Empower Students to Discern the Scale and Urgency of Their Problems

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

Empower Students to Discern the Scale and Urgency of Their ProblemsI was forced to go through the drive-thru window at the bank the other day because the ATM was out of order. Evidently, I hadn’t allowed enough time for this errand because I started feeling unusually frustrated at how long it was taking the real-life teller to process my request for a little bit of cash. I found myself pushing the help button to inquire how much longer I could expect this transaction to take. Upon reflection, I realized I had made a huge problem out of a small situation, so I stopped by the next day to apologize for my impatience.

Today I’m thinking about the fast-paced society in which we live. Fast food for when we’re in a hurry? You bet. Express lanes so we can fly down the freeway? Got ’em. Quick cash from the ATM? Usually at our disposal 24-7. With a fast fix for just about everything, is it any wonder that our students have trouble assessing the immediacy of their issues and taking the time required to resolve their conflicts?

Our children need to know that their voices matter and that the adults in their lives take their problems seriously. But just how do we empower kids to effectively deal with those everyday challenges and concerns? Though there is no fast fix for this issue, consider using this FAST acrostic as a touchstone:

When considering the importance of a challenge, it’s important to realize how we feel about it. As my students and I talk through their issues, I routinely ask them to try to rate how they’re doing using a 10-point scale, with 1 being that they feel about as bad as they can and 10 being that they’re on top of the world. And while a rating scale is a bit subjective, it does provide us with a starting point to assess the problem and work toward solving it.

The other day, for example, a fourth-grade boy rated his feelings about his problem as a 4.6. So specific, right? From there, we talked about how often he’s thinking about the problem, how severely he’s feeling it, and how life would change if he could make his feelings about the issue less uncomfortable. We brainstormed possible solutions to his problem, and he came up with his own ideas about what he could do to move from his 4.6 to a 6, a spot on the scale that he deemed to be the improvement he would need to get out from under his problem’s shadow, at least for now. In further meetings, this student and I can look for ways to move from a 6 to a 7 and so on, and I can watch for signs that the problem is not being resolved, such as numbers that dip below his 4.6 starting point.

Sometimes the scope of a conflict has as much to do with our attitude about it as it does with the actual issue. When this happens, I suggest a technique I learned about years ago called Thought Switching, which works like this: Whenever we have an unwanted thought about a problem that adversely affects our attitude, we must intentionally switch that thought to something else—to something more positive or more productive. Sometimes the new thought is the total opposite of what we were thinking—something author Byron Katie calls the “Turnaround Thought.”

I find this technique useful with children and adults alike. I even use it myself. For instance, when I felt stuck in thinking that I should not have been transferred to a new school, I had some thought switching to do. I tried the turnaround thought: I should have been transferred, because after 14 years my work at the other school was done. Relief from the errant thought came only once I was able to adjust my attitude about it.

Stamina is sometimes lost on those of us who are growing up in an information generation where answers are literally at our fingertips and just a click away. We want solutions, and we want them now! But there is much to be said for leaning into our struggles and working through our problems instead of going around them. It will help us build mental strength and forge new pathways in the brain. Instead of letting the brain’s amygdala—our fight-or-flight emotional safety mechanism—call all the shots, we actually allow the more rational prefrontal cortex to take charge and calm down that amygdala. Being aware of what’s going on and accepting and knowing that we will be okay will result in a stronger, more mindful, and healthier being.

An exercise schedule and routine for the body provides a nice parallel for mental well-being, agility, and strength. If we want to run a marathon, we don’t just lace up our shoes, hit the trail, and attempt the full 26.2-mile trek. Instead, we start small by running a mile, then 2, then a 5k race, then a 10k, and so on. Before we know it, we’re ready for a half-marathon. Once we reach that milestone, we’re ready to endure more and more, until it’s time to attempt the full 26.2-mile course.

Just as athletes in training schedule their workouts, we can set small conflict-resolution and/or problem-solving goals for skills that we will strengthen as time goes on. During training, there is no substitute for good old-fashioned time.

While it has been said that time is a great healer, how we use that time is equally important. How do we know when it’s time to handle a problem on our own versus when it’s time to solicit some assistance? Start by prioritizing the issues that need immediate attention and allow more time to trudge through the ones that are going to require a bit more work. The ability to discern the annoying small stuff from the big threatening things is also crucial. We must teach our young children about the kinds of problems they can safely tackle by themselves, then empower them with the necessary tools and skills to take care of themselves on the playground, in the classroom, on the bus, in the cafeteria, and wherever else they go. Maybe it’s ignoring the problem, walking away, or talking it out. Maybe it’s negotiating, compromising, or agreeing to disagree.

Need a strong conflict-management resource for your classroom? Check out Kelso’s Choice from our friends at Cerebellum Corporation.

When the aforementioned empowerment strategies prove unsuccessful, it’s time to lean on a friend, family member, trusted neighbor, teacher, mentor, religious leader, or coach. Teach those under your care that there is strength in phoning a friend and asking for help. When problems that threaten our security and well-being persist, when obstacles we can’t seem to overcome overwhelm us, or when no solutions seem to offer us hope or healing, that’s when it’s time to seek professional help.

Barbara GruenerCurrently in her 33rd 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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2 Responses to Empower Students to Discern the Scale and Urgency of Their Problems

  1. I love this! I think basic problem-solving is such a great skill to teach that expands and hits all corners of our goal areas. In the age of information, it’s crucial that students can gauge a situation right in front of them for good decision-making.

  2. Tanya Kirschman says:

    Again, so many great practical ideas to use in my work as a school counselor! Thank YOU!!!!

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