Teach to Heal: Explore Alternatives to Limiting Beliefs


When we create a safe classroom environment, foster a secure teacher-student relationship, support executive functions, find out what our trauma-impacted adult learners already know, and use these strategies to help learners explore limiting beliefs, then we are ready to invite them to explore alternative attitudes and behaviors that may better support their goals.

Elicit and explore student assumptions.

In the last post, I introduced Cranton’s (2002) teaching principles for transformative learning and noted that I’ve used these successfully with trauma-impacted learners to find out what they already know and to explore their limiting beliefs. A quick review of the principles I explored last time include:

  • Start with an attention gaining activity to reveal a conflict between what learners may assume and what they are experiencing.
  • Elicit student assumptions.
  • Support critical exploration of these assumptions, their origins, and the impact of believing them.
  • Ask about their willingness to explore alternatives.

First try exploring what's worked before.

The practice of Solution Focused Brief Therapy from the counseling field offers some wonderful strategies that can work in behavior change classrooms as well. From the Solution Focused Treatment Manual, here are three questions that you might want to try with your adult students (Trepper, McCollum, DeJong, Korman, Gingerich & Franklin (n.d.):

  • What has worked before in similar situations that you could try again in this situation?
  • When has this issue not been a problem? What was different then that isn't happening now?
  • How have you managed to keep this problem from getting worse?

If you need to introduce fresh alternatives, keep reading.

Explore and experiment with alternatives.

In this post I’ll explore Cranton’s (2002) remaining principles and how I use these to support behavior change in my trauma-impacted learners:

  • Explore alternatives by discussing and evaluating the evidence supporting them, constructing new knowledge together as a learning community.
  • Support reflection and revision of assumptions so that revised beliefs are more flexible and better supported by the evidence.
  • Act on the revised assumptions using thinking, language and behavior that reflect the more flexible and better-justified beliefs.

Ask about their willingness to explore alternatives.

Let’s go back for a moment to the place where we ask learners about their willingness to explore alternatives.


Following the exploration of limiting assumptions and beliefs comes the invitation: Would you be willing to explore some alternatives?

In my own work I have found that asking this question is key. Most learners I ask in this way while adding – you can give it a try, test it out and let me know what you think – are quite amenable. Most people are willing to give something a try as long as they know the power to try or stop trying is theirs.


While this makes logical sense from a human nature perspective, there is science to back up the strategy’s efficacy. Jeremy Dean of Psyblog notes in a post titled The One (Really Easy) Persuasion Technique Everyone Should Know that 42 studies of 22,000 people have shown that you can double your chances of getting to “yes” if you tell people they are free to choose (2013).


I tracked down the paper Dean cites and the researchers call this the BYAF technique,  “But you are free to choose” strategy. Some researchers added the following BYAF statement to the end of their request, “But you are free to accept or refuse,” (Carpenter, 2013, p.6).  Carpenter notes however, that while the words used to communicate the person's freedom to say “no” varied across studies, they were all very clear that the individual’s choice to comply with the request was completely theirs (Carpenter, 2013).

Carpenter says the meta-analysis of the 42 studies included asking for different things – donations for a good cause, a favor that would benefit the asker, and an invitation to engage in behavior change (2013).  It is important however, to have folks engage in the requested behavior as soon as possible after they agree to do so. The longer the researchers waited, the less likely folks were willing to follow through (Carpenter, 2013).


The phrase I have used with great success before ever hearing of the BYAF technique is, “Would you be willing to...” This has worked well for me regardless of my audience. I have taught incarcerated learners with low education levels and professionals with PhDs. Here are a couple of versions of what I typically say that generally result in agreement to move ahead with exploring and testing alternatives.

  • Would you be willing to try one of these out, just once, and see what happens? 
  • Will you try it out once and then tell us what happened?

While these phrases don't technically say, "the choice is yours," they do ask only for a one-time commitment so it feels less like folks are giving up their beliefs than just trying something out once, to see. My most resistant students have been eager to try it out just to prove me wrong. But I'll take it, because I have to get my thrills somewhere and even I'll-prove-you-wrong motivation keeps them in the game for a little while longer and gives them another chance to change their mind.


Once I have a “yes” to considering alternatives, my next teaching task is to cast a compelling vision that a change is achievable or a problem solvable and they (the learners) can be successful if they choose to move forward. It is at this point, once I have a reasonable level of interest and buy-in, that I begin to offer the content for change and facilitate an exploration of the evidence for the alternatives to limiting beliefs.

Explore alternatives and evaluate evidence to construct knowledge together.

Last time I talked about the similarity between the first four principles and the gain buy in and elicit and explore mental models activities. The explore alternatives and evaluate evidence in order to construct new knowledge together principle sounds very much like  teach new content and facilitate guided practice activities.

Here are two activities for exploring alternatives and constructing new knowledge together.

