Friday, December 24, 2010

What are Coping Skills? Part One: Overview

Practically every day, school-age children experience a variety of troubling events and stress both at school and at home. These troublesome events may involve peers, significant adults such as teachers, and/or family members. It is widely documented in the psycho-educational literature that children’s difficulty in handling these troubling events and stressors in their lives result in emotional, behavioral, and/or physical health problems. Children feel stress when they believe that they lack the emotional and/or physical resources, or coping skills they need to handle the event successfully. The less able a child feels to cope with a troubling event, the more stress the child feels. In other words, the event is not what triggers stress in the child; stress and troubling feelings are triggered by the child’s perception, accurate or not, that she cannot cope with the event.  
Forman (1993) define coping skills as sets of information and learned behaviors that the child can use purposefully to bring about a positive outcome in a potentially stressful situation. The learned behaviors may be physiological, social, cognitive, and/or affective. Coping skills interventions aim at teaching children a set of strategies that will increase their ability to function effectively during potentially stressful or problematic situations. Folkman and Lazarus (in Forman, 1993) identify two major types of coping efforts, problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. Problem-focused coping acts on the stressor, for example, problem solving or any attempt to manipulate and change the relationship between the child and the stressful event (attempting to solve the problem). In an emotion-focused effort, we try to regulate the emotional states associated with the problem or stressor, that is, we do not manipulate the problem, but manipulate how the child feels and responds to the problem. By helping the child think and feel differently about the problem, we influence the child’s emotional response to the problem. Cognitive restructuring is probably the best-known emotion-focused coping effort.
We can teach coping skills alone or in combination; most coping skills interventions are quick and easy to learn, requiring very little training. Teaching coping skills to children helps in preventing or reducing children’s emotional and/or behavioral problems in the classroom. Some children are more resilient than others are, that is, some children have the individual characteristics and emotional strength that will help them handle stress in their lives successfully. Other children require planned interventions by a caring adult, for example, a counselor or a psycho-educational teacher to develop and/or strengthen inadequate coping skills.

Overview of Coping Skills

Among the most popular coping skills approaches for use with school age children are stress inoculation training, social skills training, social problem solving training, self-management of behavior, and cognitive restructuring.  Next, I explain briefly each coping skill approach. In future blog postings, I will elaborate on each coping skill introduced here.
Stress Inoculation Training
In the traditional stimulus-response school of thought,  a stimulus in the environment causes a biological or psychological response in the individual, and this response is what we call stress. A most recent interpretation of stress conceptualizes it in terms of transactions or interactions between the individual and the environment (Forman, 1993), simply put; an event becomes a stressful event to the extent that the child perceives it as stressful.  For example, child A perceives the math test as too hard and stressful, child B perceives the same math test as hard but challenging, and child C perceives the same test as easy and not stressful at all. Therefore, each child played an active role in perceiving and creating stress in what was really a neutral event (taking the math test), and the amount of stress each child experienced relates directly to how each child perceives his or her skills in handling successfully the neutral event or math test. The more the child anticipated a negative outcome, because he or she did not have the skills or ability to overcome the negative outcome, the stronger the stress the child experienced.
Coping skills improve children’s ability to deal with those events they perceive as stressful by performing specific actions to increase the chance of a positive outcome, and by reinforcing the belief that they are capable of responding constructively to the demands of the event. Specific relaxation strategies that children learn are deep muscle relaxation (tension-release cycles of major muscle groups), deep breathing (e.g. the child takes a deep breath, holds it, and then exhales slowly), and imagery procedures like the robot-rag doll technique (the child first acts like a robot, stiff and tense, and then acts like a rag doll, floppy and relaxed) or real-world images where the child imagines a calming and relaxing scene.
Social Skills Training
Events that involve social interactions are a frequent source of frustration and stress for school-age children. Gresham and Elliot (1987) define social skills as behaviors that help a child attain important social outcomes such as peer group acceptance, positive judgments by significant others, academic achievement, a positive self-judgment, and psychological adjustment.  Combs and Slaby’s definition (in Forman, 1993) focuses on interactions and interpersonal relationships, defining social skills as the ability to interact with others in a given social context and in specific ways that are valued or acceptable socially, and at the same time are beneficial either for the child, for both the child and peer, or beneficial primarily to others. Social skills training aims at remediating the social skills deficits exhibited by some children, in particular, emotionally/behaviorally disordered students, or EBD. Assertiveness training, a training that focuses in teaching the child how to act in his or her own best interests without hostility and without violating the best interest of others, is an example of a social skill that we teach to EBD students.
Social Problem Solving Training
The social problem solving coping approach focuses on teaching children a systematic way of dealing with social problems (interpersonal problems) through a sequence of steps, that is, using a problem solving plan. Problem solving enhances children’s understanding that they have different options to handle a social problem, and in understanding the potential consequences of each option, or the potential consequences of the child’s actions. Proponents of this coping approach claim that mental health relates to the individual’s ability to solve social problems, and state that children with well-developed social problem solving skills exhibit less behavior problems (e.g. anger-prone or acting out behaviors) in the classroom.
Self-Management of Behavior
Self-management of behavior, or behavioral self-control, refers to the child’s ability to direct and to change her own behavior. This coping approach uses primarily behavior modification techniques; however, current interventions combine this coping approach with the next one, cognitive restructuring. During self-management of behavior, we train the child in evaluating her own behavior, setting goals, manipulating her environment in a way that facilitates achieving the goal, and in rewarding herself when she achieves the goal. In schools, behavioral self-control training can help hyperactive children, habitually disruptive students, aggressive children, and children with anger problems.
Cognitive Restructuring
Cognitive restructuring is a comprehensive attempt to help a troubled student analyze the self-defeating thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes that are causing and/or intensifying the child’s feelings and behaviors. At the most basic level, we train the child in recognizing and self-monitoring both positive (pleasant) and negative (unpleasant) emotions and thoughts as well as in identifying situations that are likely to trigger each type of emotion or thought.  Next, the child learns to discriminate between thoughts and beliefs that are accurate or rational and thoughts and beliefs that are inaccurate or irrational. At this level, the child challenges and debates the irrational thinking, substituting it with rational thinking, that is, thoughts and judgments that are more accurate. Rational-emotive therapy or RET is both a theory and a method to help students with more serious emotional and behavioral problems. This sophisticated intervention works best when is used in combination with other coping strategies such as a relaxation strategy, assertiveness training, and/or a problem solving plan.
Forman, S. G. (1993). Coping skills interventions for children and adolescents. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Gresham, F. M., & Elliot, S. N. (1987). The relationship between adaptive behavior and social skills. Journal of Special Education, 21, 167-182.

