Teachers are almost always excited about an upcoming vacation, but as we approach the winter break, your students may also be experience excitement and joy mixed with feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. This month, we reached out to a handful of educators, school social workers, and clinicians, for their insights and we identified five tips to reduce stress and anxiety for your students during this time of year. 

Why are school breaks hard for kids?

But first, let’s understand why this period can be tough for some kids. While a long school vacation may sound like a huge relief to most students, any change in routine can cause stress and anxiety for students (and adults). For some students, school may be the one place they find consistency, structure, and caring relationships. Michelle, a middle school special education teacher, explained: “I have a lot of students whose responsibilities increase over break (job, family, etc.) and school is more the relief.”

Teachers know that holidays and school breaks can create periods of stress and chaos in the classroom. Students’ behaviors may change as school breaks approach: acting out more verbally or physically, not engaging with their peers, and having little motivation to do school work.

Behaviors are a form of communication, and so it is critical as educators to take a moment to observe and reflect on what students are communicating around this time of year. If you can see that your students are experiencing stress and anxiety due to the upcoming school break, below are some ways you can offer support to ease the transition.

How to help students through changes to the school routine

1. Check-in with students. It is normal to have confusing feelings around the holidays. Talk to your students about what they are feeling. Set aside time for conversations with your students. Jeffrey, a high-school social studies teacher said, “I think one of the things that’s really important to me this time of year is to just make sure to check in with kids as often as possible and make sure that I’m cultivating an environment where they know that I’m someone they can come to if they need anything at all—whether it’s related to school or not.”

2. Keep classroom routines and structure. While it can be fun as a teacher to make the month of December a special time for your students, try not to overextend or overwhelm our students with new things and changes to the routine. Jamie, a school-therapist explained, “I tell everyone that holidays come with a lot of ambiguity so having classroom structure can help with big transitions in and out of school.”

3. Prepare students for changes in routine. When there is an assembly, a classroom party, or any change in routine, make sure to announce the change in the morning and remind students throughout the day of the change in the schedule. Ronni, a school-based speech-pathologist, said, “Depending on the student we might read a social story and think of ways to problem solve. Generally, I think letting students know as much as possible of prior plans can help while also gently reminding them that they need to be flexible if plans change.”

4. Offer alternatives to parties and assemblies. While holiday parties and assemblies may fun for some students, the change in routine, loud noises, and the large crowds may be overwhelming for some. Chris, a special education teacher, mentioned the importance of offering alternatives and choices for students who wish not to partake in big school events or parties.

5. Create and send home packets and calendars.  Make copies of coloring pages, crossword puzzles, and word find packets that students can take home with them over the break. Laura, a math teacher, said, “I make coloring, crossword, word find packets that also include a calendar of events in students’ neighborhoods so they can get out of the house while also have things to do at home.” Include parks, public libraries, and recreation centers that are open for students. Add in museums that offer free days. Emmi, a middle school special education teacher, added to include in family resources of free or low-cost community events.