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Navigating Stressful Holiday Situations: Tips for the SPED Classroom

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January 03, 2024


The upcoming holiday season can bring about a variety of special challenges for special education teachers. 

From dealing with students who might have difficulty coping with changes in routine, to handling behavior issues that arise due to excitement or anxiety, it’s important to be prepared. 

As educators, we all strive to create a positive and inclusive classroom environment that addresses each student’s unique needs. And during the holidays, that means taking extra care to help our students navigate the changes and stresses that come with this time of year. 

Here are our top tips. 

What Are Some Potential Sources of Holiday Stress for Children?

group of kids hugging over snow background and lights

For most of us, the holidays are usually a time of joy and excitement – but they can also bring along a fair share of stress. That’s especially true for our students. 

One common cause of stress for kids during the holidays is the disruption of their regular routine. The change in schedule due to winter break or holiday parties can be overwhelming for some children, particularly those with special needs who rely on structure and routine. 

Another stressor that some kids may face is the pressure to conform to social expectations. This is especially true for children who may not celebrate the same holiday as their peers or don’t have the same resources to participate in those sorts of activities. They may feel left out or excluded, which can trigger feelings of sadness or anxiety. 

It can be challenging to ensure the inclusion of all children, especially those with disabilities, during all of these different holiday festivities.

Furthermore, the financial burden of the holidays can also cause stress for families, and a lot of that stress is passed down to children (whether that’s done purposefully or not). It’s no secret that caring for a child can be expensive, and the holiday season only adds to these costs. This can create financial stress and anxiety for parents, which often translate to the child.

There are countless other stressors that may come into play during the holidays – as they do at any other time of the year – but it’s important that we pay attention and offer assistance to students who might be experiencing any kind of holiday stress

Recognizing Triggers and Warning Signs

kids working together in a classroom

Triggers are events, situations, or circumstances that can cause an emotional or behavioral response in an individual. For example, some students with sensory processing disorders may have a negative reaction to bright lights or loud music during holiday celebrations. Other students may become anxious or overwhelmed by changes to their routine, such as holiday parties or assemblies.

Warning signs are physical and behavioral cues that indicate a student is becoming stressed or anxious. These may include increased heart rate, sweating, fidgeting, or withdrawal from social interactions. 

As educators, it’s important to be aware of these warning signs so that you can intervene early and prevent a situation from escalating.

Strategies for Managing Stress

dealing with holiday stress in the classroom

The pressure of the holiday season can compound our daily stress, making it even more important to practice self-care and support our students who may be experiencing stress.

Here are some practical tips for teachers to manage their own stress and suggest specific strategies for supporting students who may be experiencing stress as well.

Plan for Changes in Routine

The holiday season often brings changes in routine, which can be stressful for some students. 

As educators, it’s important to plan for these changes ahead of time. Inform students of any changes to the daily schedule or routine, and if possible, provide a visual schedule that can be used as a reference throughout the day. 

It’s also important to maintain consistency whenever possible, as routines can provide a sense of security and predictability for students.

Think Ahead About Sensory Overload

The holiday season can be a major source of sensory overload, with bright lights, loud noises, and crowded spaces. For students who are sensitive to sensory input, this can be overwhelming.

It’s important to think ahead about potential sensory overload and make accommodations when necessary. Consider creating a quiet space in the classroom where students can go to decompress or provide noise-canceling headphones. Be aware of potential triggers and try to avoid them whenever possible.

Communicate Early and Often With Families

By keeping families informed, educators can avoid potential misunderstandings or conflicts. Send home a newsletter or email update to inform families of any changes to the daily routine, upcoming events, or potential stressors. Be sure to provide specific suggestions for supporting their child at home, such as encouraging downtime or establishing a bedtime routine to promote better sleep.

Practice and Encourage Self-Care

Self-care is crucial during the holiday season, especially for educators who are juggling multiple priorities. As educators, we’re often so focused on the needs of our students that we forget to prioritize our own well-being. 

