Recovering from a Terrible Day at School: How to Help Students Relax, Reflect, and Return

By Barbara Gruener
Part of our Counselor’s Corner series. Click to read other posts in the Counselor’s Corner.

Recovering from a Terrible Day at School: How to Help Students Relax, Reflect, and ReturnIt’s hard to think about rebounding from one of those days during which nothing seems to go your way without remembering Judith Viorst’s fictional narrator Alexander in her 1987 picture book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. In this treasure, Alexander went to sleep chewing gum and wakes up with gum in his hair. From there, his day goes downhill fast, and he can tell that it’s going to be one of those days.

I remember being struck by his somewhat silly problem-solving solution: moving to Australia. And while that may not be a viable option, it appeals to the counselor and the mom in me because, at one time or another, we may all need an escape—our very own Australia. So my number one suggestion for regrouping from a tough day is going physically or mentally—or both!—to a safe place to retreat, restore, and renew.

Ask your students where their Australia would be. Maybe there’s a tree house in their backyard. Perhaps it’s a special chair in a cozy corner. It could even be a bathtub filled with warm water and some bubbles. Encourage them to select a spot and write out a plan to use it proactively so that when they need it, they’ll know right where to go.

While in their safe spot, students can practice some deep breathing. If they prefer to sit up, encourage them to practice “square breathing.” Breathe in slowly for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale slowly for four counts, and hold for four counts. Drawing a square while they practice provides a great visual to help with this exercise. A positive mantra can beautifully complement the square breathing, too. Try something like, Tomorrow I start over. Repeat it either silently or out loud, taking turns putting stress on each of the words sequentially. Tomorrow I start over. Tomorrow I start over. Tomorrow I start over. Tomorrow I start over.

If students don’t mind lying down, then suggest that they belly breathe. Ask them to put something small, like a stuffed animal, on their bellies, and have them lift and lower it with their stomach muscles as they take their deep breaths. This will help center them and refocus them on what they can do rather than what they can’t do and, in turn, help melt away their frustrations.

A second go-to resource for rebounding involves domesticated animals. Pets can help children process and resolve unsettled feelings after a troubling day. Suggest that your students play with and cuddle a dog, cat, or hamster. If they don’t have a pet, maybe they know a neighbor or relative who would let them walk or wrestle with theirs. There’s a lot of therapeutic power in a little playtime with our furry friends. At school, we use a comfort dog in small group feelings classes, and our librarian uses Reading With Rover canines with her reluctant readers. Both have met with great success.

Another activity that students can do to de-stress from a daunting day is good old-fashioned physical exercise. Encourage children to enjoy some fresh air at home by going outside to jump rope, ride bikes, play tag, swim, swing, or run laps. Empowering them with choices as to where they play will help them regain the sense of control an out-of-control day can leave them lacking. Suggest that their parents take them to a park or nearby nature center to soak up vitamin D from the sunshine. At school, exercise can come in the form of a few minutes of extra recess toward the end of the day.

Before bedtime on one of those horrible days, students can use meditation to help them shake off any lingering uncomfortable feelings. The short, guided imagery stories in the book Starbright: Meditations for Children by Maureen Garth work really well to help children unwind and relax as a parent or caregiver reads the stories aloud. Add some soothing, bio-rhythmic music by artists like Gary Lamb for a booster-shot infusion of healing calm.

Many of these suggestions can be adapted for use at school as well as at home. Do you have a designated calm-down corner where students can take a preventative, self-imposed time-out? Perhaps you keep geo-boards or fuse beads on hand to encourage students to create as a way of taking their minds off of their raw feelings. Maybe there’s even space in your classroom for a musical instrument or two that can help release negative feelings. At our school we now have a ukulele lab for that very reason; it has been magical to watch a student’s physical and emotional state soften as the student strums through stress and tension.

Finally, I suggest using Turn Yourself Around Self-Portrait reflection sheets. Encourage students to draw and color portraits of themselves having a good day on one side and having a bad day on the other. While they’re working, ask questions like: How do you regroup when the tide turns and your day goes from good to bad? What can turn a bad day around for you? How do you express yourself if you’re having a bad day? What happens if you decide to quit? What happens when you decide to persevere? Who can you go to for help when the bad days get too big or overwhelming?

Make sure your students know they always have a choice about what they think, what they believe, and how they react to hard feelings and tough times. They have the power to decide which side of that self-portrait page they prefer. They can choose, and they can stay on that side. Everywhere. All the time. Even in Australia.

Barbara GruenerCurrently in her 32nd year as an educator, Barbara Gruener, a school counselor and character coach at Bales Intermediate School in Friendswood, Texas, has had the pleasure of working with kids from every grade level. Author of the blog The Corner on Character and the book What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, Barbara enjoys positively influencing change through her inspirational keynotes and interactive workshops. When she’s not working, you can bet Barbara is knitting, baking, writing, reading, walking, gardening, napping, or spending time with her husband and their three children.

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