Whether your school celebrates the holidays or not, the excitement and stress of the season affects children in their homes and in their classrooms. Most psychologists and mental health professionals believe that the anxious energy exhibited by groups of people is easily transferred to others.
The validity of this statement hit home for me during a pregame show for a big college football game. I’m not a huge college football fan. But if you know anything about the rivalry between the Ohio State University and Michigan, you might know where I am coming from.
The pre-game show featured reporters on the field, talking about the rivalry between the two universities and making constant observations that the tension in the stadium was palpable. The week of hype leading up to this game was coming down to the ticking of the game clock: kickoff was just minutes away!
I began to feel anxious. Really anxious. About a game I wasn’t particularly interested in, although I was hoping for a home team victory. The anxiety described by the reporters had affected me, in my family room, two hundred miles from the football field.
I already know that emotions like anxiety are contagious. Having taught school for many years, and being aboard that runaway train of chaos from Halloween until holiday break, I’ve been there, and watched my students do that. Low frustration tolerance. Meltdowns. Negative behaviors.
Amy Fey Adams, a second grade teacher in Schertz, Texas says, “Children react to their environment. If the classroom is stressful, or if I’m stressed, they feed off of it. The holidays add an extreme amount of stress and anxiety to both the students and myself.”
For the child with anxiety, diagnosed or not, the holidays are especially difficult. Here are ten ways to reduce children’s anxiety in the classroom this holiday season.
1. Survey children about their holiday emotions.
Hopefully you already survey your students throughout the year to assess their emotions, concerns and needs. Knowing what your students are feeling helps you plan your teaching and make accommodations when possible.
2. Simplify your classroom decorating.
Remember Snoopy’s doghouse in A Charlie Brown Christmas? Your classroom doesn’t need to look like that. Decorations on every wall, clotheslines streamed with holiday artwork…it’s too much stimulation, especially for many children who struggle with anxiety, autism spectrum or sensory processing disorders. Keep it simple. It’s easier on you and it will be more relaxing for your students.
3. Play calming background music.
Many teachers find that playing classical or instrumental music calms their students. Some have it playing the moment students walk in the door. Try playing spa or instrumental holiday music instead of traditional holiday music at least part of the time. Pachelbel’s Canon in D will relax your students more than Frosty the Snowman. If your school allows you to play the classic kid’s songs, there are appropriate times to do that. However, for calming students and creating a productive work environment, consider soft instrumentals.
4. Give advance notice for disruptions in routine.
While this isn’t always possible, when you can help them mentally prepare for the upcoming change, do it. This is especially helpful for children with autism spectrum disorders who don’t respond well to unexpected change.
5. Offer alternatives to holiday parties, concerts and assemblies.
Some children, especially those with anxiety or autism spectrum or sensory processing disorders, don’t do well with the multitude of scheduling changes and events the holidays bring.
One of my student’s had a 504 Plan specifically addressing his need to be excused from such activities. Another student with anxiety, but not an official diagnosis, asked if he could remain in the classroom during assembly time as well. With permission, he stayed back from the assemblies, and his relieved smile went ear to ear.
Partner with another teacher, a paraprofessional or a special education teacher with a resource classroom. Instead of attending the high-energy classroom party or assembly offer relaxing activities like coloring, using a therapy dough product or listening to music on headphones.
6. Look for signs of anxiety/stress in your students, and yourself.
You know the signs of stress in your students: pencil tapping, rocking, becoming irritable or clingy. Re-direct whenever possible, offering solutions before a meltdown or anxiety episode takes place.
7. Schedule relaxation breaks, or make them spontaneous.
Many classrooms already do this after arrival, before dismissal or after lunch and recess. The holiday season may require them more frequently. Play spa music. Do some rhythmic breathing exercises, visualization activities or progressive muscle relaxation.
8. Provide a relaxation station.
If your classroom doesn’t already have a relaxation area, the holidays are the perfect time to create that space. Find a corner, any small space somewhat removed from the main area of your classroom. (I know that’s hard to do…I taught in a mobile classroom that was on wheels, it drove to park in front of my school each day, so I get tiny spaces.) Fill your relaxation area with:
- bean bags chairs
- stuffed animals
- CD player with headphones and relaxation music
- therapy dough products
- drawing paper and coloring books and materials
- a locked “Worry Box” where students can write and draw their worries
- smooth stones or pebbles to run their fingers through
- table with partitions and dividers for privacy
- books, especially bilbliotherapeutic books or those with calming artwork
- a poster with pictures/text of relaxation strategies
9. Enlist in the help of a Therapy Dog
If your school is lucky enough to have a therapy dog on staff, invite the four-legged superhero into your classroom to visit with students. A student with anxiety might need some alone time with the dog, possibly out of the classroom in a counselor’s office, or other area. The dog may be available to help with crisis intervention at a moment’s notice.
10. Get outside whenever possible, and not just at recess.
Recent studies have proven what most of us have always known: fresh air is good for you. There’s a reason why our parents always shooed us outside! The crisp chilly air of fall and winter laced with the smell of pine trees, autumn leaves has a calming effect. It’s a sensory break, and one that’s known to reduce anxiety and increase positivity. Whether you take a walk around the outside of your building or spend a few minutes in the school courtyard, your students are likely to come back inside renewed and refreshed.
What have you done to make the holidays more peaceful in your classroom?