Great Expectations: How to Help Special Needs Students through the Holidays

Great Expectations: How to Help Special Needs Students through the Holidays

great expectations1Imagine if you will the busy-ness of the winter season—a season filled with the fun and anticipation of holidays like Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Years as well as many other special events when families gather around food and traditions. Each of these special days might be planned out to every specific detail, then Grandma comes late, the pumpkin pie gets burned, and the whole day’s plan changes. By quickly shifting gears, the merriment continues.

Now imagine you have a student or child with special needs. Shift gears? Merriment continues? Not in your classroom or house!

Having a child with special needs makes shifting gears and changing plans a mere impossible feat. It simply doesn’t happen. One small change affects so many aspects of your lives that it can be hard to recover. A small event in our adult minds equals a catastrophe to our special needs children. Our unique children simply don’t do well with change and unpredictability.

As an educator who works with young people with special needs, one tip that I would like to share with other special educators as well as parents of special needs children is the use of the terms “expected” and “unexpected.” In our classrooms, we work with students on what to expect in certain situations. For example, “What do you expect on the first day of school?”  Reponses could include, “I will meet my new teacher,” “I will find my new desk,” and “I will meet new students.” The same is true for the unexpected. The response could be “I don’t expect the class to be the same as last year” or “I don’t expect to sit next to the same student.” We then discuss how it feels to experience what you expect as well as the experience of the unexpected. This is a meaningful conversation to have with a child, regardless of whether a child can verbalize his or her feelings or not. Prompts and guidance about how someone might feel are helpful for everyone.

Both teachers and parents of children with special needs can use a similar strategy in helping to prepare your students for the holidays. Review through conversation in class, or role-play at home, with questions like:

What is expected on Thanksgiving?

Who do you expect to be there?

Who can you expect to sit next to?

Having this conversation will help alleviate both your worries and those of your students and children.

Conversely, like fire drills in schools, talk about and practice with your students what to do if something unexpected happens. What if dinner is later than expected? What if you have to wait for Grandma to get there? What if your favorite cousin can’t make the dinner? Having a plan for the expected and unexpected will go a long way. This direct practice of planning for disappointment or change has proved successful in working with my students with a variety of special needs during the school year, and I am confident it will help you in your classrooms and your homes as well!

As you enjoy this holiday season in your classrooms and your homes, I have great expectations of the sharing of love and the building of memories. I wish you all of that and more.


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