Practically every day, school-age children experience a variety of troubling events and stress both at school and at home. These troublesome events may involve peers, significant adults such as teachers, and/or family members. It is widely documented in the psycho-educational literature that children’s difficulty in handling these troubling events and stressors in their lives result in emotional, behavioral, and/or physical health problems. Children feel stress when they believe that they lack the emotional and/or physical resources, or coping skills they need to handle the event successfully. The less able a child feels to cope with a troubling event, the more stress the child feels. In other words, the event is not what triggers stress in the child; stress and troubling feelings are triggered by the child’s perception, accurate or not, that she cannot cope with the event.
Forman (1993) define coping skills as sets of information and learned behaviors that the child can use purposefully to bring about a positive outcome in a potentially stressful situation. The learned behaviors may be physiological, social, cognitive, and/or affective. Coping skills interventions aim at teaching children a set of strategies that will increase their ability to function effectively during potentially stressful or problematic situations. Folkman and Lazarus (in Forman, 1993) identify two major types of coping efforts, problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. Problem-focused coping acts on the stressor, for example, problem solving or any attempt to manipulate and change the relationship between the child and the stressful event (attempting to solve the problem). In an emotion-focused effort, we try to regulate the emotional states associated with the problem or stressor, that is, we do not manipulate the problem, but manipulate how the child feels and responds to the problem. By helping the child think and feel differently about the problem, we influence the child’s emotional response to the problem. Cognitive restructuring is probably the best-known emotion-focused coping effort.
We can teach coping skills alone or in combination; most coping skills interventions are quick and easy to learn, requiring very little training. Teaching coping skills to children helps in preventing or reducing children’s emotional and/or behavioral problems in the classroom. Some children are more resilient than others are, that is, some children have the individual characteristics and emotional strength that will help them handle stress in their lives successfully. Other children require planned interventions by a caring adult, for example, a counselor or a psycho-educational teacher to develop and/or strengthen inadequate coping skills.
Overview of Coping Skills
Among the most popular coping skills approaches for use with school age children are stress inoculation training, social skills training, social problem solving training, self-management of behavior, and cognitive restructuring. Next, I explain briefly each coping skill approach. In future blog postings, I will elaborate on each coping skill introduced here.
Stress Inoculation Training
In the traditional stimulus-response school of thought, a stimulus in the environment causes a biological or psychological response in the individual, and this response is what we call stress. A most recent interpretation of stress conceptualizes it in terms of transactions or interactions between the individual and the environment (Forman, 1993), simply put; an event becomes a stressful event to the extent that the child perceives it as stressful. For example, child A perceives the math test as too hard and stressful, child B perceives the same math test as hard but challenging, and child C perceives the same test as easy and not stressful at all. Therefore, each child played an active role in perceiving and creating stress in what was really a neutral event (taking the math test), and the amount of stress each child experienced relates directly to how each child perceives his or her skills in handling successfully the neutral event or math test. The more the child anticipated a negative outcome, because he or she did not have the skills or ability to overcome the negative outcome, the stronger the stress the child experienced.
Coping skills improve children’s ability to deal with those events they perceive as stressful by performing specific actions to increase the chance of a positive outcome, and by reinforcing the belief that they are capable of responding constructively to the demands of the event. Specific relaxation strategies that children learn are deep muscle relaxation (tension-release cycles of major muscle groups), deep breathing (e.g. the child takes a deep breath, holds it, and then exhales slowly), and imagery procedures like the robot-rag doll technique (the child first acts like a robot, stiff and tense, and then acts like a rag doll, floppy and relaxed) or real-world images where the child imagines a calming and relaxing scene.
Social Skills Training
Events that involve social interactions are a frequent source of frustration and stress for school-age children. Gresham and Elliot (1987) define social skills as behaviors that help a child attain important social outcomes such as peer group acceptance, positive judgments by significant others, academic achievement, a positive self-judgment, and psychological adjustment. Combs and Slaby’s definition (in Forman, 1993) focuses on interactions and interpersonal relationships, defining social skills as the ability to interact with others in a given social context and in specific ways that are valued or acceptable socially, and at the same time are beneficial either for the child, for both the child and peer, or beneficial primarily to others. Social skills training aims at remediating the social skills deficits exhibited by some children, in particular, emotionally/behaviorally disordered students, or EBD. Assertiveness training, a training that focuses in teaching the child how to act in his or her own best interests without hostility and without violating the best interest of others, is an example of a social skill that we teach to EBD students.
Social Problem Solving Training
The social problem solving coping approach focuses on teaching children a systematic way of dealing with social problems (interpersonal problems) through a sequence of steps, that is, using a problem solving plan. Problem solving enhances children’s understanding that they have different options to handle a social problem, and in understanding the potential consequences of each option, or the potential consequences of the child’s actions. Proponents of this coping approach claim that mental health relates to the individual’s ability to solve social problems, and state that children with well-developed social problem solving skills exhibit less behavior problems (e.g. anger-prone or acting out behaviors) in the classroom.
Self-Management of Behavior
Self-management of behavior, or behavioral self-control, refers to the child’s ability to direct and to change her own behavior. This coping approach uses primarily behavior modification techniques; however, current interventions combine this coping approach with the next one, cognitive restructuring. During self-management of behavior, we train the child in evaluating her own behavior, setting goals, manipulating her environment in a way that facilitates achieving the goal, and in rewarding herself when she achieves the goal. In schools, behavioral self-control training can help hyperactive children, habitually disruptive students, aggressive children, and children with anger problems.
Cognitive restructuring is a comprehensive attempt to help a troubled student analyze the self-defeating thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes that are causing and/or intensifying the child’s feelings and behaviors. At the most basic level, we train the child in recognizing and self-monitoring both positive (pleasant) and negative (unpleasant) emotions and thoughts as well as in identifying situations that are likely to trigger each type of emotion or thought. Next, the child learns to discriminate between thoughts and beliefs that are accurate or rational and thoughts and beliefs that are inaccurate or irrational. At this level, the child challenges and debates the irrational thinking, substituting it with rational thinking, that is, thoughts and judgments that are more accurate. Rational-emotive therapy or RET is both a theory and a method to help students with more serious emotional and behavioral problems. This sophisticated intervention works best when is used in combination with other coping strategies such as a relaxation strategy, assertiveness training, and/or a problem solving plan.
Forman, S. G. (1993). Coping skills interventions for children and adolescents. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Gresham, F. M., & Elliot, S. N. (1987). The relationship between adaptive behavior and social skills. Journal of Special Education, 21, 167-182.
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