Coping strategies are our thoughts and behaviors in response to a big emotion or challenging situation. They can look and sound different for each person. One person may cope with their frustration by taking deep breaths, another may cope with their anxiety by taking a walk, or if you were like me, mid-Pandemic and distance learning with a kindergartener and a toddler while working remotely full time, you might have found yourself coping with Oreo cookies! Sometimes, it can be helpful to look at coping strategies as Healthy and Unhealthy. You don’t need to view the Unhealthy strategies through a lens of judgment; instead, see these as strategies you would like to swap out. After all, Oreo cookies are delicious and can be enjoyed as often as you desire, but maybe you don’t want only to eat them in response to feelings of stress.
Just as we may have coping strategies we would like to swap out, our kids (students) may currently be coping in ways that don’t feel quite as healthy or restorative. Students have been through a lot in the past few years, and they may have developed unique and creative coping strategies in response to their stressors. Feelings of frustration may lead to explosive physical behavior or verbal outbursts. Feelings of anxiety may cause students to attempt to flee the classroom or refuse to do any work. They are coping with their big feelings in the only way they currently know how.
In my book Felix and the Feeling Formulas, Felix shows readers the creative and playful way he has found to organize and use various coping strategies to respond to all of the emotions he faces throughout his day. Felix’s formulas provide a template we can use to introduce kids to healthier ways of responding to challenging emotions.
Step One: Give the feeling a name. We need to understand the “problem” to find a “solution.” Words have so much power, and kids can quickly grasp the importance of understanding the difference between mad and furious.
Step Two: Connect with your body through movement or engaging the sensory system. During challenging emotions, our brain’s Flight or Flight system gets switched on, and our body gets ready to act. Effective coping strategies may involve movement, breathing, or engaging the senses to help the Fight or Flight system turn off. For a new coping strategy to work, it should match the old or “unhealthy” strategy. For example, a student who copes with their anxiety by running out of the classroom shows you that whole body movement helps. An effective new formula for anxiety might include stretching, dancing, running in place, or bouncing on a ball.
Step Three: Speak positive affirmations. Again, words are powerful! The thoughts and words we speak to ourselves, especially in tough times, can significantly impact our self-confidence and ability to recover and move forward. Ending formulas with affirmation wires our brains to see ourselves and our abilities positively.
Learning any new skill takes time and practice. You cannot expect yourself or your students to let go of an old strategy and embrace a new formula immediately. Regular practice when we are already in a calm state strengthens our coping muscles and makes it more likely that we will be able to flex those muscles during challenging moments.
Here are three ways to introduce a new formula:
1. Make practice part of the routine – During morning meetings, snack time, before walking into the hallway.
2. Lean in to play! Create and use formulas that kids find fun, interesting, and engaging. Give them silly names or connect the strategy to their favorite thing or particular interest.
3. Model! Use formulas yourself and call their attention to when you use one: “Class, I am feeling frustrated the SmartBoard is not working. I am going to try a quick Calm Down Cure.”
If a formula isn’t working, we can always make up a new one.
Name Feeling: stressed
Breathe in through your nose. Exhale loudly out of your mouth while sticking out your tongue.
Stand like a Superhero – feet wide apart with your hands on your hips.
“I am patient, kind, and gentle with myself and my students.”
Written by Kate Bartlein.
First seen on NCYI Original.