Coping Skills Are Life Skills. Is Your School Fostering Them?

Coping Skills Are Life Skills. Is Your School Fostering Them?
Coping Skills Are Life Skills. Is Your School Fostering Them?

School Health and Wellness//

April 30, 2023

There are countless ways to handle a stressful situation. One person might go for a run while another turns to their yoga mat or a coveted chocolate stash.

For adolescents—especially in our post-pandemic world—having access to healthy coping skills is critical. And while sometimes school itself is an anxiety trigger, it can also be the place where students develop and practice positive coping mechanisms.

Stress, Anxiety, and Adolescence

Although often used interchangeably in daily vernacular, stress and anxiety differ in the clinical arena.

Stress is usually caused by an external factor. Unless past trauma is involved, the stress dissipates once the stressor is gone. And, according to mental health and mindfulness professionals, it’s not always the enemy. The benefits of stress include keeping a person safe and present.

Anxiety does not go away even when the outside stressor is no longer there. If a teenager has a phobia of dogs, for example, the mere thought of a dog makes them anxious. Clinically speaking, anxiety is defined as long-lasting and impacting daily activities. The most common forms of anxiety in a campus setting are social and general anxiety.

Thankfully, both stress and anxiety can be mitigated using the same tools.

Developing a Stress Toolkit

The signs of stress and anxiety among adolescents share several traits, such as irritability, fatigue, and physical manifestations such as head or stomach aches. During the course of a given day, their emotions might run the gamut from angry to sad to scared. The fight, flight, or freeze response is an automatic physical reaction to an event deemed stressful or frightening. Depending upon the situation, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in—face the issue, run from it, or remain immobilized.

Learning how to tame responses to stress helps a child feel calmer, more in control, and less anxious. Janine Halloran, MA, LMHC, and author of Coping Skills For Kids, shares five basic, effective coping skills:

  • Relaxation: Also referred to as belly breathing, slow, deep breaths have an immediate soothing effect. For younger adolescents, use basic metaphors such as “breathe in to smell a flower” or “blow out the birthday candles.” For teens, try a related GIF or other relevant visual.
  • Distraction: Help the child break their stress cycle. Playing games or joining school clubs are good choices. For older teens especially, social networks play a large role in developing coping competency.
  • Sensory Elements: Be creative! Use music and visuals in the classroom that are conducive to calming the mood.
  • Movement: Incorporate short breaks to let students move around. Even stretching in their seats provides a physical release.
  • Processing: When a student is upset, help them understand what they’re feeling. Encourage the expression of self-compassion as part of the process.


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How Can Schools Help?

Educators and administrators must be dedicated to helping students develop healthy coping skills.

  • Modeling: Practice self-care and share coping techniques with students. This not only encourages educators to remain committed to their own mental well being, it helps students feel less alone in their struggles.
  • Social and Emotional Learning (SEL): SEL promotes a positive school culture, supporting healthy identities and the ability to manage emotions.
  • Listen and Learn: Get to know students beyond academic needs or achievements. Children who feel seen and heard will also feel safe and protected.

Introducing coping mechanisms in school should be tailored to the child and the situation. For some students, talking about ways to handle stress one-on-one will elicit the best response. For others, a small or large group setting may feel more comfortable. Helping to instill these skills early on will help students thrive—both in school and in life.

*Content courtesy of Janine Halloran, MA, LMHC and author of Coping Skills For Kids.

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