Add as bookmark

NLP in Education - A Magnificent Opportunity

by Don A. Blackerby, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in nlp, originally published in issue 39 - April 1999

Many times when I used to teach mathematics, I would notice that some student would be staring out the window daydreaming. I would wonder what was going on in their mind that they would not be turned on to math. I often wished that I could "open up their heads and look inside to see what was going on." I couldn't then but I can now – metaphorically. I do it with Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP)

Drawing of student

The fact that I can do this now opens up many magnificent opportunities for myself and the students I work with. Students no longer have to be unmotivated in school – they can be motivated with their own natural motivation strategies. They no longer have to be dis-interested by certain subjects – they can learn the structure of interest and apply it to any subject. They no longer have to not know how to learn – they can learn world class learning strategies for all academic tasks. They no longer have to be traumatised by bad test scores – they can learn to accept feedback for improvement purposes rather than feel like a failure. They no longer have to be labelled as having a learning disability – we can figure out how their mind works differently and teach them how to use their mind in school in a way that really works.

Prior to NLP, these kind of opportunities were hit or miss. Perhaps some intuitive or psychic teacher would get an idea and teach it to a student and it would work. But then it might not work with all students.

So, the idea might get lost or it would lose it's credibility. And, since the teacher could not codify the structure of the idea at the process level, it was hard to teach it to others in a way that would give it some credibility. NLP gives us the technology to elicit all of these learning patterns and codify them and teach them to others. NLP gives us the technology to find out, at the process level, how any student is blocking his or her self and to figure out how to help them. It is an exciting time for those of us who care about students and who want to be a positive influence in their lives. It is also an exciting time for those of us who want to strengthen our educational processes and systems. NLP offers us the magnificent opportunity to positively affect children's lives forever by working with NLP in the school systems.

Applying NLP to Education – How it Works

Probably the easiest and most succinct way to explain the application of NLP in education is through the use of the skills of NLP modelling and the use of Logical Levels of experience. When I am working with a student who is struggling in school, I use my NLP modelling skills to elicit the subjective experience of the student – logical level by logical level. If you will recall, logical levels of experience are as follows:

Spiritual/Greater System – Attempts to communicate or change at this level affects our experience of being a part of a much vaster system. Answers the question of, who else does this serve? Or, what is the greater purpose or vision?

Identity – Attempts to communicate or change at this level affects self-image and overall purpose. Answers the question of, who am I?

Beliefs and Values – Attempts to communicate or change at this level, affects the motivation and permission by affecting the reasons that we do it. Answers the question of, why do I do it?

Capabilities – Attempts to communicate or change at this level, affects behavioural actions through a mental map, skill or strategy. Answers the question of, how do I do it?

Behaviour – Attempts to communicate or change at this level, affects specific actions taken within the environment. Answers the question of, what do I do?

Environmental – Attempts to communicate or change at this level, affects the external constraints a person has to live within and react to. Answers the questions of, where and/or when and/or with whom do I do it?

 Logical Level





 "I am dumb."

 "I don't know how to learn my spelling words."

"Should I write my spelling words 5 or 10 times?"

"The classroom is too noisy.

Logical levels can be detected by the language patterns of the student.

So, for example, if a student is complaining about his or her spelling lessons, it would sound like the following depending upon which level the student was focusing.

So, as the student is describing his or her school struggles, I am listening through the logical levels template to discern at which levels the issues are. Once I determine that, then I use my NLP modelling skills to determine more specifically what the subjective experience is that needs adjusting.

What I found with many students who struggle is a large void at the capability level. The void is there because most schools and teachers presuppose that students know how to learn academic subjects. The students are left on their own to figure out how to learn. A large number come up with learning strategies that don't work or they are inefficient and ineffective. Since we presuppose that they know how to learn we don't offer alternative ways and they keep doing what they have always done and keep getting the same bad results. Many take this personally and assume something is wrong with themselves. They start to devalue learning and school. Or, they move it to the identity level and start to believe that they are dumb or a bad student.

Help is available at all logical levels with NLP. It is precise and powerful. We know how to teach learning strategies that really work at the capability level, and how to positively affect attitude at the value level. We also know how to change beliefs at the top three logical levels.

The changes are swift and transforming. It clearly fits the old cliché "Give a man a fish and you have fed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you have fed him for the rest of his life."

An example of a learning strategy at the capability level is the spelling strategy. In the English language all words do not look like they sound.

Therefore, all words cannot be correctly spelled according to how they sound but they can be spelled correctly according to how they look. Therefore, an effective spelling strategy would be:

1 Get a clear internal image of the word broken down into syllables.

2 Off of the internal image, spell the word backwards – from right to left.

3 While looking at the internal image of the word, pronounce it syllable by syllable.

4 Now spell the word off of the internal image from left to right.

5 To drop the spelling word into long term memory, practice step four 6-8 times over several days.

You spell the word backwards in step two so you will know if the student has a good internal image. You cannot smoothly spell a word backwards unless you do it off of a picture. Step three sets up the retrieval system so that the brain will bring up the image when the word is heard.

