Understanding who you can count on is a key social and emotional skill we can teach early and reinforce through high school. Students benefit from knowing who is in their support system, when to access them, and how to access them. It is so powerful for a child to know that when they are upset or in trouble there is a support system they know how to access on all on their own.
Hands-on activities help students make something abstract, like a support system, more concrete. Also, when talking about a support system, you want to go beyond just a list of reliable people.
I like to have students sort people by where they see them (e.g., community, home, school), the type of relationship they have with that person, and the kind of help they can provide.
This short little booklet is a series of 8 hot cocoa cups. Each hot cocoa cup has a prompt for the student to think of someone that they can count on for help in different locations. For example, who can they rely on at home, at school, or in the community? You can expand this for different ages by talking about specific scenarios or what makes that person someone they can rely on.
Explain that support systems are like safety nets. When we are trying something new we might fail at, it is necessary to have people to “break our fall” or “catch us”. You can talk about tightrope walkers or construction crews on tall buildings. Safety nets are something they have so they stay safe. There are people in our lives that we can rely on when we try new things.
You can have students think about who they can rely on a bit more deeply by considering the closeness of their relationship or the kinds of problems they would go to them for. Concentric circles are a simple and quick way to have students explore their support system.
For example, you can have students rate how big the problem is by coloring in the circle. Small problems may just be the center circle and it would continue to expand as the problem got bigger. They could then add people they would go to for small, medium, and big problems.
Try having students add themselves to the center and then add people to the circle. The closer the relationship they have with that person, the closer that person would be to them on the diagram.
It’s great for students to understand who is in their support system. It is even better that they know when to access those people. A priority in counseling should always be to teach students the thought process behind a skill so they can use the skill in new situations.
Support systems are important and you should know who you can count on. But if you don’t know when or how to access them, it isn’t as valuable as it should be.
Most students I see for counseling are usually struggling with some problem they don’t know how to solve. Over time this quickly blows up into lots of problems. Their approach is to over-rely on adults or to try to fix all the problems on their own.
One of the first things we do is list the problems they are having. Then we rate them on a simple scale.
You can link this to their support system by having a student identify a scenario and who to rely on in each situation.
It is also important to talk about the consequences of over-accessing your support system, as well as the benefits of being independent when possible. Stories, like The Boy Who Cried Wolf, are good parables for younger students. Your support systems may see you as helpless or grow tired of doing things for you if you are relying on them for problems you could solve yourself.
When deciding when to access help, students can consider someone in their support system that has a specific expertise. Who do they know that would be really good at solving this problem or be able to help them best? Their best friend might be good when they are having an argument with someone, but not the best when they want to find resources for a research paper.
Hopefully, at this point, your students know who is in their support system and when they should access them. Often students still need to learn how to access their support system. Asking for help is hard and can feel awkward. Take out a barrier by giving them simple language.
During counseling or in class lessons, try practice asking for help. Students respond well to sentence stems and role plays when learning this skill.
Practice with students 2 part: stating the problem simply and then asking for specific help. Simple and specific are the criteria.
“Do you have any time after dinner to help me with my homework? I’m having a hard time with a couple math problems in this new unit?”
“This kid kept staring at me during lunch and bumped into me on the way out. It really freaked me out. Can you walk with me to class?”
It is also helpful to talk with students about how to access help from adults at school or in the community. As a school psychologist, I had specific passes for certain students. We differentiated when it was an emergency and when it was something that could wait until the next free opportunity. When they are in the community, they should know how to access a police officer or a responsible adult.
I like to round out activities on support systems by asking students to reflect. Are they part of someone else’s support system? They aren’t always the ones that need help, often they are the ones that can help.
For this activity, students can trace their own hands or you can print off outlines of a hand. Students write down ways they specifically can help others. Are there things they are experts in? Problems they have solved on their own that they could help someone else solve? This also makes for a great bulletin board when students are done.
Understanding your support system is an essential skill that lets students be independent decision makers for themselves regardless of their age. It takes a village.
Laura is a former school psychologist passionately trying to bring social-emotional learning to every student at every tier. Click here for hands-on resources for the classroom and counseling.
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