As teachers with a new class, we tend to get a good idea pretty quickly about which students are going to do well in our classes, which ones are going to struggle, and which ones are not even going to try.

But how much of that is down to them, ‘that’s just how they are’, and how much of it is influenced by us? Is there anything we could do differently that would affect the ‘basic nature’ of our students? How might NLP help?

NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) is a theory of excellence. It originated in the 1970s when Richard Bandler, John Grinder and others, started looking for ‘the difference that makes the difference’ between people who are excellent in their achievements, and those who have not yet achieved excellence. It involves discovering and then modelling (copying exactly) everything that ‘excellent’ people do – the ways they behave and the ways they perceive and interpret the world. This in turn means:

  • understanding how their brains work.
  • how other people’s brains work differently.
  • developing tools which help people change their natural way of thinking and being.
  • starting to use more effective strategies. Over time, NLP has been developed and added to by the founders and many others. It consists of presuppositions about the way the brain works and the ways in which people react to the world and each other, and numerous tools and techniques for change.

NLP was originally developed as a psychotherapeutic tool, but then it gained a slightly unsavoury reputation when it was picked up by commerce, particularly sales. However, it is very effective when used for self-development, and provides significant insights into more effective learning and teaching. In the first instance it gives us as teachers, insights into how people work generally, how we ourselves are operating, why our students might be behaving as they do, and what we can do if we want things to change.

The underpinnings of NLP are the presuppositions – the underlying ‘beliefs’ on which everything else is based. They refer to how the human ‘organic system’ works, not how we have structured our society (or our education system). So, for example, the presupposition that ‘there is no failure, only feedback’ is an indication of how the brain works by trial and error. Of course it is possible to ‘fail’ examinations, but in the learning system, this in itself is just more feedback: ‘I did not pass this exam.’ The system then interprets and ‘learns’ from this experience – and this learning can take many different forms: ‘I need to work harder or in a different way before I take the exam again’ might be a helpful response. However the system is just as likely to conclude that ‘failing exams is painful. I can’t do exams. I’ll stop it being painful by making a virtue out of the fact that I’m not even going to try to do exams. I’ll build up a persona of the sort of person who gets kudos from their peers by ‘failing’ exams spectacularly. Then I succeed.’

Let’s look at some of the other presuppositions and see what insights they give as to how people behave. Look through the list of presuppositions in the box. What do you understand them to mean? Assuming that people do follow these ‘rules’, how they might they influence behaviour both positively and negatively?

The map is not the territory

We are all different. My mental map of the world is different from yours. Since our brains come without a set of operating instructions, we all get through life the best we can, discovering (through trial and error) which things which seem to get us what we want and which things to avoid so as to avoid pain. Because we have the same basic hardware, and because we learn from one another, there are lots of patterns, which get repeated, but each of us is unique.

People really do think differently. So maybe that ‘difficult’ student is just someone who thinks differently from you.


  • There is no failure, only feedback.
  • The map is not the territory. My mental map of the world is different from yours.
  • The map becomes the territory. What you habitually think about becomes
    your reality.
  • Communication is non-verbal as well as verbal.
  • Communication is non-conscious as well as conscious.
  • All behaviour has a positive intention.
  • Mind and body are interconnected. If you affect one, you affect the other.
  • The resources we need are within us.
  • The meaning of my communication is the response I get.

The map becomes the territory

What you habitually think about becomes your reality. If children watch non-stop violence on TV, they take it for granted. If you think positively, your life becomes more positive.

Have you ever noticed how someone brings something to your attention (e.g. Caribbean cruises) and within two days, you’ve come across two other references to the same thing? The references would always have been there, but now it’s ‘in your mind’ it comes to your conscious attention. (Just for fun, see whether Caribbean cruises come to your attention in the near future.)

How about telling students about this phenomenon and then setting up class topics two weeks ahead of time by asking students to collect any references at all that they come across. Lots may not be relevant, but their brains will be pro-rammed to be receptive to any information you then provide later on.

Communication is non-verbal and nonconscious as well as verbal and conscious

We pick up much more information from a person’s body language and tone of voice than we do from their words. According to the research of Albert Mehrabian, the percentage of information we get in Body language 55% normal face-to-face conversation is 55% from body Voice tonality 38% language, 38% from tone of voice and only 7% from Words 7% the words spoken. Although these percentages obviously change in different situations (giving figures over the phone, for example), it is important for us to realise that we are giving message to our students all the time – about what we think about them, our job, the school, the subject. Are you sure you’re giving the messages you want to give? Remember, it is impossible to not communicate.

All behaviour has a positive intention

This positive intention is, of course, for the benefit of the person exhibiting the behaviour, and we’re talking about the ‘intention’ of the person’s non-conscious mind to look after its ‘host’, rather than any conscious intention to ‘do good’.

Take the example of the ‘naughty’ child ‘seeking attention’. Since,deep down,everyone craves attention, the child who cannot get attention by being good might find that naughtiness does get attention. It may not be the preferred sort of attention, but it’s better than none. So the child learns that a positive benefit of bad behaviour is attention.

If we can look for the positive benefit students are getting from behaviour which we find unhelpful, we may be able to find other ways of giving them what they want (positive attention for things they do which are helpful for their learning, perhaps) which means that (after a time) they no longer need to indulge in the unhelpful behaviour.

