By Dr. Diane Myers, SVP, Special Education—Behavior at SESI

For many of us, the holiday season is a time for cheer, spending time with family, parties, traditions, and excitement – and a welcome deviation from our normal routines. For others, those deviations, increased social interaction, and different expectations can trigger stress and anxiety.

For families of students with emotional and behavioral challenges, extended school breaks bring an additional departure from daily structure that can increase stress and anxiety in the home. Here are some tips to help families prepare for and support children during the holiday season.

Maintain structure with schedules and calendars

Maximizing structure to the greatest extent possible can help with the transition to being at home. Families may want to begin with the following:

          • Create a daily calendar for the break, with any activities (and times, if possible) clearly indicated on the calendar. For example, “Visiting Aunt Rhonda for dinner” or “Cousin Tim spending the night” can provide time for children to mentally prepare for different social interactions.
          • Make a consistent daily schedule, especially for weekdays The schedule should include:
            • An agreed-upon wakeup time
            • Designated hours for instructional time (e.g., any work sent home)
            • Other responsibilities, chores, naps, screen time, and any “special activities” from the calendar.
          • If children can help with creating the calendar or daily schedule, they may be more excited about following them and engaging in the activities.

Review expectations daily

After establishing a calendar and daily schedule, families should review the expectations for upcoming activities. Reviews should happen daily and may occur more frequently if needed. For example:

      • For a child who struggles to communicate and express emotions appropriately.
        • “Rayna, this afternoon, your grandmother is coming by. How do we greet her when she comes in?” [Practice greetings as needed and how to show excitement in a way that is socially acceptable.]
        • “Let’s pick three things to talk to Gramma about while she’s here. I’ll write them down for you.” [Write down the three topics, with visuals if needed, and role-play what those conversations could sound like.]
        • “Now, what about when Gramma leaves? How can we say goodbye to her?” [Practice saying goodbye and what to do if Rayna feels sad.]
      • For a child who frequently argues with siblings and other family members.
        • “Jayce, today we’re all going to watch a movie together. What does being respectful during the movie look like?” [Practice sitting quietly and getting attention appropriately.]
        • “What will you do if you start to get mad at someone?” [Practice coping skills, like squeezing a stress ball, deep breathing, or asking to be excused from the room for a minute.]
        • “If we can all get along during the movie, what would you like to do afterwards?” [Identify an activity that Jayce would like to do and schedule that after the movie.]
      • For a child who can be aggressive when asked to do non-preferred tasks.
        • “Taylor, tomorrow I’d like you to help me clean up your room. What are two things you’d like to help with?” [Help Taylor identify two things, even if small – for example, putting clothes in a pile or sweeping the floor.]
        • “Great – which do you want to do first?” [Providing choice can help with engagement!]
        • “Let’s practice how to respond when I remind you tomorrow.” [Practice asking, and praise Taylor for saying ‘Okay’ or otherwise responding positively. Also ask Taylor about responding even if they don’t feel like completing the task.]
        • “What would you like to do after you’ve helped tomorrow?” [Identify a task that Taylor wants to do after completing the tasks.]

Then, as activities come up on the schedule, families can provide reminders about the expected behaviors.

      • “Rayna, your grandmother is almost here. How are we going to say hello?”
      • “Jayce, let’s go to the living room. How are you going to stay calm if you start to get mad?”
      • “Taylor, we’re going to start cleaning in a few minutes. Do you remember what we’re going to do after we finish?”

Follow through with incentives and praise for positive behaviors

Families should make good on any predetermined incentives after children meet the established expectations. In addition, establishing other incentives and contingencies can help with increasing prosocial behaviors as needed. For example:

        • “When you complete this work packet, you can have an extra 30 minutes of screen time.”
        • “After you talk quietly and stay next to me in the store, we can stop for a milkshake on the way home.”
        • “When you use kind words with your sister during breakfast, you can choose what we make for lunch.”

Anytime prosocial behaviors happen, families should use behavior-specific praise to acknowledge them. Rather than just a nod or “thanks,” try stating the exact behavior observed:

        • “I love how you hung up your jacket!”
        • “Thanks for sitting quietly while I’m on the phone”
        • “Great job petting the dog gently.”

Look for opportunities to provide specific praise whenever you can – this creates a lot of positive interactions and keeps attention focused on appropriate behaviors!

Promote active engagement

Another strategy to help maintain structure and prosocial behavior during extended breaks is promoting active engagement. While adding incentives can promote engagement, there are other strategies that may be helpful, too. For example:

      • After a designated period of TV watching, video games, or other screen time, establish a routine where the child answers two questions about what they were watching and playing. These could be really simple (e.g., “What were you watching?” “Why do you like it?”); the goal is to promote conversation, communication, and mindfulness about how we spend our time.
      • Set up games related to projects around your living space, even if they’re basic: count the number of towels in the closet, reorganize a closet or cabinet, or make a neat pile of mail and magazines. Provide praise and choice of activity when finished.

Of course, it’s a challenge to keep children occupied all the time.

Be realistic about expectations

      • Knowing your child’s abilities and limitations going into the holiday break is important. After all, the excitement and novelty of the holidays combined with the absence of structure provided by school can be stressful and confusing for your child. If they seem frustrated or upset, offer breaks from whatever is happening. Sometimes a change of scenery or a quick task that helps the child feel successful (for example, “Can you count how many cans of soda we have in the refrigerator for me?”) can help avoid escalation.
      • State your expected behaviors in positive terms. Remind children what they should be doing (e.g., “Stay downstairs with me”) rather than what they shouldn’t be doing (e.g., “Don’t bother your brother while he’s sleeping”).
      • Look for opportunities to remind children about expected behavior while they’re behaving well (e.g., “Hey guys, I like how you’re talking together quietly. Thanks for the appropriate volume”).
      • Offer choices that are limited and reasonable. For example, choosing the order in which they complete tasks or choosing from three TV shows to watch.
      • Stay calm. While this can be a challenge, remember that an angry reaction may be what your child wants. If there’s an issue, take a moment and a deep breath before responding. If there’s an incident, wait until everyone is calm before addressing it. No one can learn anything in the middle of a challenging situation. Be sure to debrief, focus on what to do differently next time, and try again.

While there is usually some element of stress present during the holidays, this season is really a time for togetherness, celebration, and joy. To have that experience, families may be able to reduce stress and maintain structure by establishing, reviewing, and reinforcing expectations, focusing on what’s going well, and promoting engagement when possible.

We hope these tips were helpful, and wish you and your family all the best this holiday season!

About the author: Diane Myers, Ph.D. is senior vice president, special education – behavior for Specialized Education Services, Inc. Her professional and scholarly expertise focus on positive behavioral interventions and supports, students with emotional and behavioral disorders, and staff implementation of evidence-based practices to support the needs of all students.