Using CBT to Change Locus of Control
Are our most successful students just plain lucky?
Or are they plucky – resilient, determined in the face of difficulty, with a strong belief that by their own actions they can make a difference in their own lives?
Locus of control is a person’s belief system regarding the circumstances of their life. Students with a stronger internalized locus of control tend to believe that they have a good deal of control over their own situation. If they get an A on a test, they recognize the hard work they put into studying. If they fall short of their own expectations, they decide to put forth more effort and study harder next time. A person with a stronger externalized locus of control is more likely to attribute positive circumstances to good luck or being blessed, and negative situations to “gremlins” or bad luck. If they get an A, it’s because the teacher likes them, or they were lucky to get questions they knew the answers to. If they fail a test, the teacher hates them, or the test is too hard. With an external locus of control, there is little to no reason to change one’s own behavior to try to get a different outcome next time. Researchers in the UK found that children who demonstrated strong internal locus of control at age 10 were less likely to be overweight or report psychological stress at age 30, as compared to their counterparts with external locus of control. Read more about it in this article in Psychology Today.
This does not mean that internal locus of control is all good and external locus of control is completely bad. We need balance. For example, it is not healthy for a child with internal locus of control to beat herself up for things that are truly outside of her control. The opening lines of the Serenity Prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr could also be applied to a healthy balance between internal and external locus of control:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
All in all, though, it will be in our students’ best interests if we can help them foster a healthy level of internal locus of control and avoid feeling powerless or victimized by fate. In adults, internalized locus of control has been associated with effective leadership, good management skills, and employees with strong problem solving and decision making strategies, according to Workplace Psychology.
Albert Bandura, the psychologist who authored social cognitive theory and helped bring together behaviorism and cognitive theory, said, “People who believe they have the power to exercise some measure of control over their lives are healthier, more effective, and more successful than those who lack faith in their ability to effect change in their lives.”
So how do we as professionals help our students and clients increase internalized locus of control? How can we help them take responsibility for those circumstances in their lives that they do have the power to change? Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) has been used effectively for this purpose, and is effective with many autistic individuals. Typically CBT includes a focus on the present rather than the past, a goal, a plan of action to reach the goal, and a timeline in which to complete it. Clients evaluate the beliefs that reflect an external locus of control, (“I get bad grades because the teacher hates me,”) test the validity of those beliefs, (“There is no actual evidence that my teacher hates me; when she lectures me it is about not turning in homework, not about me personally,”) and replace faulty ideas with new scripts for constructive inner dialogues. (“If I turn in my homework every day, my grades will probably improve.”) Then make a plan to support the new behavior. (“I’ll keep all homework in a large, red envelope, and put post reminders at home to put finished papers in the envelope and put the envelope in my backpack as soon as I finish my homework.”)
Our students on the spectrum can learn to increase personal responsibility, given the right tools and support. Increasing internal locus of control is one of the pivotal skills that can positively affect many aspects of their lives and future happiness and success.