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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

After You Crash and Burn: Coping Skills for Students

By Peter DeWitt — October 26, 2012 4 min read
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People who are keenly aware of the trials and tribulations of life understand that since birth life has offered us different opportunities to build coping skills.

Life is not kind to everyone. It doesn’t matter if it’s a break-up gone bad or a death in the family, we don’t leave this planet unscathed. It does seem as though some people have a few more tough situations than others. The best advice I ever heard about working with people going through a hard time is, “Just because it’s not the hardest thing you’ve ever been through doesn’t mean it’s not the hardest thing they have ever been through.”

We see that with adults who surround us in our private and professional lives. There are a few who seem to think the sky is falling on a daily basis while there are others who have gone through a series of tragedies and have a different perspective on life. Those adults who have seen tragedy and hard times have different coping skills than those who think the smallest event is the biggest issue. At some point, the adults who lack coping skills were children and they missed the opportunity to learn from hard times or they just lacked the right people around them.

Life can make us all feel like victims. It’s when we constantly find ourselves in that role that the real problems begin. Not everyone seems to be able to see the bright side and they lack the knowledge or effort to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and move on. This is the only life we have, unless you’re a fan of reincarnation, so we should probably do the most with what time we have.

Why Our Students Need Coping Skills
As hard as this may sound, bad situations can offer us teachable moments. We can learn, if we choose to, from even the worst situations in our lives. Even the hardest and most profound experiences can teach us to treat those around us differently, or better yet, teach us that we have to treat ourselves better. How many people do you know who are self-destructive because they never learned that they are worth more than they think?

Students need coping skills for a variety of reasons and the following are just a few:
• Anger management
• Grief
• Social and emotional issues
• Academic concerns (struggling students or gifted learning)
• Family transition
• LGBT - coming out, friendships, family reaction

Have you ever crashed and burned? I mean really crashed and burned. Many adults go through a time when they don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. They’re so entrenched in their own issue that they don’t see a way out and have no idea what will happen as they move forward, so they stay still. It’s worse than Dr. Suess’s Waiting Place from Oh The Places You’ll Go because at least when you wait, you know you’re waiting for something.

For those of us who have come out the other side, we have the experience to look at tough situations differently. I guess it goes back to that famous quotation, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” We came out of the situations better people because of the way we were forced to deal with them. People who are keenly aware of the trials and tribulations of life understand that since birth life has offered us different opportunities to build coping skills.

We never know what will happen next in life, which can be exciting. However, when you’re in a dark place you don’t feel that way. You feel that the other great big shoe in the sky will drop at any moment. It’s a paralyzing feeling.

According to the Brain Works Project, “When we can’t deal with difficult experiences that cause us stress, we need to develop more effective coping skills. Why? If we stay under stress and anger or sadness for long periods of time our brain releases stress hormones, substances that can interfere with our brain’s ability to learn and pay attention in school. This same brain area also stores emotionally painful experiences. So when we can’t get over upsets and stress, our brain actually loses some of its ability to pay attention, use thinking skills and store new information.”

Coping with situations, depending on their severity is a mindset. When bad situations happen it’s important to have a person to talk to when the situations arise. Not someone who will agree with the doom and gloom but someone who will provide their opinion or advice no matter how hard it may be to hear. If you aren’t surrounded by those people, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

In the End
At a very young age students are faced with times where they need to build coping skills. The adults around them can help by looking at the students through empathetic eyes and talking through issues. The Brain Works Projects says, “We need all three coping brain functions, thinking, feeling and self-protection, to get over experiences that make us stressed, worried, angry or upset.”

It’s important to talk with children about looking at the positive side of the situation. Ask them what they can learn from it. How can they move forward? Every book offers a problem and a solution. Those conversations around books can offer students valuable insight into how they can solve their own issues when they arise.

Too often the adults around children want to shield them from bad experiences. Clearly, we want all kids to be safe and it’s hard to watch loved ones go through a bad time, but doing the work for them will not help. It will only prevent them from building the coping skills we all need to get through life.

Questions:• Are coping skills an innate ability for people?
• Can coping skills truly be taught?

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For more information on coping skills for students visit the Morningside Center.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.