Mind and body are interconnected

If you affect one, you affect the other. Most people now accept that mental stress and tension can lead to illness and that, conversely, exercise (see the article on p38) can make you feel more positive. For yourself, it is good to know that you can improve your own state. If we just remember to do something about negative feelings, something as simple as sitting or standing up straight, a brisk walk, or even drinking a glass of water, can all make us feel better.

If we can give our students (and ourselves) simple exercises to relieve physical and mental stress, it will improve relationships in the classroom, get people into a better state for learning (and teach-in) and give them techniques they can use to improve their own state at times of particular stress, such as before an exam. Try the following:

  • Sit well, with a straight back, head balanced on top of your spine with your chin horizontal with the floor.Take a deep breath in, and as you slowly breathe out, relax from the top of your head down to your feet. Do it a second time, this time silently naming the parts of the body as you relax them – head, face, ears, shoulders, arms, hands, back, chest, abdomen, backside, thighs, knees, calves, feet, toes. As you breathe out a third time, just think your way round your body and release any remaining tension.
  • Sit well, and without making any special effort to breathe in any special way, just count in time with your breath. In-breath – one, out-breath – two, in-breath – three, etc.
  • Sitting well, close your eyes and listen. How many different sounds can you hear? The quieter you become, the more sounds you will hear. Distant sounds, sounds within the building, within the room, near you, inside you. If you do this with a class, do it twice. After the first time, share all the different things people have heard. The second time, most people will hear more than they did the first time.

The resources we need are within us

No one is broken. We are all born with the necessary apparatus to grow and learn from the world around us. We may do it in different ways, but we’re all doing the best we can. If we approach our students with this in mind, maybe we can be more tolerant of their unique characteristics!

The meaning of my communication is the response I get

Have you ever had times when, no matter how clear you are, other people seem willfully to ms-understand you? Unfortunately the reality of the communicative act is that if you want to get your message across, you need to do it in as many different ways as it takes for everyone to understand what you think you mean. If students don’t under-stand, we are the ones with the knowledge, experience and skills to find ways to help them.

So does my understanding students better mean that I can change them for the better? At one level, no. You cannot change other people. But it’s interesting that when you change yourself, others around you seem to change too. So I’d like to end with a story – NLP is full of stories. TEX

Susan Norman is Co-Director of SEAL (Society for Effective Affective Learning), a teacher and trainer. She is the author of more than 30 books, including Transforming Learning – introducing SEAL approaches, and two on NLP for teaching and learning: In Your Hands and Handing Over.

Meera’s mother in law – a story

One day Meera woke up and found herself married to the man of her dreams. Although the marriage had been arranged, she discovered within a week of the ceremony that he was the most kind, attentive, supportive and loving husband she could ever have wished for – and it didn’t hurt that he was also rich. Her life would have been wonderful, except for one thing. His mother. She lived with them and tended to think that she was in charge of the household. Not only that, but whatever Meera did, it was never good enough for her son. She carped and complained all day long and made the girl’s life a misery – except in the evenings when her son was at home, when ghee wouldn’t melt in her mouth.

Every night the girl prayed that she would die, but when the old woman woke up every morning glowing with health and, if anything, getting stronger and healthier as time went by, she decided to take matters into her own hands. In desperation, she visited a man in a nearby village who was renowned for his knowledge of herbs, and she begged him to give her the means to poison the old woman.

At first, he tried to dissuade her. But when he realised she was serious (the clincher being the amount of money she was prepared to pay), he prepared an ointment for her and told her to massage it into the old woman’s feet. He promised her that her troubles would be over within a month.

That night, the girl tentatively offered the old woman a foot massage, which was accepted with bad grace and ‘suffered’ with many a complaint. As it was the next night, and the next. It was only the fact that her husband was so pleased with his wife’s kindness towards his mother – and the thought that it was only going to last another 28 days at most – that kept her going. Soon the foot massage became an evening ritual, and by the end of the first week the old woman had stopped complaining. She accepted the ‘homage’ the girl was paying her as her right. (Only three weeks to go.) On the third day of the second week, she said thank you. (Ha! Only two and a half weeks to go.) At the beginning of the third week, she started telling stories about when she was young. (Two more weeks.) Then the stories started to include the birth of her son and what he had been like when he was a little boy. Despite herself, the girl wanted to know more.

On the second morning of the fourth week, the girl woke up with a terrible feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach. The old woman was going to die. She herself was going to be a murderess. She was killing the mother of the man she loved. But it was more than that. In the last few days, she had actually enjoyed the evening ritual. She enjoyed the stories. She even enjoyed the soothing feeling of giving the massage. She enjoyed giving pleasure. And now she came to think about it, her mother-in-law hadn’t complained about anything for quite a while. Not anything. Yesterday she had asked Meera’s advice about which sari she should buy. And, even today, she had promised to teach her the secret recipe of her husband’s favourite dish.

As soon as she could leave the house without arousing suspicion, Meera raced to the next village to the house of the old man. He recognised her immediately and smiled as he pointed to a large bowl of ointment sitting on a side table. ‘Oh thank you, thank you,’ she whispered. ‘I’m so ashamed.’ Without looking him in the eye, she picked up the bowl and left in its place much more than twice the sum of money she’d given him the first time.

Just as she was leaving, she suddenly stopped and looked back. ‘How did you know I would want the antidote?’ she asked. ‘Antidote?’ he replied with a twinkle. ‘I don’t know what you mean. I just know that I prepare the best foot massage ointment in the world. Everyone always wants more.’