Start this activity with a discussion about personal coping strategies. Ask students to give examples of coping strategies they tend to use when they’re stressed, scared, angry or overwhelmed. Although some students are more prepared than others, if students are being honest, many will recognize the tendency to naturally engage in unhealthy coping strategies.
Reassure students that this is normal and expected. Unhealthy coping strategies are habitual, which means that they feel more readily available, require less effort, and lead to more instant gratification. But, explain that, if these behaviours get out of control, then they may lead to the development of more serious problems like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, or substance use disorders.
Next, let students know that a coping skills toolbox is an actual physical container, which contains items that they can use to calm down and manage stressful or challenging situations in a healthier way. Explain that this toolbox may include items such as fidget toys or a stress ball, students’ favourite book, pictures of happy moments in their life, a colouring book with pencil crayons, a journal and writing supplies, or inspirational quotes.
Mention that, for coping strategies that are not associated with a physical object, like breathing exercises or visualizations, students create index cards that provide a visual cue or instructions for the strategy. Finally, explain that coping toolboxes are a great way to make it easier to choose positive coping strategies when students are in difficult situations.
Now, tell students that their homework is to build their own coping toolbox that they can either keep at home or bring to school to use in the classroom. Watch the 5-minute video, “A to Z of Coping Strategies”, to provide students with examples of some positive coping strategies.
Then, give students 10-15 minutes to brainstorm items to include in their coping toolbox. Depending on your comfort level and students' preferred learning styles, this brainstorm can be an individual or group activity. Some students may find it helpful to bounce ideas off of their friends, while others will prefer to keep this activity personal. Both approaches are valid and should be supported.
Coping Toolbox Instructions available in the downloads section.
To increase students' sense of accountability for this homework activity, ask students to either take a picture of their completed coping toolbox and bring it to class the next day, or to actually bring the coping toolbox to class (for one day or to keep in the class for the rest of the year). If you have time, and if students are engaged in this activity, spend 30 minutes the following week doing a show-and-tell activity where students share items in their toolbox and talk about how the item helps them positively cope.
How can I choose to use positive coping skills? I feel like I have no control over using negative coping strategies, like yelling at people or isolating myself.
As we talked about in class, positive coping skills require more conscious effort and energy to engage in but that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to use them. When you feel yourself getting anxious, overwhelmed or angry, pause, take a deep breath, and think about your long-term goals or the best version of yourself. Then, respond to the situation (rather than reacting to it). Thinking about your long-term goals or the person you want to be in the future is helpful because that’s when the benefits and consequences of your coping strategies are most visible. At first, you are going to feel like you can’t control the negative coping strategies you use because they are habits. It’s hard to break habits and it takes a lot of time to form new ones. As you continue to choose positive coping strategies, these skills will become more natural. Consistently making that choice is the hardest part – that’s what your coping toolbox can help you with.
I don’t want to make a coping toolbox because it’s embarrassing.
Having a coping toolbox is nothing to be embarrassed about. Many adults have a coping toolbox and recognize this as being a very valuable strategy to help them thrive in their everyday life. That being said, you also don’t have to parade around with your toolbox. This can be a personal tool that you keep in your room at home or that you only use in class (since this is a safe space where everyone has made a toolbox). You also don’t have to make the coping toolbox identifiable (ex. don’t write ‘Coping Toolbox’ on it). Anyone who doesn’t know you will not be able to tell what the box is for. Over time, I hope that you will become more comfortable using your coping toolbox and that this might even be something that you are proud of because it represents you being committed to, responsible for, and respectful of your mental health.
Am I going to get mental illness because I use negative coping skills?
Not necessarily. Negative coping skills become problematic when they are used excessively and when they dramatically interfere with your ability to engage in everyday life. But even then, using negative coping skills does not put you on a one-way road to mental illness. Similar to how smoking increases your risk of lung cancer, using negative coping skills increases your risk of mental illness. Fortunately, you can use this information to motivate change. Many people choose not to smoke because they do not want the physical health consequences. Similarly, you can choose to use positive coping skills to take care of your mental health and prevent mental illness. Use the information you learned today to take action. Make a coping skills toolbox. Pause and respond to situations rather than reacting to them. If you continue practicing positive coping strategies, then you will be well prepared to tackle any challenges or obstacles that arise in your future.