success at work, in relationships, and even at your weekly kickball game.

But you may not know that it can profoundly affect your kids too.

Just as our body is built from the foods we eat, our mind is built from the experiences we have. As you have more and more experiences, those experiences slowly shape how our brain works and how we think and act.

But the problem is that to protect us, our brains naturally pay more attention to unpleasant experiences. So, the pile of negative memories grows faster. The tendency our brains have to pay more attention to negative stimuli and build up these negative memories is what we call negativity bias.

This pile of negative memories can lead to issues like math anxiety, which as we talked about last episode, has been suggested to decrease students’ math performance.

It’s likely that a child who experiences math anxiety has strong memories of when doing math meant failing, making their caregivers upset, or feeling embarrassed in front of their peers.

Without the student realizing what’s happening, a math assignment can trigger those memories and cause them to go into fight, flight, or freeze response.

And all of this is true for reading and writing as well.

When students are in that state of mind, it’s tough to learn, let alone perform their best on a quiz or a test.

It doesn’t help that most of the time when we’re talking about kids’ performance in school, we’re focused on what they need to get better at, not what we’re already good at—which a certain kind of bias toward negativity in and of itself. 

We can’t rid ourselves or our children of the negativity bias. It’s a natural part of a healthy human brain that is there to help keep us alive. 

But both neuroscience and social research show us that we don’t have to exist at the whim of this part of our brains. 

After the break, I’ll give you three actions you can take with your kiddo to help stop negativity bias from standing in their way to success.

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Imagine your teen or tween getting a handle on their school-related anxiety (and no longer adding to yours).

We see it all the time: Procrastination, Staying up way too late doing homework last-minute, Falling grades due to missed assignments, School-related meltdowns…These behaviors are often directly related to anxiety. And I can confidently tell you that these DO NOT have to be a part of your life this school year.

The School Without Suffering Toolkit equips students with concrete strategies and exercises that they can learn step by step and then revisit whenever they need to during the school year.

With the Toolkit, your child will be able to re-evaluate stress that’s negatively affecting them, initiate and execute academic tasks with ease, foster a growth mindset, manage their time effectively and healthfully, and complete their most anxiety-inducing homework with confidence.

AND, with the option to meet with an expert, empathetic School Without Suffering academic coach when they need some extra support, students will always be able to use the tools in their toolkits how they need to, when they need to to do and feel better.

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 We are back and ready to get into the concrete actions you can take with your child to help stop negativity bias from standing in their way to success.

Action number 1 is Cherish Positive Experiences.

Memories can be beneficial or harmful. To be happy and calm, we can create, preserve, and increase positive memories that benefit us and others. We can also prevent, eliminate, or decrease negative memories that harm.

How do we do that when our brain is always on the lookout for things that might be negative? By purposefully cherishing positive experiences.

That means taking time at the end of each day or even at the end of each homework session to highlight one positive experience your child had related to or surrounding the school day, the homework session, or the subject they are experiencing anxiety about.

Start small. These positive experiences can be tiny or seem insignificant at first. For example, “That was hard, but I made it through, and I’m proud of myself.” or “My teacher made a joke today that made me smile.” or “I finished my homework, and now I can play.”

Something else you can do is help your child transform negative memories into less negative or more positive ones. To do this, you’ll prompt them to think of a stressful memory they have about the day, hold it in their mind, and then remember something soothing or calming at the same time. 

You can try this out yourself now:

Bring into your mind a memory of a time when math was stressful. Try to remember everything about that time: what you were doing, who was there, what you saw, heard, smelled, felt. 

Now, bring into your mind a time when you felt very safe, taken care of, and loved. Try to remember everything about that time as well: what you were doing, who was there, what you saw, heard, smelled, felt.  

Does that feel better? 

We do this exercise with our students, and I highly recommend trying it with your child. The more they do it, the more they’ll physically be joining safe feelings with negative memories, and the less harmful effects those memories will have.

The next action you can take is: Create New Positive Memories.

To combat a negative bias toward schoolwork, kids can create new, positive memories about that work.

For example, to help my students with math anxiety start creating positive memories about math, I have them watch this video of Arthur Benjamin, the mathemagician.

I tell them, in the video, they’ll see a man do some wild things with math for a show. I assure them I do not expect them to do what he does. So, they don’t need to worry about learning anything from the video. 

Instead, I tell them to focus as much as they can on anything in the video they see that is positive, fun, funny, or interesting. I ask them to pay attention to when people in the video are smiling and laughing. I prompt them to notice what people seem to be enjoying. And at the end, I ask what they enjoyed.

Simply having this experience of enjoying a video about math puts the student in a positive headspace, creating a new positive memory about the subject.

I create these new memories with my students who experience writing anxiety by playing mad libs. And for reading anxiety, we look through age-appropriate articles on a topic of interest and point out all of the pieces of the article images and headlines that are cool, interesting, or funny.

Then it’s a matter of continuing to build positive memories by giving each student opportunities to be successful with the subject as we work together from there.

Which leads us to our third action: Identify and Focus on Strengths

Research shows that when people focus on their natural talents instead of their weaknesses, they are more engaged at school and work, more productive, happier, and healthier.

Data and analytics from Gallup show that student engagement, wellbeing, and hope for the future make up one-third of the variance in students’ academic success. 

Furthermore, engagement and hope are linked to achievement, grades, absenteeism, and plans after high school.

Compared with their actively disengaged peers,engaged studentsare 2.5 times more likely to say that they get excellent grades and do well in school, and they are 4.5 times more likely to be hopeful about the future.

All School Without Suffering students learn basic neuroscience showing how our attention impacts our experience. So, they know that if they want a more engaged, more productive, happier, healthier experience with school, they’ve got to put their attention on their strengths.

On the first day we meet with a new student, we ask them not only what challenges they’d like our help with, but we also ask about what they are good at.

And when we evaluate students, we assess both their strengths and weaknesses, and we make sure they understand that they have both and that focusing on both areas is equally important.

We also allow all of our students to take the Gallup strengths assessment to get objective data about their natural talents.

We help them reflect on all of this data and identify where in their lives they are already using what they are good at to accomplish what they want to achieve.

And throughout the time we are working with them, we help them use their strengths in new ways to help them learn to overcome challenges as they learn new skills and find ways to improve their weaker areas.

These are all conversations that you can have with your kiddos as well to help stop negativity bias from getting in the way of your child’s success.

So now you know why negativity bias occurs naturally in each of us, and how to help make sure it doesn’t become a barrier to your child’s achievement. But I want to be super clear that none of what we talked about in this episode means that you and your child need to just be positive to be successful.

Next episode, I’m going to clarify why, while positivity is important, it is not THE answer to school stress.

You won’t want to miss it.