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Coping strategies in modern classrooms

Teaching strategies

Coping strategies in modern classrooms

A guide for teachers, teacher aides, parents and school managers

Coping strategies – strategies that people use in stressful and challenging situations to manage their own stress and anxiety (such as positive self-talk).

A teacher working with an individual student during a school day.

In an educational setting, coping strategies refers to the way in which learners predict, prepare, perceive, manage, react and alter their behaviour when stressed. This stress is often caused by failure, the threat of failure or the belief that failure is inevitable. The reactions to these threats are both conscious and sub-conscious; we cannot fully control our behaviour in every respect. Learning is more difficult when students lack the necessary strategies to manage stress and anxiety. As teachers want to make learning as easy as possible, it is logical that coping strategies should be explicitly taught.

For students, failure in front of their peers can be devastating and saving-face techniques are used to avoid potential embarrassment.

Hint: A common buzzword today is resilience, which is the degree to which a student is able to persist in the face of failure and other challenges. Resilience is a measure of stoicism (prolonged and sustained performance under ongoing pressure without complaint).

For students, failure in front of their peers can be devastating and saving-face techniques are used to avoid potential embarrassment. Students who are removed from class on a regular basis usually have alternative motives; they are not ‘bad kids’ per se, even though they regularly lash out at teachers. Their primary goal is to avoid the perceived embarrassment caused by failure and the best way to achieve this (in their mind at least) is to misbehave. Students in this situation lack coping strategies and resilience. If this pattern of behaviour isn’t remediated, there can have severe long-term academic and career consequences for the student.

Fortunately, teachers can improve student resiliency by teaching and encouraging the use of a myriad of coping strategies. Being honest with students by privately letting them know that their behaviour is a ‘task-avoidance and fear-of-failure tactic’ is often a good starting point. Teaching students what to do when they experience failure (or believe they are about to) is essential to building resilience. Students also need to learn that failure is normal, expected, common (even with experts) and a necessary step toward achieving any worthwhile goal.

Other strategies include teaching metacognitive skills to students such as scaffolding, learning processes and concepts instead of worrying about detail, trial and error, planning an approach to a problem, seeking assistance and thinking about what is known and unknown. Encouraging students to recognise the feeling of frustration that is a natural part of the learning process can be achieved with a think-aloud worked example (the teacher pretends to be frustrated with a maths problem and demonstrates how they deal with it). Mental scripting is also useful in some cases – developing a mental script with a student is a positive step toward building resilience. An example of a mental script is as follows:

‘I’m stuck and frustrated with this problem...oh, frustration is normal remember and the feeling will soon pass. I have control and can decide what to do here – getting kicked out is one option but I’m not choosing that option today – what else can I do when frustrated – what options are there? I can write down my options or ask for help. What are the different ways I can try to solve this problem? What do I know and what don’t I know? I’m going to do these easy parts first. See, I can do this!’

Hint: other failure-avoidance techniques include procrastination, excuses such as blaming the teacher, failure to attend, lack of effort and fake effort. Student may rationalise and say things like ‘I don’t need to learn this anyway’ or ‘I’m going to be an {occupation} and have no need for {subject}’ and the infamous ‘why do I need to learn this?’.

Another issue that teachers and parents need to watch out for is self-handicapping. This is a common phenomenon mostly observed in teenagers and girls in particular. Self-handicapping is when a student sets excessively low expectations for their own performance; they expect a low score. As the student can easily meet this low expectation, failure is averted. Unfortunately, however the effect of this strategy is that effort is reduced due to the self-fulfilling prophecy effect. The student puts in no more effort than required to meet the low expectations that they placed on themselves. In their mind, they are not capable of achieving beyond this level, so there is no logical reason to bother trying.

The student has most likely used this same thinking process in the past which naturally resulted in low grades and instilled a sense of guarantee that low grades are inevitable. This pattern of thought can be broken however with positive self-talk, mental scripting, setting and achieving goals (of any kind however minor) and developing positive rapport. All these actions gradually build self-esteem and resilience which is the necessary precursor to full participation.

