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Helping Kids Bounce Back and Be More Resilient

Research about resiliency is often about more long-term concerns. Studies and theories are about what factors promote resiliency in order to prevent mental health problems and other negative outcomes despite trauma or life challenges. That’s really valuable and as educators and counselors, we can intentionally develop some of these traits in the children we serve. But resiliency can also be about how we handle smaller day-to-day stressors, too! It can be about what we do when things don’t go according to plan, when we’re annoyed, or when things feel outside of our control. Sometimes resiliency is just about helping kids bounce back when things don’t get their way!

In a previous post about developing resiliency in children, I shared a few dictionary and research definitions. For this post, I want to introduce another definition:

“Resilience: Our ability to acknowledge and attend to personal difficulties while still working toward expectations.” -Kristin Souers in Fostering Resilient Learners

Teaching resiliency in this sense doesn’t mean we don’t validate children’s uncomfortable emotions. It doesn’t mean we’re okay with them having adverse experiences.

It means we acknowledge how tough things can be for kids sometimes. We support them by empathizing with them and validating their experience. And we help them develop the skills to persevere through life’s challenges!

Common Stressors

In a typical school day, students (like adults!) are faced with problems of all shapes and sizes. Maybe they don’t like the lunch that is being served. Or they feel nervous for a spelling quiz. Maybe they don’t get called on during science. They could be are arguing with a friend. Or feeling embarrassed after getting an answer wrong. No matter the issue, we want them to feel confident in their ability to handle it and move forward.

When students are still developing that ability, we might see reactions to low-level stressors that look like:

  • Intense emotional responses
  • Outbursts that take a long time to calm
  • Negative self-talk
  • Isolating themselves from peers
  • Refusal to participate in required, or even preferred, activities
  • Physical behaviors towards peers, teachers, or self (hitting, kicking, punching, throwing things, etc.)

Proactive Strategies

Protective factors are characteristics or traits that help to shield someone from the effects of adverse life experiences. I talked more about this in a previous blog post, but it’s important to mention again. Through proactive interventions, we can target some of these important skills, like problem-solving, adopting a positive or hopeful outlook, in an effort to build resilience.

Helpful Language

Saying “resilience” likely won’t be meaningful to elementary aged kiddos. We want to give them language that they can connect to; language they can comprehend. In our bounce or splat lesson, I introduce this language with a short activity that asks students two questions:

  1. What happens if you throw a bouncy ball on the ground?
  2. What happens if you throw an egg on the ground?

You can do this by asking them, with slides, or you could demonstrate with an actual bouncy ball and egg! Or use a squishy splat toy egg.

bounce back activity for kids

Through this comparison activity, which might also get a giggle out of students, you are helping to frame this idea of resilience in a way that they understand. To define further, you may explain that while we don’t actually “bounce” like a ball, we can get back to our best selves by working through the problem and our feelings about the problem. When we don’t do that, we go “splat” and can get stuck, which can have a negative impact on our day, how we feel about ourselves, and our relationships with others.

To practice, you can offer scenarios and have the children share what they think “bouncing” or “going splat” would look like in each of those scenarios.

When students understand this language and feel ownership over it, it gives you (and them) something to refer back to when they are faced with a problem, “Will you bounce like the ball, or will you splat like the egg?”

bounce back activity for kids

Coping Skills

Explicitly teaching and practicing coping skills is an important piece of this puzzle that is helping children bounce back, but that can be (and is) its own blog post so we will keep this section brief.

Foundational Skills

These are four skills foundational to a child being able to self-regulate/use coping skills:

  1. Understand Different Feelings: This step is where children learn what feelings are, why we have them and build their emotional vocabulary. Books and art are great to use to help children in this step. 
  2. Identify Emotions in Self: Next, children learn what emotions feel like in their bodies and when they experience certain feelings. Using a body map can be a helpful tool for this stage! 
  3. Accept Their Emotion: This means believing that all feelings are okay; they let go of any guilt or shame they may associate with certain feelings. Adults play a large role in this step because of the way we talk (or don’t talk) about our own emotions. You may model this acceptance by normalizing your own feelings like, “I’m feeling frustrated and that is okay!”
  4. Express Their Feelings: This might look like teaching an I-message structure such as, “I feel______ when ______” or “I feel ________ because _________, I need ________.”  

