Build Students’ Coping Strategies in 6 Steps 

By Laura Driscoll
Read Time:  min
Help them learn what works for them.

In counseling, you work with students to develop coping skills. You introduce different strategies. They practice them perfectly in role play. Then, when they need these coping strategies, they don't use them. They didn't stick.

Part of the reason they didn't stick is because we needed to teach them more effectively. With so many social-emotional skills, we need to do much more teaching and scaffolding than we realize to develop coping skills.

1. Build Emotional Awareness

For students to develop coping skills, they need to have a solid emotional vocabulary and be able to name how they are feeling. 

I like students to understand how the intensity of feelings can change. Annoyed is different than furious, but they are both forms of anger. Concerned is different than terrified, but they are both forms of worry. 

Lastly, you want them to make it personal and talk about how they feel most of the time. Are there certain extreme emotions they feel often? Ones they feel rarely? How do they feel when they wake up most mornings?

Possible Activities

Create a personal feelings dictionary.

Use feelings thermometers to show intensity.

Create a feelings pie or mood diary to map daily emotions.

Incorporate a feelings check-in into every counseling session. 

Feelings Check-In Cards and Chart
feelings thermometer

2. Identify Personal Triggers

The events that affect how we feel are different for everyone. Of course, there are some situations where everyone feels very similar, but something that excites me might not even make another person smile.

Help students understand in what situations they tend to feel certain emotions. Do they get angry when they don't get called on? Are they super excited when they get five more minutes of recess?

What are their challenging situations? Where do their emotions grow and feel unmanageable?

Possible Activities

Using the feelings thermometers, add situations where the student feels different intensities of emotions. 

Review and reflect on previous challenging situations.

Normalize challenging situations by discussing tough situations for others, not the student, and vice versa.

When students struggle with anger management, it's essential to go beyond behavior plans and classroom strategies. Many of these students lack skills and would benefit from direct instruction. Like reading

Anger Management Activities for Skill Based Counseling

3. Introduce and Practice Coping Skills

Introduce coping strategies one or two at a time. It is helpful for the student to practice each a few times and imagine using it in a challenging situation. Have the student think about when it would and wouldn't work well. For example, if a student is furious, taking a few minutes to draw might not be helpful. 

You should also avoid coping strategies that would reinforce a negative behavior. For example, is the student becoming frustrated with challenging work and putting their head down? Listening to a song may be a coping skill that reinforces avoidance of frustrating work.

To help the student reflect on coping skill practice, try the following questions:

  • Was this helpful?
  • Do you feel calmer?
  • Do your feelings feel more manageable?
  • When could you use this?
  • When would you not use this?

Possible Activities

Use engaging materials to introduce students to different coping skills. 

Pick 4-6 coping skills you think the student would prefer.

Practice and reflect with a handful of different strategies.

Introduce different types of coping strategies. I like to separate it between moving, calming, thinking, and distracting strategies.

calming strategies coping captain

4. Find Preferred Coping Skills

Once the student has practiced different coping strategies, work on narrowing down to the ones they found the most helpful and most straightforward to apply.

Think of the different coping strategies: moving, thinking, calming, and distracting. Is there a type your student seems to need more or responds to well?

Possible Activities

Have the student sort coping strategies based on preference (Yes, No, Maybe) or effectiveness.

Create a personal deck of coping strategies the student can keep on a keyring.

Deep breathing is one of the best calming strategies you can teach your students. It's effective and they always have it with them. While it is simple, students often need

Hands On Calming Strategy Activity for Deep Breathing

5. Match Coping Skills to Situations

Your students can have a toolbox of coping strategies so they can decide what works best for them.

For example, sometimes, I need to take a minute by myself to calm down. Other times, I need to take deep breaths or think of a warm beach day.

Possible Activities

Use the feelings thermometer. You have mapped a range of emotions and situations where they happen. Now, add in coping skills you could use at each point. 

Provide the students with practice situations and have them select a coping strategy they think would work best. 

Play a matching game. 

Provide the student with an example of someone using a poorly matched coping strategy. Reflect on why that coping strategy was ineffective for the situation.

6. Build A Plan

So your students now know their feelings, challenging situations, their preferred coping skills, and when to use which coping skill.

Now, they need to plan how they will use their coping skills. Writing out a plan like a contract for students in upper elementary can be helpful. For younger elementary, social narratives can be beneficial. I have also found power cards to work well for most of elementary.

How do you help students develop coping skills that stick?

Calming Strategies Resources

Calming Strategies Notebook

Calming Strategies Notebook

The calming strategies notebook helps students develop a personalized set of coping skills they can use to handle big feelings.

Coping Captain Freebie

Coping Captain Intro Workbook Freebie

Meet the Coping Captain, your steadfast guide for introducing, teaching, and practicing calming strategies with students in counseling.

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I’m a school psychologist who left her office (closet?) and got busy turning a decade of experience into ready to use counseling and SEL resources.

I live in New York City with my adventurous husband and relaxed to the max daughter who’ve grown to appreciate my love of a good checklist.

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