It’s that time of year.
Whether it’s Thanksgiving or New Year’s, Hanukkah or Christmas, Kwanzaa or Solstice – there’s a whirlwind of activity that brings wonderful, joyful memories but also plenty of stress-filled moments.
For children with complex learning profiles, the holiday experience feels even more intense. Schedules are less predictable, stores are overwhelming, Aunt Betsy from Toledo can’t stop hugging and kissing you, weird food shows up on the table that people want you to eat, and you’re expected to play with cousins you hardly ever see. You’re staying up late, overexcited, and probably eating more sweets. For Complex Learners, it’s a perfect storm of sensory overload and disrupted routines that can lead to anxiety, withdrawal, and meltdowns.
With a little planning and preparation, a lot of potential difficulties can be addressed. Here are a few ideas to help you and your Complex Learner manage this busy time of year and enjoy the special gatherings and activities the holidays bring.
1) Preview visits, parties and family gatherings. Let Complex Learners know what to expect at family or school parties. What happens first? Who will be there? Review social rules like how to greet your host when you get there and thanking your host when you leave. Set a specific amount of time for visits and see if there is a quiet place your child can go if things get too loud or overwhelming. Schedule a check-in time during the visit or party to see if your child needs additional support. If sitting through a large group dinner is hard for your child, agree on a set amount of time they can manage at the table and then let them be excused to play or have some quiet time.
2) Make or bring familiar foods. The holiday dinner table can paralyze Complex Learners with all the choices, smells, and textures. Be sure to make or bring something you know your child likes and will eat, whether it’s a dish to share or some particular foods to have on hand just in case. Your family may raise an eyebrow if everyone is eating turkey and your child is eating chicken nuggets, but it may just be worth avoiding a major struggle. You can always let your host or others know about this ahead of time.
3) A bag of tricks. Bring sensory supports like gum, fidgets, a noise-blocking headset or a special cushion for the dining room chair. Complex Learners may be uncomfortable in dress clothes so if they need to wear something more formal, bring their favorite sweatpants to change into after a set amount of time. Have a selection of quiet activities you child can do like puzzles, card games or coloring books. Having a handheld device with electronic games or a favorite DVD to watch as a backup can save the day.
4) Gift Getting 101. Complex Learners may need to practice what to do if they receive a gift they don’t like or how to stop and say thank you before charging on to open another gift. Role-play various scenarios ahead of time and help your child understand the perspective of the gift giver. Try and keep things simple – too many gifts can be overwhelming to Complex Learners.
5) Go outside. The weather may not always cooperate, but long visits and family meals need to be balanced with fresh air, movement and exercise. It’s important to keep your child engaged in physical activity to help with sensory and emotional regulation. A family game of tag or a holiday hike will go a long way.
6) Think of others. Help your child find simple ways to give to family members and friends so they can experience how it feels to give and not just receive. Let your child select clothes or toys to donate to kids in need or find opportunities to give back to the community. This time of year is a natural fit for learning perspective taking and helping kids think outside of their own view and needs.
Don’t forget – managing holiday stress is a team effort. Rely on teachers, friends and family to support you as you work to make things easier for your complex learner. And remember to breathe! Taking a minute to relax and breathe deeply is a simple thing you can do with your child or by yourself to help alleviate the daze of the holidays!
Anna Johnson is Head of School at The Wolf School in East Providence, a K-8 private special education school serving Complex Learners. www.thewolfschool.org
This series is a partnership between GoLocal and the Wolf School.