It’s the second week of August, and I’m guessing that whether you like it or not, you’re thinking about SCHOOL. And I’m thinking about you, thinking about school.
As a kid I experienced intense back-to-school anxiety. As soon as stores started advertising back-to-school sales and promoting preparation (through purchasing!) for the year ahead, I felt like my summer freedom was over. My inner stress bunny took over, and my imagination filled my waking and dreaming thoughts with every uncertain thing about the next grade. My worries were mostly social – who would be in my class? What if my teacher didn’t like me? Would my desk be close to the door? What if my first day outfit wasn’t cool?
As an adult and an art therapist now reflecting on this, I feel like what might have been really helpful for me as a child was a review of my emotional coping skills. So many of my worries were out of my control. They were unknowns I couldn’t find the answer for, and things I would just have to navigate on the first day.
What I needed to practice was how to deal with that uncertainty.
This upcoming school year is filled with more unknowns than ever. We don’t really know what that first day will look like for any of us! As parents, educators, and caring adults, we are being asked to make decisions we never thought we would be making. We might find ourselves trying to choose the best out of several less-than-ideal options. We may be feeling overwhelmed and unsure about how to best prepare our kids. And on top of the uncertainty, we are living with the knowledge that things could still change (drastically) at any moment.
Here’s one thing I know for sure: September will bring LOTS of BIG FEELINGS. How can we help prepare our children for the challenge of navigating their emotions?
One way we can do this is by reviewing our kiddos’ coping skills with them. Brain science and personal experience have shown me that it is MUCH EASIER to learn and practice coping skills when we feel calm – when we aren’t directly in the stressful situation. That makes these next few weeks the perfect time to focus on emotional coping.
Coping skills are something I work on with almost every family. Regardless of the challenge bringing your kiddo to art therapy, we overcome it by creating and using coping or problem solving strategies. These are the tools in your child’s unique tool kit, or “pocket knife for life.”
There are some general strategies I often come back to, but my favoruite part of the work I do is finding creative ways to personalize those strategies for EACH child. We do this during art therapy sessions when I suggest a strategy, but then we try it together and make adjustments and changes based on the child’s interests and their experience with the strategy. The result is a personalized strategy that the child helped to create. I’ve found that when we co-create strategies in this collaborative way, kids feel excited and empowered to actually use them.
If you’ve worked with me before, chances are that your child has created some coping skills or strategies. But sometimes, especially in moments of stress, it’s easy to forget what we’ve learned!
So, how about before we head back to school, we review our coping strategies? To make it easy, I’ve created a free template for a “Coping Skills for School” zine!
Why a zine?
A zine is a self-published mini magazine. Comic artists often make and trade them. My friend and colleague Brianna Kestle introduced me to the world of zines. She has been exploring and sharing the therapeutic potential of zines, which is so exciting.
Brianna says that zines have a DIY spirit: anyone can make them and they can be about anything. Zines are meant to be handmade, personalized, and self-produced.
I love them because they are concise and fit into a backpack, pencil case, or pocket. They only require one page of printer paper. And they’re so easy to reproduce. In fact, they’re meant to be photocopied.
I think a zine is the perfect way to capture your child’s coping skills. Your kiddo can bring their zine to school, almost like a cheat sheet. They can look at it whenever they need a reminder of their strategies. It’s also the perfect way to share strategies with your child’s support team. After personalizing the template, you can make a copy for your child’s teacher, principal, EA, or anyone else your child would like to share it with. Then, the whole support team can literally be on the same page working together to help your child put their coping skills into practice.
Let’s make a “Coping Skills for School” Zine!
Click here to download the free PDF template: school coping skills zine
Here’s a video about how to cut and fold the template: (click the arrow in the middle to PLAY!)
Now let’s fill it out! Here are some instructions and examples for each “page” of the template…
- Personalize the cover with your child’s name.
- Invite your child to decorate it with their favourite colours.
Page 1: Identifying and Acknowledging the Challenging Feeling
- In order to create a helpful resource and to avoid overwhelm, I suggest choosing ONE feeling or experience at school that your child finds challenging. Help your child to complete this sentence: “Sometimes at school I feel ___________________________ and it’s hard for me.”
- Here are some ideas:
- Invite your child to draw their chosen feeling.
- “Everyone feels this way sometimes.” This statement normalizes your child’s feeling, and reminds them that they are part of the collective human race and that we all struggle sometimes.
- “When the feeling comes, my coping skills can help me.” This brings focus to the rest of the zine, which will include your child’s coping skills that they can use for this particular difficult feeling.
Coping Skill: Breathing
- No matter what the difficult feeling is, taking some deep breaths will help your child to regulate. When we take deep breaths, it literally changes our blood chemistry, reducing stress hormones and bringing in space for calm and clarity.
- Use this page to write or draw about your child’s favourite breathing strategy.
- Here are a few that I often use with my clients:
- Take 5 Breathing
- Cookie Breathing
- Bubble Breaths
- Box Breathing
Coping Skill: Connect with my Body
- Children regulate their feelings by moving their bodies. Connecting with our bodies also helps us to practice mindfulness and to experience ourselves in the present moment. This is very helpful when we are feeling disregulated, overwhelmed, or anxious.
- List some physical actions or activities that your child can safely practice at school. You might want to check your school’s policies around body breaks or fidget toys, etc., to ensure that the things on the list will actually be an option.
- Here are some ideas:
- run at recess
- take a drink of water
- eat a snack
- use my fidget toy
- do a yoga stretch
- hold onto my thumb
- give myself a hug
- take a walk down the hall
- go to the hub room for a body break
Coping Skill: Managing Worries
- Even if your child struggles with anger or distraction at school, anxiety or worry is often also present. Having a strategy for managing worries at school may help to avoid other unwanted or difficult behaviours in the classroom.
- Invite your child to write or draw about a strategy they can use to manage worries at school.
- Here are some that I often create with my clients:
- sock owl worry helper
- pipe cleaner worry helpers
- worry box
Coping Skill: Positive Affirmation
- In challenging moments, positive affirmations can help to redirect our thoughts and provide something simple to focus on.
- Invite your child to think of a positive affirmation or encouraging phrase that is meaningful to them specifically. Invite them to write it inside the “post-it note.”
- Here are some examples:
- I can do hard things.
- I am resourceful.
- Mom loves me for me.
- Feelings are temporary.
- I am brave.
- It will be okay.
Coping Skill: Talking about Feelings
- I put this one last because the other strategies are more independent and self-regulating. My hope is that kids can try to work through their feelings or calm down on their own before seeking help from someone else. This builds independence and a sense of agency and empowerment. If you feel that it’s appropriate for your child, encourage them to try their other strategies before approaching an adult, unless of course there is a safety concern or an incident of bullying, etc. In those moments children should always go to an adult right away.
- Identify one person at school that your child can talk to. My hope is that every child will have one safe person. If this is not the case, I’d love to support you in finding resources at school so that your child does have someone to talk to.
- Here are a few ideas:
- Educational Assistant
- Reading Buddy
- Guidance Counsellor
- Former Teacher
- Child & Youth Worker
- Early Childhood Educator
- Lunchroom Helper
- Bus Driver
- Vice Principal
- School Therapist
Final Page: A note from me!
- Just a reminder that I believe in you. I’m cheering for your child, and I’m cheering for you as you support them through these challenging moments.
If you would like me to support your family through a coping skills review process, or to help your child build these skills for the first time, come in for an individualized art therapy session! I’m available in the weeks leading up to school and it would be my joy to support your family as you navigate this unique back-to-school season.
Written by Rubi Garyfalakis, DTATI, RP, RCAT