Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Techniques Used in Special Education Classrooms

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The basic belief behind CBT is that things in the environment are not responsible for how a person feels or acts. An individual’s thoughts are what cause those behaviors. Through that belief, several techniques have been developed that will benefit a teacher dealing with behavior not conducive to learning.

Modeling and Rehearsal

Both of these techniques involve acting out a scenario that lead to unhealthy or incorrect thoughts. When modeling, the therapist does the role playing and during rehearsal, the individual will be the one practicing. An example of role playing in the classroom could be acting out how a frustrated student could seek help before getting angry.


Writing down his or her feelings or thoughts about something that occurs will allow the student to observe patterns in situations. Journaling allows the individual to see where the thought process appears to take a wrong turn in a concrete way. This may be accomplished with assistance or by individual reflection over what was written.

Systematic Positive Reinforcement

Reinforcing the behaviours that are desired will increase the likelihood of it being repeated. Because of this, setting up a reinforcement system will help a person find the motivation to think and therefore act in a specific way. This is easily incorporated into the classroom and can be used to target a specific behavior. Some examples are sticker charts, earning time to do a desired activity and a positive note home to parents. All of these things would be thoroughly explained beforehand and the desired behavior would be defined.

Other Techniques

There are several other cognitive behavioral therapy techniques that can be used to assist an individual with unwanted behaviors. Guided discovery allows a student to uncover the reason for the behavior on his or her own. Validity testing involves testing the reality of the student’s belief of what causes a behavior. Aversive conditioning provides something unwanted to happen when a behavior occurs. This will decrease the number of times the behavior will happen since the student will want to avoid the stimulus.


Regardless of what technique is used, independent homework to understand the behavior will be required. This can be done in a variety of ways such as journaling or collecting data of when the behaviors occur. This forces the student to be responsible for understanding the behavior and the thoughts that cause it.


Cognitive behavioral therapy can be used for all students regardless of cognitive ability. While a student with severe disabilities might not be able to journal successfully, he or she can still benefit from systematic positive reinforcement. A student who does not like extra attention brought to them might not want a reward system, but will find guided discovery helpful because of the way it allows for independent processing. Considering the student’s personality, cognitive ability and preferences will allow the teacher to match the student with the correct technique.