I recently completed a Guidance AQ with a heavy focus on counselling methodologies. In one session we previewed Solution Focused Counselling and in another Bereavement Counselling was the focus. Whereas Solution Focused Counselling relies heavily on the Active Coping Strategy concentrating on Problem Focused Coping including Cognitive Decision Making and Direct Problem Solving and Bereavement Counselling focused on Support Seeking Coping Strategies such as Support for feelings (CCSC & HICuP, 7), in both the importance of teaching coping strategies was highly emphasized. It became clear to me that the need to teach our students effective coping strategies is important (for further on this, see “Eight Important Reasons for Teaching Kids Healthy, Brain-based Coping Skills in School”).
In Canadian schools, few students are survivors of extreme trauma remotely comparable to that of Holocaust survivors, (with the possible exception of those who arrive as refugees). Nonetheless, many students in our classrooms have faced some trauma (e.g. witness to spousal abuse or the death of a peer or loved one), and teachers are often grasping for tools and strategies to equip such students with ways to cope. The article “Coping strategies in the narrative of Holocaust survivors,” by Suedfeld et al, presents interesting insights into how we, as educators, may teach effective coping strategies in the classroom by bringing survivor narratives into the classroom.
In their paper, Suedfeld et al reviewed existing oral histories of survivors to establish coping patterns seen across age groups in situations of varying degrees of trauma during three main stages of the Holocaust The paper also found that most survivor tales demonstrate positive coping strategies to trauma. Suedfeld et al remark, “planful problem-solving, self-control, and various aspects of dogged persistence… represent practical, task-oriented approaches to solving the problems of survival in the Holocaust environment, reflecting what should be considered good adaptive behaviors,” (169). They further found no significant increase in the application of negative coping strategies such as physical escape and avoidance (169) and that “interestingly, the Holocaust periods evoked the fewest mentions of survivors psychologically distancing themselves from events” (171).
Key insights/applications for teaching coping strategies using Holocaust survivor testimony:
- Suedfeld et al remind us that for those “who deal with such [trauma] survivors, there is a salutary warning not to assume that the experience will have left the person unalterably weakened or traumatized,” (175). Counselors or educators should find the strength possessed by their counselee and help them both to cope and adapt (see Solution Focused Counselling).
- Suedfeld et al concluded that coping strategies are contextual rather than developmental (i.e. age related), therefore as educators, it is possible to highlight examples of survivors whose age reflects that of students, and who provide examples of coping strategies that will connect with students.
- As educators we might deconstruct survivor narratives with our students and explicitly discuss how the individual in the story coped by asking questions like “how did [survivor] find ways to survive in such an environment?”, “find examples of how [survivor] coped in such an extreme circumstance?” or “how did [survivor] manage to go on with their lives after the Holocaust?”
- Suedfeld et al further note the importance of agency in the survivor narratives: “survivors, who have successfully transcended not only the Holocaust but the vicissitudes of post-war recovery, emigration, and the re-creation of their lives, see themselves primarily as problem-solvers,” (175-6).
Caveats for the Classroom
These stories should not be treated as direct parallels to student lives, but can act to illustrate effective coping strategies nonetheless. In terms of both counselling and pedagogy, our students can benefit from the review of survivor narratives.
In the Classroom
Facing History offers a wide variety of resources that engage trauma survivor stories such as Night and Red Scarf Girl through which we might integrate discussions of coping strategies. You might have students use an organizer (see attached) identifying the coping strategies that characters in these stories use and discuss their efficacy. The teaching of coping strategies is hardly the primary reason that we should engage these stories, but it is nonetheless yet another impetus to do so.
"For Parents & Educators." Coping Skills for Kids. Brain Works Project, n.d. Web. 06 Apr. 2013.
Manual for the Children’s Coping Strategies Checklist & the How I Coped under Pressure Scale. Temple, AZ: Arizona State University, 1999.
Suedfeld, Peter; Krell, Robert; Wiebe, Robyn E.; and Steel, Gary Daniel. “Coping strategies in the narratives of Holocaust survivors.” Anxiety, Stress & Coping (January 1997), 10 (2), 153-178.