NLP and Learning Disabilities

NLP offers very exciting opportunities for students who have been diagnosed with learning disabilities. The NLP modelling skills offers the very precise tools that are needed to figure out the different style of subjective experience of this group of students. Many times the difference is at the capability level in the form of thinking or learning strategies. Much of the time the only thing that is needed is the addition or deletion of a simple step in their learning strategy. Once the step is dealt with, learning can occur.


One example occurs in the learning disability called Dyslexia. In this learning disability, one of the complaints is that the student will not be able to discern the difference between a 'b' and 'd', or a '6' or '9' or a 'p' or 'q', as examples. What I found many of them doing was not connecting the sound of the letter or number with the image. When somebody would say "Draw me a b" the sound did not pull up the image for the student to copy. It is a simple matter to teach the student to connect the sound to an image now that we know what is needed.

Another example was with a 9 year old boy who was having a difficult time learning to read. He also had been diagnosed with several disabilities including Dyslexia. The parents' complaint was that they would read with him every night and when he would hit a word he did not know they would pronounce it for him. But then 2-3 paragraphs later he would not be able to recognise the same word. As they demonstrated this to me, it became very apparent to me what was causing the problem. For most students, when they are learning to read new words, they will look at the word as they pronounce it. This connects the image to the sound. What the 9 year old did was watch his father's mouth as he pronounced the word. He wanted to make sure that he pronounced it right so he would watch his father's mouth and imitate the mouth movement. This obviously would not connect the image to the sound and he would not be able to recognise the word later on. Again, the solution was very easy to teach to the young man and his parents.


Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)

About 4 or 5 years ago I took the NLP Health Training developed by Robert Dilts, Suzie Smith and Tim Hallbom. My project was to model the subjective experience of Attention Deficit Disorder or ADD. ADD creates much havoc in our schools – particularly if hyperactivity is one of the symptoms. I recently heard a psychologist refer to ADD as "The great dumping ground for all complaints about students". I tend to agree with him.

Attention Deficit Disorder is a condition that some people experience which manifests itself through numerous symptoms which may include one or more of the following:

Hyperactivity – They can't stay still. They are constantly moving and fidgeting. They are under chairs or tables or climbing over furniture.

Impulsiveness – They move or change directions too quickly. They will be doing one thing and then suddenly start doing something else. They "act before they think!"

Distractibility – They can't stay focused on one thought or task. They will be doing a task and the smallest noise interrupts them.

Lack of organisation – They cannot do the more complex tasks which requires them to organise the larger task into a series of steps. Somebody has to tell or show them each step.

Forgetfulness – They forget instructions. They forget to do things or tasks they have been told to do. They will start to do something and forget what they were supposed to do.

Procrastination – They have trouble starting and completing tasks or assignments. They are constantly putting off doing things. They can't seem to "get started."

Often these behaviours surface in school, frustrating both the teachers and the other students who are trying to learn. A child with the ADD symptoms can be extremely disruptive in a classroom situation. The current widespread, accepted treatment is medication.

Although, for some it may be the only treatment, there are those parents and professionals who question the advisability of putting a child on drugs. Notice that most of the symptoms are at the logical level of behaviour. Most of the treatments are at the environment or behaviour level. Besides drugs, behaviour modification and space and time management are some of the skills taught to the person diagnosed with ADD.

I was wanting to model the subjective experience through the logical levels.

It was my belief that their subjective experience was driving the symptoms.

What I found was a wonderful, creative mind, in most cases, that was out of control! The perception on their part was that they either could not control their mind or their mind controlled them. After awhile, this became a belief about their capability. Later on they would start to de-value school and learning. By the teenage years they would start to develop beliefs about their own identity about being "weird" or "different".

A good way to experience the mind of somebody who has been diagnosed with ADD is by doing the following: Imagine you are watching a multiple slide show, you know the kind, where 6 to 8 slide projectors are set up projecting images on a screen. Each slide projector is showing a different content. One may be what you did this past weekend, another may be what you are going to do this coming weekend, another may be what is going on now around you, another may be something you are worrying about, etc. Now imagine that you are asked to report, either verbally or written, on what you are seeing while you are watching it. The demand to report comes from somebody with authority and they attach consequences if you don't do it well.

Frustrating? That's an understatement. And that's exactly how the student with ADD feels. Now, to make it even more challenging, imagine the pace of the slide presentation begins to increase, faster and faster. Yet you're still trying to report on what you're seeing. And for the final blow to your sanity, imagine the slides start to flash simultaneously and your well-being depends upon the accuracy of your report. What kind of emotions or feelings do you think you might experience? Anger? Overwhelmed? Tense? Uptight? Disoriented? Confused? Well, welcome to the world of the student with ADD.

One of the ways I check to see if a student can control their mind is by giving them a fairly long spelling word that they already know how to spell. It is best if it has 2-4 syllables (depending upon their age). I help them become aware that they have an internal image of it and then have them spell the word backwards from right to left. A person who cannot control their mind will say something like "I can't control the picture – it keeps disappearing!" A person who believes that their mind controls them will exclaim "My mind won't let me do it!" Whichever way they answer lets me know the kind of limiting beliefs they have.

