By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association member Aileen Saimaggi works with students.
“It’s not fair!”
“Everyone is picking on me!”
“I’ll never pass this test.”
“It’s too much work. I give up!”
It’s common for some youngsters to view minor setbacks and disappointments as catastrophes. They may feel overwhelmed, unable to cope, depressed or anxious. And for those with poor coping skills, it can feel like the end of the world when a real crisis strikes home.
Some educators in Santa Monica believe schools should help foster resiliency, because when children bounce back from adversity, they become stronger human beings both emotionally and academically.
Edison Language Academy adopted a unique curriculum to boost coping skills. Classrooms have special “toolboxes” filled with items to help students communicate ideas they may be too young to verbalize. The program empowers students to become problem-solvers and offers them the opportunity to learn from bad experiences instead of becoming overwhelmed, angry or embittered.
When insulted, a youngster might reach into a toolbox for a tube of toothpaste, for example. This sends a powerful message: Think before talking, because hurtful words are easy to say, but difficult to take back — just as it’s difficult to put toothpaste back in the tube after it’s been squeezed out. If someone needs personal space, he may reach into the toolbox for a bubble, signaling other students to back off; a large inflatable microphone in the toolbox serves as a reminder that tone or volume can help solve problems or make things worse; a maze shows the need to keep trying.
Students, especially those in the upper grades, don’t need the actual tool to resolve problems. Sometimes just blurting out “toothpaste” or “bubble” or “microphone” on the playground is enough.
The “Cool Tools” program was developed at UCLA’s Corinne A. Seeds University Elementary School, and was designed by safe school specialist Ava de la Sota. The goal is to help youngsters feel empowered, so they won’t fall apart when under stress. They can learn how to “fix” problems one step at a time — without feeling overwhelmed — and understand that if they make a mistake, it’s their responsibility to fix it. Eventually, say teachers, students will build upon these skills and develop into resilient, coping, competent teens and adults.
Even if students don’t resolve their problems peacefully, they learn there are better ways to deal with their anger or resentment. A teacher might ask a student who has hit someone, “What should you have done differently?” And that student can pull out an ice cube tray to show that he should have “chilled” or a shoe to demonstrate that he should have walked away. The student can then roll the “nice dice” and do a corresponding number of nice things for the person they’ve wronged.
Fourth- and fifth-graders in the Cool Tools Leadership Team at Edison perform skits for other students to demonstrate how the program works. The message from student leaders has been well received by their peers. Better yet, the program seems to be working.
“I once used the maze when I was nervous and scared about homework and a test,” confides fifth-grader Daniel Aguilar. “It made me feel better. I knew I had to keep trying.”
“It's a great way to solve problems instead of having a big discussion,” says teacher Aileen Salmaggi, a member of the Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association (SMMCTA). “You can just say ‘bubble’ and that person understands that they should get out of your space.”
Salmaggi incorporates resiliency training into her fourth-grade curriculum when the opportunity arises. During a project where students are asked to partner up, for example, Salmaggi passes out kaleidoscopes.
“Walk toward the light, look through, and talk about what you see with your partner,” she urges. Naturally one student sees the kaleidoscope patterns one way, and the partner sees another.
“That’s called perspective,” explains Salmaggi. “We all see, view and think about things in different ways. Maybe the best thing to do is for each partner to present his or her own perspective, and then you can compromise.”
The kaleidoscope lesson, explains Salmaggi, is a way to help students “agree to disagree” and understand that everyone can be right in a way.
Everyone in the Edison Language Academy ranging from administrator to classified employee is on board with the program, and many believe that Cool Tools helps grownups get along better, too.
“These issues don’t just affect children,” says Salmaggi. “It’s almost like we are learning along with them about the different solutions for solving problems.”
Marc Sanchagrin, an SMMCTA member and fifth-grade teach teacher at nearby McKinley Elementary School, is also a fan of the Cool Tools program and has a tool chest in his classroom.
“It’s all about social responsibility,” he relates. “They are learning that they are a group and that they are part of a team — not just succeeding in their own right. And the program works because they learn from each other. I think they learn much more from each other than they ever could from me.”
Like Edison, the entire staff at McKinley has embraced the program. “As for staff, we have no cliques or groups,” says Sanchagrin. “Everyone here gets along wonderfully. There’s a lot of collaboration, and it wears off on the kids.”
The program, he thinks, makes students more resilient for the challenges that lie ahead. “We are planting the seeds,” he says. “Sometimes you will never see the plant that results, but you know it’s there, and that you have helped to make it stronger.”
Ways to foster resiliency in students
Enhance students’ self-worth by complimenting them on their character and contributions — not just academic achievements.
Help identify problems and break them down into smaller parts so they seem more manageable.
Emphasize that bad times are temporary and the future can be better.
Help create a positive personal vision for the future to focus on.
Suggest healthy habits such as eating properly, getting enough sleep, and exercising.
Recommend avoiding triggers that cause stress, including negative people or situations.
Use relaxation techniques like deep breathing, yoga and meditation to manage stress.
Employ positive diversions such as reading, taking a nature walk or listening to music.
Create outlets for feelings and emotions such as art or writing down feelings in a journal.