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Monday, December 6, 2010

Communicating High Expectations to Students with Behavior Problems

 An expectation is a belief that some future event will happen. The cognitive literature agrees that our expectations greatly influence both the way we feel and the way we behave. Consciously or not, teachers constantly cue students as to what our behavior expectations are. We exhibit hundreds of nonverbal cues, some as subtle as tilting up the head, raising the eyebrows, head nods, the breathing rate, eye contact (or absence of eye contact), and/or the dilation of nostrils. Other cues are more obvious, including a certain tone of voice and our verbal messages, and children notice those cues and messages. Teachers’ expectations often play a major role in bringing about the behavior we expect from individual students. We transmit our higher or lower expectations to each individual student, and soon children begin to reflect the image that we have created, and may be inadvertently reinforcing in them. On most occasions, we are not even aware that we are expecting and communicating disruptive behaviors, because the cues we are sending are often non-verbal and unintentional. Once we set our behavior expectation for a habitually disruptive child, the student will act more and more in ways that match the expectation. In addition, consistent with our low expectation for the child, we give up easily, feel discouraged easily, and act resigned, not staying with the child during setbacks and failure situations. This never-ending cycle of student’s misbehavior and teacher’s discouragement gets stronger by the day, moreover, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the less we expect from the child, the less we get.
 Tollefson (2000) states that teachers develop outcome expectations, that is, the belief that particular students will learn the material taught (or will behave in a particular way), and efficacy expectations, or our belief in our personal ability and professional skills to help each student in our classroom to achieve academically and/or to behave. According to Tollefson, in combination, our outcome and efficacy expectations influence the way we interact with students as well as our willingness to spend effort to help individual children. Simply put, the higher our expectations, the higher the quality of our interactions with the student, for example, we smile more, make more eye contact, are more supportive, give more assistance to the child, encourage the child in generating solutions to problems,  and pay closer attention to the child’s responses. The opposite is true for a child for whom we have lower expectations. Even when the amount of time we spend with both kinds of students is similar, the quality of time spent and the quality of interactions are not the same. To promote behavioral change in a habitually disruptive student, the key is not in what we say to the child, but in how we say it and how we interact with the child.
Teachers need to believe that we have the skills and ability to influence positive behavioral change in our most challenging students (teachers’ efficacy expectations). A teacher with a high level of personal efficacy, or self-efficacy, believes that he or she has the ability to motivate and engage students both in learning and in behaving. The teacher perceives the student’s habitually disruptive behaviors as a challenge, not a threat, and explains the behavior to the child in a way that encourages the student to evaluate his success or failure in relationship to the amount of effort the child spends and the strategies the child knows and applies to self-regulate behavior. In addition, the way we explain to children their successes or failures influence how we interact with children, for example, the teacher provides feedback that is more positive and constructive, and keeps criticism to a minimum. Constructive feedback does not just review the past, or what the child did wrong, but help outline future performance, or what the student needs to do to master a skill or behavior.  In a friendly and accepting way, behavioral setbacks are explained as errors or mistakes necessary for growth and learning, and the teacher encourages the student to fix his acting-out behaviors the way he fixes an academic error.  A teacher with high self-efficacy expectations and the right psycho-educational skills is able to influence and develop strong self-efficacy expectations in students.
Teachers with high self-efficacy expectations aim high, developing goals of high academic achievement and positive behavior for all students. High self-efficacy teachers keep children’s potential in mind, and are tenacious in not giving up, even when we realize that we are going to face roadblocks right in the next corner. Children feel motivated when they believe that putting in more effort and using the right coping strategies will result in improved behavior. In addition, just perceiving that the teacher has high expectations for him improves the teacher-student interaction and enhances the child’s motivation.
 To modify behavior, the habitually disruptive child needs both resources and skills to do the job. It is not enough to tell simply to the child that you believe she can behave better. We need to provide resources like information and teacher’s time coupled with psycho-educational skills and strategies, for example, a problem-solving plan, coping skills for anger management, and/or self-monitoring strategies. With higher goals, encouragement, extra support, adequate time, and the right skills and strategies any child, including a child with behavior deficits, will eventually learn to replace disruptive behaviors with more positive ones.
Tollefson, N. (2000). Classroom applications of cognitive theories of motivation. Educational Psychology Review, Vol. 12 No. 1, pp.63-83.

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