Counselling for Teachers, Pt.2 - Hot Cross Buns

Just in time for Easter, our series on counselling skills for teachers looks at how Hot Cross Buns can help you to understand yourself and others.

Unfortunately, we don't mean the baked variety. In our experience these do not develop understanding. Rather, we're thinking of a tool counsellors often use - especially those trained in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) - to help clients to grasp and change problematic patterns in their life. This 'Hot Cross Bun' comes from a paper written by Padesky and Mooney back in 1990 (they called it a 'cross-sectional CBT formulation', which isn't quite as snappy. You can find the original short paper here, if you're into that kind of thing). In principle it's very simple, but in practice it can be a really powerful way of understanding ourselves or others. So, how does it work?

How to Hot Cross Bun

The Hot Cross Bun typically looks a bit like this:



Essentially, it's a map of a difficult situation, broken down into different categories: thoughts/beliefs, emotions, behaviour and bodily sensations. By filling it in you find out more about your responses to the situation, and the way that these interlink. You might also find the way to stop some of your responses and deal with the situation differently. It's most useful as a tool when looking at situations that come up regularly, and that you want to change. Organising your responses into these categories can help you to think more systematically and clearly about them. It can also identify areas you typically don't think about - for example, you may be great at naming the emotions that you experience, but typically don't engage with the bodily manifestations of these.

Perhaps the best way to explain it is to give an example. I've drawn one up quickly for myself, thinking back to a recent experience as a supply teacher in a challenging Year 4 class in Birmingham.

(I rarely have the correct paperwork to hand, so have done this one on blank paper).

(I rarely have the correct paperwork to hand, so have done this one on blank paper).

In this (real but fictionalised) example, I've drawn up a hot cross bun to summarise the experience I went through when one student in the class openly ignored my instructions and drew as much attention to this fact as he could. Have a look through the details I've filled in and see if they tell much of a story, before reading my description.

the hot cross bun story

It was the kind of defiance I prided myself on being able to deal with when I was teaching full time, but in this school, as a part-time supply teacher in a bottom-set maths group, I was floundering. I found myself overreacting to the provocation and acting out of this feeling (anger and fear) rather than making a rational assessment of the situation and implementing a strategic plan of action. I was reacting bodily too - I was caught in the raised heart beat and short breath of worry turning into panic, which made my behaviour more automatic (pacing, fidgeting with papers to keep myself busy, talking in an unnaturally loud voice to other students) and also left me less able to stop unhelpful thoughts. I wasn't really aware of these thoughts at the time, but on reflection, I was aware of a chain of catastrophising thoughts that went:

"It's only my first day here and already things are getting out of hand" => "They won't ask me back here again" => "They'll tell the agency I'm no good" => "I'll not get any more teaching work" => "I'll have to give up supply teaching, which means I won't be able to do the counselling I want to, which means I've failed at that too..." and so on.

These thoughts, of course, then influenced the emotions I was feeling, my distraction behaviours, and caused the bodily manifestations of stress to mount, which in turn left me dwelling on my inability to manage the situation and myself. After my initial overreaction I swung back the other way, criticising myself for adding fuel to the fire, and finding myself unable to act purposefully, instead fiddling and pacing. And the fiddling and pacing kept my heart rate up, and only served to remind me that I was failing. And on it goes.

We'll leave the story there. (If you were wondering, the real outcome was much less catastrophic than the 3 minutes or so that are represented here make out: I was able to regather myself, I followed the school's behaviour policy and even though the lesson wasn't a great one, we all got through it and I was asked back on the regular.) 

What's the Point?

But the real outcome isn't so important where hot cross buns are concerned: what's important is dwelling with the experience as it happened, and learning from it. What I learnt from this hot cross bun is how fragile my self-concept as a teacher is, and how this can undermine my ability to handle difficult situations. I learnt that my actions and feelings were being determined not by what was actually occurring but by what I feared might occur. I also learnt that my coping strategies for dealing with heightened emotion are not the best - overreacting and then underreacting is not a recipe for success. The main learning for me, though, is how inextricably connected the different parts of my experience are: each thought has impacts on emotions, sensations and behaviour, and each of these in turn on each of the others.

So How can this be used in teaching?

As a teacher, I think this method can be extremely powerful for understanding our own reactions to difficult situations. It can work very well done alone, but it might also be something you choose to bring to mentoring / performance management meetings. It works best if you choose a relatively short period of time (less than five minutes, ideally less than 1) and really focus down on the centre of the problem. This can often be the moment before the flashpoint in a situation - the moment when you can still make a change.

But it can also be helpful for children and families to understand themselves - you might not get the sheet out and fill it in with a child, but it could structure the kind of questions you might ask. For example, if Tom, a Year 6 student, has been walking out of lessons whenever the PPA cover teacher is in your class but can't tell you why, asking questions that help Tom to identify what thoughts, emotions or sensations are present at the moment he gets up to walk out, you can help uncover more about the situation, and work towards solving it. You might draw his attention to where in his body he feels whatever emotions he's feeling, and how he might deal with this. Or you might help him to talk back to some of the thoughts or beliefs that are activated by the situation. Obviously this kind of approach is not a replacement for behaviour management, but it can enable the kind of clear communication that stops problems form repeating themselves.

Then What?

The next step, of course, is trying to change the pattern. There's no easy way to do this, and there's not space to deal with that here today. Sometimes just knowing what's going on is enough. Sometimes there'll be something in the hot cross bun that is easy to address (like, for example, shortness of breath with breathing exercises) or so obviously false that it loses it's power (such as catastrophic thoughts). Other times the problem is more intractable, but at least you have the information to set about finding a solution.