The holiday season is a wonderful time of year, filled with excitement and anticipation for many children. For some children, however, the excitement and anticipation can be overwhelming, and can lead to social and behavioral challenges during the school day, as well as a decrease in academic performance.
Children with special needs may be especially vulnerable to common stressors of the holiday season. Additionally these children may have difficulty understanding and/or expressing their feelings. Understanding, anticipating, and planning for how to support our special students, can make for a smoother holiday season in your classroom.
8 Common (Holiday) Stressors For Children With Special Needs:
- Schedule Changes
- Over Scheduled
- Physical Changes in Home and School Setting
- Decreased Sleep
- Changes In Diet
- Over Excitement
- Reacting To Others Stress (parents, teachers, store clerks)
- Over Stimulation (music, lights)
Taking A Closer Look At Common Holiday Stressors
Children who are facing these stressors during the holiday season may come to school feeling tired, anxious or distracted, and may have a “shorter fuse” than usual. This may result in struggles with peers and negative interactions with adults. You may see children getting frustrated more easily in social situations such as when playing a game or during conversations. These children may become quickly agitated if they get a wrong answer or may be very emotional if they do not understand something right away. They may struggle to produce the same amount and quality of academic work that they usually do.
Breaking It Down
#1. Schedule Changes: During the holidays many families will be making changes to their schedules in order to attend social events and to do holiday shopping. This may result in afternoon and evening schedule changes for children who crave sameness and routine.
One way you can help these children during the school day is to prepare the them about upcoming schedule changes ahead of time (“we will miss math today because we will be going to the winter assembly”) while keeping your schedule the same, when possible. Try to offer a make up for things that are missed due to the schedule changes, i.e. If a child is upset about missing math, consider giving them a math worksheet with just a few problems on it, to do at home or later in the school day.
#2 Overscheduled: Many families will be running around from here to there, getting in all the festivities they can. This can be overwhelming and tiring for children who may not be comfortable in crowds or do not do well being rushed.
To help these children, try to be extra flexible and recognize when a child is more tired than normal. Consider providing some time for the child to rest or take a break if necessary during the school day. You may need to push the tired child just a little bit (or a lot) less than you might normally.
#3 Physical Changes in Home and School Setting: Most of us love to see the lights, festive colors and sounds of the holidays. But for some children with special needs, these changes are unsettling and can lead to an overall sense of stress and unease. To help these children, consider preparing them ahead of time about any changes they will see in the classroom/school. Also, try to keep some sameness for these children, even if it is just at their own desk or table group. Reassure the child that the room/school will go back to the way it was, when the holidays are over.
#4 Decreased Sleep: With so many fun things to do, many children will be staying up later than they normally do. Children with special needs, who do not get enough sleep, often have exaggerated behavioral challenges in the school setting. You may see an increase in these students arguing with their peers or having more trouble negotiating and cooperating. To help a child experiencing this stress, consider decreasing their work load for a little while. Sometimes, less is more.
#5 Changes In Diet: With the holidays comes many yummy foods! While delicious, this change in diet can cause children with special needs to experience behavioral changes. Diet changes can cause constipation, low energy and lethargy. To help children who may be experiencing this stress, simply being aware that they may not be feeling well is helpful. Be sure to allow bathroom breaks, encourage them to drink lots of water and eat healthy snacks.
#6 Over Excitement: What’s more exciting than the anticipation of getting presents?! For some children however, this excitement can be hard to “turn off” and can lead to challenges in the classroom and with peers. To help these children, consider practicing relaxation techniques in your classroom. Yoga, soft music, dim lights, brain breaks, can be helpful to promote calm behavior in your students.
#7 Reacting To Others Feeling Stress (parents, teachers, store clerks): The holiday season can bring stress to all of us. Whether it’s parents who are rushing to get a million things done, store clerks who are tired and grumpy after many more customers than usual, or drivers who are in a hurry and are cutting people off in traffic and beeping their horns. Children pick up on this and some children are very sensitive to it. This stress may cause children with special needs to have a decreased ability to problem solve and be flexible with others. To help these children, try to be as calm and relaxed as possible around them. As with #6, consider applying some relaxation techniques to your classroom routine.
#8 Over Stimulation: Music, lights, bright colors, parades, plays, assemblies… are a big part of the holiday season. Many of us enjoy these events tremendously. Children with sensory challenges may find these things very unpleasant. A child who is having an issue with his/her sensory input may try to escape an unpleasant environment or may destroy property (pulling down bulletin board decorations, etc.) To help this child, keep their sensory needs in mind when there will be a change in lighting or music, or in their physical environment. Consider whether or not the child needs to be present for certain things such as a loud performance.
Be thoughtful to sensory needs when decorating your room and or playing holiday music.
It’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the holidays, and sometimes, we can forget that not everyone experiences this hustle and bustle in the same way. If you have children with special needs in your classroom, I hope this discussion of common holiday stressors will give you some ideas for how to support your fabulous students, should they experience any of these challenges this holiday season.
Additional Supports For Students Facing Holiday Stressors:
- A Short Video Modeling Deep Breathing Exercises
- Three Great Printable Posters
- Sesame Street Video, Belly Breathing
Guest post by Cindy From KID CODES. Cindy’s store is filled with lots of resources to help your students improve their social skills and emotional regulation, as well as offering modified academic supports. Cindy has been a special education teacher for over 20 years and thrives on finding new and creative ways to support special learners.