One year during the weeks leading up to the winter break, I asked my students to write about what they planned to do during their time off. Most wrote things like, “See my cousins,” “Get a new gaming system,” and “Go skiing.” However, one of my students turned in a blank piece of paper with just his name on it. When I asked him why he didn’t write anything, he reluctantly told me that he wasn’t excited for the break. He said all winter break meant to him was two weeks at home alone while his mother was passed out on the couch. No tree. No family dinners. Not even any presents.
It was in this moment that I realized not all students look forward to these extended breaks from school. While most kids (and teachers!) flee from school gleefully on the last day, many students like this one dread the break from school. They miss the structure of the school day; the stability of the classroom; the presence of friends; the free food in the cafeteria; and the love their teachers give them.
Although we cannot change our students’ home circumstances, there are ways teachers can help their students in the weeks leading up to and during the winter break. None of these ideas take a ton of time or money, but they may help ease the stress for some of your students.
Bring the holidays to your classroom.
For many students, Christmas trees, holiday lights, and decorations are only seen in movies and at the mall. Why not bring some of that holiday cheer to the classroom? Set up an artificial tree in your classroom and let your students make ornaments for it. String lights around book shelves and play holiday music when kids walk into your room. It may sound cheesy and take a little effort, but for some of your students, this may be the only taste of the season that they get.
Be aware of how you talk about winter break.
Of course you can and should talk about the holidays with your students and invest in their excitement. However, be sensitive about what you say. Asking questions to the whole class like, “Who’s excited for break?” and “What are you going to get for Christmas/Hanukkah?” doesn’t apply to all students. Maybe instead ask, “What are your plans for the break?” or even challenge them with, “What is one way you can help someone in the next couple weeks?”
Be a listening ear.
This time of year, more than any other, is when students in my class act out the most. For some it’s end-of-semester restlessness, but for others it is anxiety over the upcoming break. As teachers, we can pay close attention to behavior that is out of character and check in with those students individually. Have a conversation with that student who is more hyper than usual. Ask that student who keeps falling asleep how they’re really doing. Give those kids a chance to vent, and then let them know you care about them. One of the best things teachers can do for their students in this season (and all other times of the year) is listen.
Give students an opportunity to serve.
No matter what one’s circumstances are, everyone has the ability to serve others. And for most, the act of giving brings joy in return. How can your class serve together this holiday season? Could you collect Toys for Tots, hold a food drive for the homeless, or write thank-you letters to overseas veterans? One of the best ways to participate in the holidays is through service, and teachers can orchestrate these opportunities for all of their students.
Connect with students in little ways over the break.
Once you identify students who are dreading the holiday, write down their names and make a point to check in with them over the break. Shoot a quick email to them sometime during the week letting them know that they are on your mind. It does not have to be lengthy, just a personal message reminding them that they are important to you. The message that you care enough to connect with them during your time off will have more power than you know.
Enjoy this season and all the festivities that come with it. Just keep in mind that you have many students who will not, and you, as their teacher, have a unique ability to meet them where they are in this time.