No More Holi-daze: 6 Tips for Happier Holidays with Complex Learners

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, Head of The Wolf School

Anna Johnson is Head of School at The Wolf School in East Providence, a K-8 private special education school serving Complex Learners.

This series is a partnership between GoLocal and the Wolf School.


You’ve Got a Friend in Me: 7 Tips for Helping Complex Learners Make and Keep Friends

One of the hardest things for parents of Complex Learners is watching their child get left out. She doesn’t’ have any friends. He’s never been invited to a birthday party. These admissions can be heart wrenching, because regardless of the academic and educational concerns parents have for their child with learning differences, they may be deeply worried that their child will be rejected and lonely.

When children struggle with making friends, it may be connected to their learning and attention issues. Difficulties with listening and interpreting social cues make conversation problematic. Complex Learners have trouble understanding the rules of games and the concepts of sharing, accepting other viewpoints, taking turns and following directions. Problems with regulating emotions, understanding body language and interpreting tone of voice can create situations where children overreact because they misinterpret humor or sarcasm.

For children who don’t feel like they fit in at school or at outside activities, there can be negative effects. They can loose confidence and not want to try new things. It can damage self-esteem, and emotions like sadness, anger and hopelessness can occur regularly and feel overwhelming.

The good news is there are ways to help. Parents and teachers can provide supports and strategies for successful social interactions and many of the skills we take for granted when making friends can be taught. Here are some ideas:

1) Find a good social match. Ask teachers about students who might have similar interests or who are more accepting. Watch for kind and caring kids on the playground or in the neighborhood. Sometimes Complex Learners do not mature as quickly as their peers, so someone who is a year or two younger might be a good social match.

2) Structure play dates & hanging out. Set a short amount of time when you bring new kids together – an hour and a half to two hours should be fine. Plan a beginning, middle and end so kids understand the flow of their time together and go over this with your child (e.g., first you’ll play a board game, then have snack, then you can choose between drawing or making things with clay). Depending on the age of the kids, you may want to have the other child’s parent there for all or part of the first get-together.

3) Find common areas of interest. Choose something to do that both children will enjoy. Activities that are movement-based (e.g., mini-golf) or hands-on (e.g., a cooking project) are good for kids with sensory and attention issues. Be sure to add in some downtime like stopping for a snack or looking at picture books or comics together. This gives kids a break from being “on” the whole time.

4) Level the playing field. Avoid activities that one child excels in and another does not. Remove the element of competition as much as possible. If there are particular toys or things that are especially hard for your child to share, put them away temporarily.

5) Review the ground rules. Are there areas of the house that are off-limits? What behaviors are expected (e.g., using good manners, sharing) and what behaviors are not okay (e.g., ignoring your guest)? Go over these things ahead of time so your child understands expectations.

6) Anticipate hiccups. Things don’t always go as planned. Talk to your child about being flexible and have a plan B in case something doesn’t work out. Encourage your child to think of strategies to use if he/she gets angry or frustrated, like taking a five-minute quiet break. If things start to get difficult, have a few activities kids could choose from and do independently while still hanging out together.

7) Practice. You can role-play with your child or read them stories about friendship to reinforce concepts like perspective taking. This could be as simple of asking a guest what they want to do, or making sure there is give and take in conversation. Creating a Friendship File can also help spark conversation and social interaction. Developed by Michelle Garcia Winner, this is a tool for gathering and remembering information about friends. It can be a mental or written list, or it can be made with pictures and include interests, things to talk about, favorite singer or TV show, number of siblings, pets, and anything else that helps your child get to know their friend.

Friends are important. They give us a sense of acceptance and belonging. But for Complex Learners, the experience of making friends is a little like Buzz Lightyear’s from the Disney/Pixar movie Toy Story. Buzz lands in a situation where he doesn’t understand the social rules of being a toy. This creates a host of complexities with another toy, Woody, that ultimately get resolved when they’re both on the same page and working together. Like Buzz and Woody show us, friendship takes some work, but ultimately it’s worth it.

annaAnna Johnson is Head of School at The Wolf School in East Providence, a K-8 private special education school serving Complex Learners.