Hint: all too often, adults inadvertently reinforce negative self-talk by saying things like ‘don’t worry, I was never good at maths either’. This has the effect of permitting and almost encouraging the student to set low expectations for themselves, to engage in task-avoidance behaviour and to avoid challenges with the possibility of failure. You can see where this is headed – less effort means a poorer performance and lower understanding. Less understanding leads to fear of public failure which leads to off-task behaviour. Suddenly, the student is in the principal’s office and the negative self-belief is confirmed. Failure is rationalised and attributed to external forces (such as a belief that maths is universally difficult) rather than a lack of effort on their part.

The following techniques and strategies can be explicitly taught to students to improve their resilience:

  • seeking support or assistance from a peer, adult or reliable source
  • prefactual (what if) thinking (writing down a rational solution for negative thoughts)
  • anticipating challenges or stressors and being well prepared to meet them
  • taking a systematic approach to challenging tasks
  • writing down all potential options in a situation
  • looking at the problem in terms of the bigger picture (for example, some students fixate on an incorrect answer even when all their other answers were correct)
  • positive self-talk such as ‘I can do this…this is just one little problem…’ or ‘I have overcome problems before…this is just another one’
  • setting rational performance expectations based on facts (for example, a slight increase on last year’s results)
  • using a disassociated perspective – have the student imagine that someone else was making all of the decisions for them – what would that person say in this situation? Alternatively, what advice would the student give to another student in the same situation?
  • making amendments to the curriculum, the activities, and the teaching and learning strategies (such as doing shorter activities and providing additional scaffolding)
  • having students set their own goals and reviewing their goals regularly
  • improving their health, their blood flow and their happy hormones (endorphins) with physical activity, meditation, enough sunlight and encouraging good food choices
  • teaching that initial expectations often need adjusting. A major cause of stress is when something takes longer than it should. Students can learn to recognise this phenomenon and adjust their timeline. For example, suppose an investigation is set to take 1 week (or 20 hours). 2 weeks pass and the student is still researching. The investigation is abandoned due to the belief that ‘I can’t do this’. The problem is not in the student’s performance, motivation or intelligence, but the initial estimation of how long it will take to complete was wrong – the timeline needs reframing
  • giving students choice and control. Stress is often caused by a feeling of a lack of control. When we have power over our decisions, we are more likely to make good decisions and see them through because we chose that path, it wasn’t forced on us. In practice, teachers can give students multiple options per activity or allow them to choose their own topic
  • providing ways for students to be distracted from the stressor
  • reflecting on the event or stressor, such as using a conscious stream of writing in a journal, reflective practice, or simply a casual chat
  • meeting with parents or caregivers and the student on a regular basis and coming up with a plan
  • improving the student’s motivation and self-confidence by ensuring they experience success (reaching micro-goals on multiple occasions). It’s important to also ensure that they experience failure so they can practise dealing with it
  • encouraging a mindset of continual improvement, persistence and resilience: an ‘I can do this’ attitude
  • dividing a task into manageable pieces (chunks) and beginning with the easy parts. Take a rational approach to your performance by looking at the percentage of parts that are complete and incomplete. Don’t dwell on the 1 part that is causing issues when 200 other parts are fine
  • reframing problems and outcomes. For example, instead of ‘I’m stuck so there is no point in trying’ to ‘oh this is that feeling of frustration we talked about – once I learn this, I’ll be able to do everything here’
  • teaching students to expect negative self-talk when learning anything new (such as ‘what is the point’ and ‘this is a waste of time – I’m not going to bother’) and how to rationalise and replace these thoughts with positive ones particularly after a problem has been mastered (such as ‘I can easily do this’)
  • helping students to reframe their experiences in a more positive way. For example, suppose 2 students both score 65% in a maths test. One student is happy and says, ‘I got 65% right – YAY!’, while the other dwells on the negative and says, ‘I got 35% wrong…I’m useless’. The first student has framed their experience in a positive way, the second student hasn’t. Middle school teachers notice this issue in girls in particular (boys are often more positive and notice what they got correct whereas many girls seem to notice what they got wrong).

About the author

Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and an author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of Fast Track Training Australia, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.

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