Individualizing Coping Strategies to Improve Behavior

The use of coping strategies is an evidence-based intervention that improves behavior.  It is commonly used in school positive behavioral support programs and mental health interventions to improve functional skills.  Coping strategies enable individuals to manage their strong feelings of sadness, anger, or anxiety with out violence or other functional difficulties.  Coping strategies are a proven component of school Positive Behavioral Support programs (Second Step, PATHS, DECA), Dialectic Behavior Therapy (DBT) and CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy).

Learning to use coping strategies to manage depression, anxiety, and aggression can be particularly challenging for individuals with behavioral, mental health, developmental, trauma history, and/or sensory processing challenges.   Learning to consistently implement coping strategies is a long process that can be facilitated by teachers, family members, as well as occupational, speech/language, physical, and mental health therapists.  It is important when evaluating coping strategies with clients to assess their efficacy in facilitating short-term and long-term frustration tolerance and functioning.  For example, some client attempts to cope with strong feelings provide short-term relief (e.g., self-injurious behaviors, risky sex, drug and alcohol abuse) but worsen long-term coping and functioning.  It is often necessary to exert considerable effort to help clients find the best fit of coping strategies to improve their functioning across settings.

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Careful consideration of client’s interests, developmental level, sensory processing, as well as success and challenges in implementing coping strategies is a good place to start.  Coping strategies involving physical movement are usually most successful when teaching new coping strategies to clients.  Inclusion of physical exercise, music, sensory equipment and adaptive techniques, mindfulness strategies, yoga, and touch strategies can be particularly helpful for individuals with special needs.

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A helpful tool is having clients select 3 items from each page of triggers and coping strategies on the FABTriggerCopingForms

An understanding of the client’s unique environmental triggers (situations such as “being told no”) and body triggers (e.g., “breathing fast; crying”) that precede disabling anxiety or aggression are helpful in teaching coping strategies.  When evaluating the effectiveness of coping strategies those that show the greatest effectiveness with slight environmental and body triggers can be expanded on.  Repeatedly practice and reinforce clients for successfully using coping strategies in controlled settings, while gradually increasing their stress levels.  Once strong feelings can be consistently managed with coping strategies in controlled settings, begin practicing and reinforcing them in supported naturalistic settings.  While coping strategies are difficult to learn they are worth the effort, as they are extremely helpful in increasing client’s functioning.

References:

Miller, A.L., Rathus, J.H., & Linehan, M.M. (2007).  Dialectical behavior therapy with suicidal adolescents.  NY, NY: The Guilford Press.

Kovacs, M. & Lopez-Duran, N. (2012).  Contextual emotion regulation therapy: A developmentally-based intervention for pediatric depression.  Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America, 21(2), 327.

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