The most wonderful time of the year? Maybe not.
Many look forward to a holiday season filled with fun activities shared with loved ones. For others, it’s far from the most wonderful time of the year.
In every school, there are students who have lost family members, have dysfunctional families, lack money for celebrations and gifts, or have cultural differences that make them feel left out. Students who suffer from mental health issues (such as anxiety and depression) also have a harder time than usual during the holidays.
Teachers sometimes have their own issues to deal with during the holiday season. And, when they try to help students having trouble, teachers can easily get caught up in the emotions and end up struggling, too.
Here are some strategies for school leaders to help support students and teachers this holiday season.
Help teachers understand what students are going through
Chances are, you’ve got teachers on your staff who live for the holidays. They come to school wearing reindeer sweaters, humming seasonal songs, and otherwise bursting with holiday cheer. Those teachers might be failing to recognize that not every student feels the same way.
Help your teachers to understand why every student might not be feeling so joyful. Tell them the stories of students you know: this one lost a sibling last year; that student is caught in the middle of a bitter custody battle; that student is looking forward to a “vacation” with little food, never mind gifts. Also, let teachers know that mental health issues tend to escalate at this time of year due to stress and feelings of loneliness.
Armed with that understanding, teachers can now empathize instead of getting angry when students act “more difficult” at this time of year. That simple change in the teacher’s attitude can make a big difference for the students.
Check in frequently & lighten the mood
Teachers shoulder a heavy burden that gets even heavier during the holiday season. So make it a priority to check in regularly to see how everyone is holding up.
Don’t wait for teachers to ask for help. Schedule regular times to catch up with teachers and staff, ask how things are going, and discuss any issues or concerns.
Here’s a helpful tip: surprise your staff with something fun to help them take a breath and have a quick emotional escape. I sometimes bring in coffee and doughnuts or bubbles to play with for a few minutes before jumping into a stressful day. Yes, bubbles! They will seem reluctant at first, but be the first to blow through the bubble wand and watch what happens.
Offer the support teachers need
Teachers often need advice and help right away when an issue arises. If they are concerned about a student in crisis, there might not be time to make an appointment to discuss it with you or your school social worker. Remember that most teachers are not trained to know the right strategies for dealing with emotional or mental health problems.
Especially at this time of year, institute an open door policy and make yourself available as a sounding board when someone needs to talk. (That goes for both students and teachers.)
Be prepared to offer whatever the teacher needs, whether that’s advice for helping a student, financial or other resources to support their efforts in the classroom, or simply emotional support and encouragement.
If you’re fortunate enough to have access to an embedded mental health clinician at your school, try to make that counselor available to support teachers as well as students. Having that trusted expert resource can go a long way to helping teachers cope.
Share ideas for boosting student mental wellness
Here are some strategies to share with teachers for helping students to cope with stress and difficult emotions this holiday season.
Stick to routines. While they may not admit it, students crave the stability of regular routines, especially when they’re not getting that stability at home. Even at school during this time, the schedule will be changed frequently to manage snow days, assemblies, trips and breaks.
Take the pressure off students whenever possible. This might not be the best time of year to assign difficult projects. Let it wait until January when there is a more regular schedule and fewer breaks, if you can.
Offer “chill out” time. If a student is having trouble, it can be helpful to give them the opportunity to take a few minutes to calm down and collect themselves. This can be in the classroom, or have the student take a walk while performing “an errand” for you that takes them to a predetermined co-worker’s office or classroom.
Create fun moments. The whole class can benefit from a quick break to do a fun activity, like having popcorn and watching a short video.
Give rewards. For school-avoidant students and those who are having trouble engaging, offer small acknowledgements for showing up and for small ways that they participate in class.
Mindfulness & breathing exercises. These simple practices can make a big difference in students’ ability to regulate their emotions, especially when performed regularly. These take only a few seconds to a minute to complete. These can be in the form of a “Do Now” or an “Exit Ticket.”
Focus on helping others. It’s amazing how much emotional benefit we all get from helping someone else. Have students write letters to soldiers overseas or put together a care package for a family in need.
Allow time to talk (and encourage them to ask for help). Check in often with students who show signs of struggling with anxiety or depression. If they don’t seem to feel comfortable opening up to you, let them know about other people they can turn to for help, such as your school social worker or mental health clinician.