  1. Role-plays in which learners try out alternative perspectives and approaches (Cranton, 2002). I’ve done this using a usual way/new way structure in which learners role-play their usual approach with someone standing in as their target, debrief that for its effectiveness, and then try out the new way, debriefing that one as well. When I give the instructions to the pairs of role-players I always ask the recipient of the skill or message to respond authentically to any approach that feels like an improvement from the usual way. During the debrief I also make sure to ask both role-players how it felt. What does it feel like to be approached differently? How did that difference cause you to feel towards the other and his/her message or request? Also, being more effective can have a powerful effect on the skill user's emotions and can stimulate motivation for more success and result in a quicker uptake of the alternative approach or skill. For these reasons, I always include a debrief of emotions when reviewing role-play results.
  2. Letters or memos written from an alternative perspective or approach (Cranton, 2002). I have used letter writing with incarcerated parents who want to get out of the rut of unhealthy interactions with their child’s caregiver or to reach out to a caregiver from whom they’ve been estranged. This involves approaching the caregiver with an alternative perspective and begins with thanking them for their sacrifice, care and provision on behalf of their child and validation of any of their concerns that may have led to the estrangement. This is a radical shift for many incarcerated parents but these letters often end up getting sent with some amazing results. They have reopened dialogue and even resulted in first time contact between the incarcerated parent and his or her children. I’ve also used this with  learners who have strained relationships with caseworkers or institution counselors as practice for taking the other person’s perspective in order to repair the working relationship. It often produces empathy and helps the learner plan a more effective approach for working with this influential decision-maker in their life.

Support reflection and revisions of assumptions to make them more flexible and better justified.

I have used small and large group discussions, pair and share, journaling or worksheets with the following questions to support reflection and revision of assumptions after the role-plays or letter writing.

  • How did it go? What worked and what didn’t?
  • Which parts are you willing to try again?
  • What pieces need to be adapted?
  • Are you willing to adapt a bit and test it again?

For those who struggle in the above activities, saying that alternative approaches are too hard, will take too long, don’t feel natural, or feel like they are caving in and rolling over, I ask some of the following questions:

  • How might releasing “all or nothing" thinking help?
  • How would seeing each small step you take as a success that brings you closer to your goal change how you feel about this different way of doing things?
  • When in the past have you successfully endured discomfort like you are feeling now and then gotten a better outcome because you didn't quit?
  • What positive result might make discomfort for a time worth it?

I don’t want a positive alternative experience to die in the classroom and never make it out the door into their lives so I like to wrap up with a whole class discussion using these questions:

  • You tried it and got a different response! How did it feel to get a different response?
  • If you could do this more of the time, how might your life or relationship or (fill-in-the-blank) change?

Act on the revised assumptions with thinking, behavior and language that reflect better-justified beliefs.

This is the point at which I assign the task that asks learners to go out and try the new thinking, language or behavior in their real life. This is often tied to their learning goal and is their demonstration of learning task. Sometimes this involves sending the letters they wrote in the activity above or creating a plan in which they apply the alternatives explored and practiced in class to their particular situation. This might look like a conversation plan for talking with a significant other or important decision-making authority in their life about a goal they have; a guidance plan for addressing a challenging behavior in their children; or a plan to connect with an intimate partner in a healthy way to strengthen or rebuild their relationship. It could also be an exercise, self-care or job-search plan – whatever your behavior change context is.

Offer more rounds of feedback, reflection and revision to support mastery learning.

This does not need to be the end. If you meet again, you can build in time for checking in on the execution of plans and allow more time for reflection, feedback and revision revisiting these questions:

  • You tried it and got a different response! How did it feel to get a different response?
  • If you could do this more of the time, how might your life or relationship or (fill-in-the-blank) change?

If you won’t meet again, you might offer templates for goal setting and action planning that students can use to apply the principles they learned in class, including those of reflection and revision.


Cranton, P. (2002). Teaching for transformation. New directions for adult and continuing education, (93), 63-72.

Christopher J. Carpenter (2013) A Meta-Analysis of the Effectiveness of the “But You Are Free” Compliance-Gaining Technique, Communication Studies, 64:1, 6-17, DOI: 10.1080/10510974.2012.727941 Retrieved 12-12-16 from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/10510974.2012.727941?needAccess=true

Dean, J. (2013, February 1). The one (really easy) persuasion technique everyone should know. Retrieved November 22, 2014, from http://www.spring.org.uk/2013/02/the-one-really-easy-persuasion-technique-everyone-should-know.php

Trepper, T.S.; McCollum, E.E.; De Jong, P.; Korman, H.; Gingerich, W.; & Franklin, C. (n.d.) Solution focused therapy: Treatment manual for working with individuals. Research Committee of the Solution Focused Brief Therapy Association. Retrieved 1-18-17 from http://www.sfbta.org/research.pdf