If they cannot hold the image steady, I have to stop and start to teach them how to control their mind. I do it in the following manner: I start teaching them how to control their minds with simple non-school exercises. The most successful and non-threatening way has been to use items such as pets, food or some other physical item they like and do not connect to school. For example, I might ask them to tell me what their favourite food is and then to describe what it looks like. When they can successfully do this (and I've never had one not be able to), I assist them in becoming aware that they have an internal image of what it looks like. I then, while using a lot of NLP language patterns, start opening up the possibility that they can make their own adjustments in their internal images. I then start exploring sub-modalities with their internal image of an apple (for example). I ask them to change the size, distance, colour, spatial location, brightness, etc.

Once they can do this with an apple, I get them to do it with a small word printed on the apple. I sometimes start with only a letter, then two letters, then three, etc. I particularly work on having them make the letter or word bigger and/or closer. After awhile, when they can make a three to five letter word big and close, I ask them to hold the word steady while they tell me the last letter, then the letter right before it, then the next letter, and so on. I usually then have them put the word on the apple that they could not previously spell backwards and go through the process of spelling it from right to left again. All of a sudden, they realise that they have spelled the word backwards – something they could not do only a short while before. I have them continue to spell the word and other words backwards several more times, because it gets easier and easier each time they do it. They are usually stunned, and they don't know how to think about the new experience. So, I use the opportunity to work on their beliefs about their capabilities and identity and what it means about controlling their own mind and about school and learning.

At this point, it becomes a process of building more instances of success. So, I give them longer words and numbers to make pictures of and spell backwards until they believe they can now control their images. At this point, I will either start teaching them how to learn and do the various academic tasks required of them to be successful in school or I will work on the specific symptoms of ADD and teach them how to control them. It usually depends on if the "ADD symptom" is getting in the way of learning how to be successful in school and/or at home.

I found that work was needed to be done at many of the logical levels instead of just at the behaviour and environment level. In fact, the interventions at those two levels would not hold in the face of limiting beliefs at the higher levels of capability, beliefs/values, identity and Spiritual/ greater system. This explained why it was so difficult to work with ADD in the traditional ways. They were trying to solve the problem at a lower level than where the "real issue" was. Albert Einstein once said "You cannot solve a problem at the same level it was created. You have to go to a higher level."

Knowing that the "real issue" was the feeling that the mind was out of control and that, therefore, they would not be able to succeed in the normal classroom, led me to develop ways to teach them to control their mind. Once I could do that, I could then teach them effective learning strategies. As I work with them, I am also sensitive to ferreting out any limiting beliefs that they may have fallen prey to and help them change those beliefs to beliefs that were more empowering. The results have proven to be absolutely astonishing.

The transformation of these much maligned students is a joy to see. In my opinion, they are genius or near genius anyway. They have the kind of mind that we want when we want creativity or when we are in brainstorming sessions. They just can't control their mind and take advantage of their own potential. So, once they know how to use their mind to their advantage, they unleash that tremendous potential to become whatever they want to be.


In my opinion, we in education spend too much time and effort in theorising about education and get away from the actual learning process. We pile words upon words, bigger words upon bigger words and bury what has to happen in the subjective experience of students in order for successful learning to occur. These theories sound good, and are needed, but don't translate into action at the level where help is needed – at the subjective experience level. The good news is that NLP operates at the subjective experience level. That is what we practitioners of NLP do! Therefore, the application of NLP in education is a magnificent opportunity for practitioners of NLP.

We have the attitude, the unique and specific set of skills, and the beliefs and presuppositions that will help solve the persistent problems in our educational systems. The need is great. The results with students are transforming. Once these students graduate, the effect on our cultures and societies will also be transforming. We will truly be using NLP to make the world a better place in which to live.

Further information

The author is involved in the process of setting up a NLP in Education Network which will attract NLP practitioners who share his dream. The primary force behind this network is from the United Kingdom.

His name is Jeffrey Lewis and his e-mail address is:
His web site is:
His phone number is: 44 (0) 1727 856200.


  1. Patricia Sant Ana Scheld said..

    Dear Sirs,
    The ref. Webpage from the Teacher is wrong. The NPL Webpage. When we click on it, comes an oriental porn Webpage. Please check.
    Thank you,

  2. Mike Howell said..

    Thanks for pointing out the web page info. The article was published 21 years ago and we have had not further contact with the author. No doubt the site lapsed and was bought by a Japanese company. I have removed the email and web link and apologise if it caused any offense. A Google search listed numerous links to books etc for this author so if you wish to contact him I would suggest you do a web search with his name.

« Prev Next »

Post Your Comments:

About Don A. Blackerby, Ph.D.

Don A. Blackerby, Ph.D. is founder of Success Skills in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA. He is a former math teacher and college dean and founded Success Skills in 1981 in order to focus on using NLP in helping struggling students in school. In 1996, he wrote a book "Rediscover the Joy of Learning" in which he describes his NLP based strategies and processes on how he helps struggling students including those with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). He may be contacted in various ways. His new address and phone numbers are: Success Skills, PO Box 42631, Oklahoma City, OK 73123, USA. His phone number is 1-405-773-8820. His new fax is 1-405-773-5427.

top of the page