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Forman (1993) defines coping skills, or coping efforts, as sets of information and learned behaviors that children can use purposely to bring about positive outcomes in potentially stressful situations. Coping techniques teach psychological, social, cognitive, affective, and behavioral skills that children and adolescents can use to deal with potential stressors. According to the author, knowing and using coping skills can prevent or reduce a variety of academic, emotional, behavioral, and health problems in children and adolescents. On the other hand, the inability to handle potentially stressful situations or stressors may result in emotional, behavioral, and/or physical health problems. Coping skills are a way of promoting general, emotional, and social competence in children, and we can divide them into two major categories:
a) Problem-Focused. Acting on the stressful stimuli to change or to solve the problem. Using problem-solving techniques, we focus the coping effort in managing or altering the problem that is causing distress in the child.
b) Emotion-Focused. Managing how the child perceives the situation and reacts to it (the emotional response) by changing the way the child thinks about the stressor; cognitive procedures and self-talking procedures are two examples of an emotion-focused coping effort. For example, the child uses a coping technique like relaxation or selective attention, focusing on the positive aspects of the situation while ignoring the negative aspects of the event (Folkman and Lazarus, 1980).
When we teach coping skills to a distraught child, we help the child move from a state of anger and helplessness to a stage of problem resolution, or at least, a better understanding of the troubling situation.
Recognizing Anger Signals
As an initial coping intervention, we can teach troubled and anger-prone children to recognize when they feel angry. There are several ways of doing this. One way is by paying attention to action signals, or to what they are doing. The second way is by paying attention to thought signals, or what they are thinking, and the third way is by paying attention to feelings signals, or the way the child is feeling. Examples:
· Actions: punching or hitting, cursing, screaming, yelling, crying, threatening, withdrawing, tantrum, or fidgeting.
· Thoughts and feelings:
a. I don’t care!
b. This is stupid!
c. I hate myself!
d. I’m stupid!
e. I hate Mr. Evans!
f. He has no right to do this to me!
g. I hate _____!
h. I can’t do anything right!
i. I feel like hurting myself!
j. I wish I were dead!
k. I’m going to hit her!
l. I give up!
A fourth way children can recognize anger is by paying attention to their body signals. We can train children in identifying the body signals that cue them to anger; for example, face feels hotter and flushes, body feels warmer and tensed, muscles tighten, faster and shallow breathing, sweating, and heart pounding rapidly.
Anger Coping Strategies for Children
When we teach a child a game-like strategy, the child is more likely to use the strategy than when we simply ask the child to follow a set of steps or rules. We can teach children informal, and fun, anger coping strategies that they can use when other children tease them and/or they feel frustrated. Some examples:
The Turtle Technique. The child imitates a turtle when he is provoked, retreating back into his shell; that is, lowering the head, and pulling the arms and legs tightly to the body. The child cannot act aggressively when he is in this position (Schneider and Dolnick, 1976).
Put on a Happy Face. The child simply smiles and acts happy. It is a lot harder to feel angry when we are smiling.
The Calm and Cool Technique. Teach the child to think of someone that is always calm and cool; someone that the child truly likes. Then have the child emulate the calmness and coolness of the hero. For example, imitating the terminator, the child acts calm and cool.
The Ally Technique. This ally can be a real or an imaginary person, another “cool guy.” What this ally will say and do when others tease him, when he is provoked, or when he feels frustrated?
The Superhero Technique. Spiderman, Wonder Woman, or another superhero is with the child. The superhero gives support when the child feels troubled, and congratulates the child when he manages to keep his anger under control. With the superhero and ally techniques, the child is using his imagination to see himself as better able to deal with frustrations.
The Fogging Technique. The child downplays the importance of another child’s taunting; for example: “Pinocchio!” “Yeah, yeah, I have a big nose. So what?”
The “Make a Promise to Change” Technique. The child promises that, for the next hour, she will not get angry or throw a tantrum. After the hour, the teacher or caregiver challenges the child to extend the promise for longer periods; for example, for an extra hour, then for the whole morning, next for a whole day, for two days in a row, and finally a whole week. The caregiver gives a small reward to the child for each promise kept.
The “Big C” Technique. The child makes a C with her thumb and index finger. The C stands for “control.” The child looks at it and calms down. This is one way for the child to cue herself.
The Distraction Strategy. The child uses a distraction to angry thoughts and feelings; for example, counting backwards, counting evens only or odds only, skip counting, or reciting the timetables. Other ways that the child can distract his attention are by focusing on a specific stimulus, visual or auditory (e.g. singing a tune), or thinking about something funny. The child can use a physical disruption like snapping a rubber band on his wrist or pinching himself. Alternatively, the child can use a mental disruption or a thought-stopping like, “Stop!” or “Cut it out.”
The “Stop” Technique. Teach the child to say, “Stop!” to himself, first aloud and later under his breath. Direct the child to write “stop” in big colored letters on an index card that he can look at anytime, or teach the child to imagine a stop sign coming down in front of him. Make sure the child understands that “stop” means, “Stop doing it straight away” (Butler and Hope, 1995).
The “Talking to Yourself” Strategy. The child can keep talking to herself to calm down, or the child can recite self-calming statements.
The Ignoring Technique. Teach the child to ignore the first and the second ideas, thoughts, or responses that come to his mind. The child only responds to his third idea or thought.
For the Teacher or Caregiver:
Informal and quick interventions that a teacher, a counselor, or a parent can try to defuse angry feelings and acting-out behaviors in children are:
· Use a planned shift in attention. For example, you ignore the angry feelings or acting-out behavior, and then distracting the child by interesting her in doing something else.
· Ask the child to do something else, such as going for a walk, playing a board game, playing basketball, reading (or listening to) a short story, or coloring.
· If the child is angry with another child, convince the angry child to be “extra nice” to the other child.
· If the child is angry with another child, have the angry child recall positive experiences she had with the other child, until she stops feeling angry.
· Reinforce a competing response. Give the anger-prone child positive attention, such as praise, privileges, or recognition when she behaves in ways incompatible with angry feelings and acting-out behaviors. For example, praising the child when she is acting calm, when apologizing or saying “thank you,” or when sharing materials with other children.
· Use the restitution technique; for example, you might say, “If you wronged _____, you must do something good for him.” This technique can go both ways, asking both the anger-prone student and the other child to, daily, do at least one positive thing for each other. After (three, five) days, reward the two children for compliance.
· Encourage the anger-prone and/or acting-out child to “stay one step ahead of the problem.” Predict when anger and/or acting-out episodes are more likely to happen, and plan for dealing with those moments, including identifying the strategies that the child will use to cope.
Explicitly discuss with the anger-prone child when and how she can use these informal coping strategies, and reward her each time she uses a strategy to cope with angry feelings and/or acting-out behaviors.
Butler, G., & Hope, T. (1995). Managing your mind: The mental fitness guide. NY: Oxford University Press.
Folkman, S., & Lazarus, R. S. (1980). An analysis of coping in a middle-aged sample. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 21, pp. 219-239.
Forman, S. G. (1993). Coping skills interventions for children and adolescents. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Schneider, R. A., & Dolnick, M. (1976). The turtle technique: An extended case study of self-control in the classroom. Psychology in the Schools, 13, pp. 449-453.
Thinking, Feeling, and Behaving: A Cognitive-Emotive Model to Get Children to Control their Behavior. To preview this book on Amazon, click here.