Help Your Students Develop Coping Skills 

By: Laura Driscoll
Read Time:  min

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

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

Develop Coping Skills Step by Step

1. Build Emotional Awareness

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

I like students to also 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 dairy to map daily emotions.

Incorporate a feelings check-in to every counseling session. 

Feelings Chart

2. Identify Personal Triggers

The events that effect how we feel are different for everyone. Of course, there are some situations where everyone feels very similar, but something that makes me really excited might not even be something that makes 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 and add situations where the student feels different intensities of emotions. 

Review and reflect on previous challenging situations.

Normalize challenging situations by discussing situations that are challenging for other people, but not the student, and vice versa.

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. 

develop coping skills with sequenced activities

You should also avoid coping strategies that would reinforce a negative behavior. For example, is the student becoming very frustrated with challenging work and putting their head down? Taking time to listen 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 a set of 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.

develop coping skills with sequenced activities

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 easiest to apply. 

Thinking of the different types of coping strategies: moving, thinking, calming, and distracting. Is there a type that your student seems to need more or respond 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 that the student can keep on a keyring.

5. Match Coping Skills to Situations

Your student can have a toolbox of coping strategies. This is ideal because they might use different coping strategies at different times. 

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

Possible Activities

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

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

Play a matching game. 

Provide the student with example of a situation where someone used 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, situations that are challenging for them, their preferred coping skills, and when to use which coping skill.

Now they need to build a plan for how they are going to use their coping skills. It can be helpful to write out a plan like a contract for students in upper elementary. For younger elementary, social narratives can be particularly useful. I have also found power cards to work well for most of elementary. 

How do you help students develop coping skills that stick?

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CBT Worksheets and Feelings Scales

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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