Developing Coping Skills

Once those skills are in place, you can start on the work of developing coping skills:

  • Teach them about the different tools: There are a number of different coping skills that we know can be effective, but students need us to explicitly teach them how to do them in a way that is helpful. For example, a child doesn’t (usually) immediately know how to use something like a slinky to their benefit so taking the time to model that use for them can be extremely beneficial and can prevent inappropriate use down the line. This can be done individually or with a group or class!
  • Practice, practice, practice: Once you have taught them a handful of skills, provide time for them to practice while they are in a calm, regulated state. This practice will naturally lead to the next step.
  • Build their toolbox: Not every tool will be a good fit for every student. Some students will need the pressure of a weighted lap blanket, and some will prefer to use noise cancelling headphones to get some quiet time. Some need movement and others need to doodle it out. While practicing, you can guide students to identify the tools that work for them and create a plan so they know which tools they can/should access when they are having big feelings.
  • Use them in moments of dysregulation: The goal is that by proactively and explicitly teaching and practicing these skills, students are more likely to use them when they become dysregulated because they are familiar with them, and they trust that they will help. It’s much more challenging to get a dysregulated student to buy into the use of these tools if they have never done them before.

Making a Game Plan

We know there will be certain obstacles that are tricky to navigate for students and we can teach them explicitly about how to overcome them by using self-talk, flexible thinking, and problem-solving.

Self-Talk

Every thought or question we have about a situation, everything we tell ourselves throughout the day…that is all self-talk! Self-talk has the power to change how we feel, which changes what we do. Self-talk can either be hurtful or helpful when students come up against a problem. Either they will have an encouraging coach that helps them work towards solving the problem, or they will have a negative critic that will make the problem worse.

After explicitly teaching (and modeling) for students what self-talk is, you can ask students to determine if different self-talk examples are helpful or unhelpful. Take it a step farther by asking students to identify what would happen next if they had each thought.

You might also give students different problem scenarios/situations and ask them to generate helpful self-talk statements. This page is an example of an activity where students would work in small groups, taking turns looking at the pictures, naming what’s happening, and sharing an idea of what the character could say to help themself feel better.

Flexible Thinking

Flexible thinking is our ability to change our thinking and see things in more than one way, have more than one reason or explanation for something. Rigid thinking is when we assume things only have one explanation, one purpose, or only one “right” way. For children with more rigid thinking, everyday stressors can feel enormous because their perspective or expectation is being challenged. This can lead to big emotional responses to what a flexible thinker would view as a small problem.

You might help students develop this skill by using the metaphor of a cooked vs. uncooked spaghetti noodle and what happens to each when we try to fit it in our hands. This opens the discussion to then teaching specific flexible thinking strategies like perspective taking, going with the flow, and changing our thoughts. (slide from this flexible thinking lesson)

flexible thinking activity for kids

One way to have students practice this skill is to ask them to write about a fictional character’s flexible day. They choose three different problems to include and choose which of the flexible thinking strategies the character will use. There’s an additional layer of practice embedded in an activity like this because students have to use their own flexible thinking skills as they complete it, in addition to identify how the character can be a flexible thinker!

flexible thinking activity for kids
Problem Solving Proactively

Another protective factor we can arm students with is an ability to problem-solve proactively. This means helping them have a plan for what to do when they face specific situations that might cause them distress (and that are also just part of life). For example:

  • Not liking the group they are assigned to
  • Not getting called on during class
  • Being told they can’t play how they want at recess

Planning for these scenarios helps to eliminate the surprise and gives them confidence that they know just what to do!

Imagine that you have a student who struggles to finish projects during art class. At the end of class recently, this student has been having big emotional reactions that take them a long time to calm down from. To help this student solve this problem proactively, you might try role-playing before the next art class. You can be the student and they can be the art teacher. By having them act as the teacher in this scenario, you can model problem-solving that can include self-talk, flexible thinking, or using coping skills. This might also look like brief whole-class discussions and modeling. I am huge fan of Responsive Classroom’s model of interactive modeling.

Acknowledging tricky situations and finding a way through them is resilience! It’s a major life skill we support our students with. So much of it is embedded in our everyday conversations, but we can develop this proactively, as well. What strategy(ies) will you try out to help your students bounce back?

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Hello, I’m Sara!

With 10 years of experience in
elementary school counseling,
I get to serve in a different way now
– by helping fellow counselors and
educators!

I value quality over quantity,
effective practices and resources,
and meeting the unique needs of all
our diverse learners.

Sara

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