Take time each day to practice self-care, whether it’s taking a walk outside, practicing mindfulness, or engaging in a hobby. Encourage your students to practice self-care as well, by incorporating mindfulness activities into the daily routine or providing a quiet space for reflection.

Use Holiday Themes to Tie Into Academic Goals

Holiday themes can be a fun way to engage students in learning, while also supporting their emotional well-being. 

For example, a lesson on gratitude can support social-emotional learning while providing opportunities for students to reflect on what they’re thankful for. 

Integrating holiday themes into academic goals can also provide opportunities for cross-curricular learning, such as a science lesson on the properties of snow or a math lesson on gift wrapping.

Create a Relaxing Environment

During the holidays, it’s crucial to create a relaxing environment in the classroom. Low lighting, soft music, and calming scents like lavender or peppermint can all help to reduce stress levels. 

Similarly, including mindfulness practices such as deep breathing, meditation, and yoga can be a great way to help students relax and alleviate anxiety. 

You can also add some fun holiday decorations to create a festive atmosphere, which can be a great distraction from the stressors your students may be experiencing.

Encourage Time Management

Time management is a critical skill that all of our students need to learn, and the holidays may be the perfect time to work on it. You can help your students create a schedule that allows them to allocate their time efficiently to avoid feeling overwhelmed by holiday projects. 

You can also teach them how to break down their work into smaller tasks or set achievable goals so that they don’t feel discouraged when they don’t meet their expectations.

Encourage Exercise

Physical exercise is an excellent way to reduce stress levels, promote relaxation, and improve mood. 

Whenever possible, take your students out for a brisk walk or encourage them to participate in fun holiday-related activities such as sledding, snowshoeing, or building a snowman. 

Nothing quite beats getting outside and moving around. If your classroom is located in an area where getting outside may not be feasible, consider incorporating gentle stretches or yoga into the daily routine.

Promote Healthy Habits

During the holiday season, it can be easy to consume a lot of sugary treats and drinks – natural, even. 

However, excessive sugar intake can lead to mood swings, irritability, and even anxiety. Instead, try to promote healthy habits in your classroom. 

Encourage your students to drink water, eat fresh fruits and vegetables, and get enough sleep on a regular basis. Incorporating healthy snacks into the classroom can also be a great way to encourage your students to make healthy choices.

Encourage Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a practice that involves focusing on the present moment and being aware of one’s thoughts and feelings without judgment. 

Encourage students to practice mindfulness techniques like mindful breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or guided meditation. Simple breathing exercises can be practiced with the entire class at the start of the day.

Foster Social Connections

The holidays can be a lonely time for some students. Fostering social connections and encouraging students to connect with others can help alleviate stress. Students can participate in classroom activities, like reading holiday books or listening to music. 

Teachers can provide opportunities for students to share their holiday traditions and customs or have a “show and tell” where students can bring in an item that represents their family tradition.

Promote Acts of Kindness

Encouraging acts of kindness and giving can be a great way to manage stress during the holidays. 

Teachers can provide opportunities for students to participate in positive actions like writing letters to hospitalized children or collecting canned goods for a food drive. Simple acts of kindness like holding doors open, saying thank you, or helping a classmate are great places to start during this time.

Create a Support System

Create a support system for your students during the holiday season. Encourage your students to talk about their feelings and emotions openly. You can create a safe space in your classroom where your students can express their feelings without fear of judgment. 

You can also point your students towards professional help if they are struggling with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues

By creating a supportive environment, you are teaching your students that they are not alone and that they can overcome even the most challenging times.

Final Thoughts

holiday stress in the classroom

Managing holiday stress in the classroom can be a daunting task for special educators. However, by implementing some simple strategies, you can make this holiday season a little less stressful – and a whole lot more jolly! – for you and your students.

As you work to manage holiday stress in the classroom, remember to prioritize self-care and attention to your own needs. You cannot fully support your students if you are not taking care of yourself. 

So take a breath, do something fun for yourself, and remember that you’ve got this!

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a passionate special education teacher with [number] years of experience, uses her classroom knowledge to craft engaging stories that celebrate the unique strengths of all learners.