V.2 #1 Counseling - Learning to Cope with Stress

In a previous column I discussed the cognitive skills that children can develop to help them cope with academic demands. In this column, I will focus on ways to help children cope with emotions.

Assuming that emotions are driven by thoughts, I will again emphasize the cognitive component of self-regulation. What do self-regulated learners think about when they are faced with challenges? To what do they attribute successes and failures? How do they handle stress?

Self-regulated learners perceive themselves to be effective learners. Their self-efficacy for learning is high. They are confident in their abilities. They are motivated to learn. Most important, though, self-regulated learners think that if they do the work, they will be successful. Plus they can handle disappointment. Why? When they don’t live up to their expectations, they attribute setbacks to controllable factors, such as insufficient effort. They don’t question their abilities! In contrast, children who do not have well developed self-regulatory skills and struggle academically are more likely to attribute failures to uncontrollable factors, such as lack of ability.

This distinction between attributions involving effort versus ability is important. When children attribute failure to low effort, they know that next time they can change things by trying harder. They also know they can use a different approach. On the other hand, children who attribute failure to low ability have no viable alternatives. They don’t think they can change the situation. Continued failure is expected. Why bother to try!

This thought pattern—failure is inevitable—fuels emotional reactions like anxiety, depression, and anger. So what can children do to counter this pattern and regulate emotions?

Children need to learn how to:

  • recognize their emotional states (e.g., anxiety, fear, depression, anger).

  • identify the thoughts associated with these states.

  • regulate these thoughts (i.e., interrupt them and replace them with facilitative messages).

By using techniques like Think-Alouds, teachers, parents, and peers can teach and model these processes. The goal is simple: Replace negative, uncontrollable attributions with positive, controllable ones.

On a more sophisticated level, children can be taught to use this process to prepare themselves for potentially stressful situations, to actually deal with stressful situations, and to reflect on the outcomes of their encounters with stressful situations. Here is a hypothetical example.

Even though Patrick studies for tests, he never feels confident because he focuses on his weakest skills. Thoughts about failure plague him, especially as test time approaches. In essence, he plays the same negative messages over and over in his head. In math, for example, his message might be, “Math is hard…. I never do well on division problems…. I hope there’s not many division questions on the test.” This thought pattern increases anxiety, which adversely affects his concentration during the test.

To counteract this thought process, Patrick can be taught to prepare himself for stressful test situations by playing positive, controllable messages like “This test will cover addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division…. I’m good at addition, subtraction, and multiplication, so I’ll do those questions first.” He feels confident that he’ll do well on the test. However, as he begins it, he finds that the first two questions involve division! Negative thoughts and messages begin to creep into his head. He starts to worry. Gets nervous! But he quickly interrupts these messages and replaces them with self-affirming ones like “I’m beginning to get nervous, but I know how to deal with it…. I can relax myself… It’s only two questions; there are a lot of others…. I will follow my plan and look for the addition, subtraction, and multiplication questions to do first.” After the test, Patrick can look back at what happened, replaying the experience in his head from beginning to end. He might ask, “What did I do that worked?... What do I still need to work on?”

This process, based on Donald Meichenbaum’s research, is a lifelong endeavor that Patrick can continuously use and refine. As he gains success, it should breed greater confidence and future success.

Dr. Gary G. Brannigan is a Professor of Psychology at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. A licensed Clinical Psychologist and a certified School Psychologist with numerous publications, he recently received the State University Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship. He and Dr. Howard Margolis will soon be publishing a book for parents, Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds.

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