Understanding Your Students
For middle school students that are facing extraordinary circumstances, the strengthening of resiliency is essential. A foundation for building resiliency lies in helping students to feel a sense of control over their lives. Although students exercise limited autonomy over their lives, they are in control of how they react to situations. School counselors and other staff can help students to establish a sense of control through teaching self-regulation, coping skills, recognizing strengths, building self-esteem and setting goals. Learning how to react effectively can lead to the ability to cope with trauma resiliently.
Establishing Self-Regulation and Coping Skills
Students facing difficult circumstances are in desperate need of self-regulation and coping skills, yet often lack them. In order to cope, many at-risk students have learned to sooth themselves and have developed self-soothing strategies. These responses may include constriction, aggressive behavior, self-harm, drinking or overeating (Blaustein, 2010). A goal of school counselors is to help students to develop healthier self-regulation skills.
In teaching students students to self-regulate, school counselors can pay attention to how the student reacts to stressful situations. For instance, a student that moves around when he is stressed may benefit from taking a walk. A student that clenches her fists may benefit from the use of a stress ball (Blaustein, 2010). Students can also benefit greatly from learning mindfulness techniques. When they are stressed, do they feel their shoulders tense up, hands in fists, or have shortness of breath? When this happens, they can learn to make the conscious decision to calm down and relax their muscles, and take deep breaths from their stomachs (Siegel, 2012).
An excellent intervention to promote self-regulation in middle school students is to create a feelings scrapbook. For each page, an emotion is listed. Then under each emotion, strategies for coping when the student is faced with strong emotions can be listed. For the emotion, worry, for instance, a list of five distractions and a positive affirmation to remember may be useful for students. The page for fear could include a picture of a safe place or a safe person (Blaustein, 2010). This intervention can be done within a class, group or individual setting.
So many students that face trauma have been taught to accept failures, to give up easily and to view criticism as intentionally hurtful. According to Dweck (2006), these students are stuck in a fixed mindset. As school counselors, we can help them to change this to a growth mindset. This can be done through teaching them to change negative self-talk, from can’t to can. We can encourage them to be persistent in the face of challenges, rather than becoming defensive and give up easily. We can teach them to take criticism as useful feedback and to celebrate the successes of others rather than compare one’s self to others (Dweck, 2006). Students benefit when counselors recognize and point out their strengths. This is especially true for students who are used to having their flaws pointed out to them by teachers, parents and others.
Once students realize their own self worth and gain self-esteem, they can change from a stagnant view of self to one without limits. To promote self-esteem counselors can create pride walls in their offices. In this intervention, students are encouraged to add to the wall things they are proud of, such as accomplishments or attributes, while keeping them anonymous (Blaustein, 2010). This intervention could follow counseling sessions.
According to a school counselor, the best way to help children to gain resilience is to help them to set goals. For example, a student was having difficulty getting along with other students and had many challenges at home. Together with the student, the counselor worked to develop a ten-year plan. They talked about going to college and what she needed to do to get there. This helped her to see through the trauma she was currently facing and to have something to look forward to. It also helped her to improve her grades, as she could understand the long-term effects of doing well in school. Setting goals can help students to not only gain resiliency, but also feelings of self worth.
School counselors can play a central role in building resiliency by teaching skills to manage life’s struggles effectively. Building self-esteem and recognizing strengths can help students to see their hidden potential and value their self worth. Most students don’t face just one instance of trauma and a foundation of skills and strengths can translate to a variety of scenarios. The coping skills learned in middle school can be used throughout their entire lives. In addition, setting goals can help students to see past trauma. While there are some circumstances we can’t control, we can control how we respond and react to them. Once students realize this, they are on the path to resiliency.
Blaustein, M. & Kinniburgh, K. (2010). Treating Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents: How to Foster Resilience through Attachment, Self-Regulation, and Competency. The Guildford Press: New York.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House: New York.
Koehler, N., & Seger, V. (2005). Response Ability Pathways: A Curriculum for Connecting. Reclaiming Children & Youth, 14(2), 121-123. Retrieved from http://proxy.foley.gonzaga.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=t rue&db=a9h&AN=17914239&site=ehost-live
Morrow, D. H., & And, O. (1987). Pre-Vocational Immersion as Risk Intervention in a Mainstream Setting: A Preliminary Evaluation of Project OASES. Retrieved from http://proxy.foley.gonzaga.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=t rue&db=eric&AN=ED324341&site=ehost-live
Seigel, D. (2012). The whole brain child. Bantam Books: New York.