Supportive Conversations Around Winter Break

Winter break offers a symbolic, if not definitive, division of the school year. For many districts this vacation period is the division of the two semesters, marking the successful completion of another term for both students and teachers alike.

While most of us look forward to this break, even openly counting down the days until we get a few weeks off, some students do not look forward to this reprieve from the school setting, and often, they are the ones we would least suspect. It may be the student who bashfully, silently-smiles when asked about holiday plans. It may be the student who cannot ever seem to make it to class, but who needs to be forced out of the building at the end of the school day. It may be the honor-roll athlete, the student that can never seem to stay awake during class. Any one of these students may not have a holiday meal to look forward to, let alone gifts, parties, or even just happy times spent with their family during these weeks. In fact, this two or more week vacation may be more stressful for them, since during this period they may be losing their safe routine of the school day, where at least two meals a day are guaranteed, there is heat and running water, there is an encouraging word.

Photo of high school student looking sad on concrete steps with backpack.While preparing to close this semester, be thoughtful of your approach with students when discussing the holidays. They may be embarrassed, ashamed, or just plain saddened to admit they do not have holiday plans or that they expect to struggle through their daily lives over the next few weeks. Post resources, such as Adapt a Family, Operation Elf, or local food shelves serving holiday meals, for students and families in your room or on your hallway door, where students can access them without feeling “pointed out.” Work with the social workers in your schools to find resources for students if they come to you and confide that they may struggle during the break.

Additionally, students may be frustrated, angry, or disappointed that they did not end the term successfully or as well as they thought they would or should. Take time to celebrate the successes each student has had, even those very little ones, as those students may need that extra encouragement the most. Send a positive note home to let families in on the encouraging message you have been sharing with students as to the importance of school and how proud you are of each of them. This may be the best gift they get!

And when you return, rested and rejuvenated, take the same care when inquiring about the student’s break. “How was your vacation?” “Did you go anywhere?” “Do anything fun?” “Get anything good?” We may mean such questions as casual, friendly inquires, but they may put students on the spot more than we intend. Also, avoid religious-based questions, as some students may be reluctant to share their religious practices, or may belong to a religion with no special holidays that fall within winter break.   This January, try, “I’m glad to see you back,” or “I missed seeing you over the break,” instead. It may be exactly what they need to hear!

Do you have other suggestions of approaches to take with students before (or after) the winter break? In what ways have you helped your students and families add a little “merry” to their holiday break?

About the Author: Jana Hallas, M.Ed., is a project coordinator and member of the Check & Connect training team at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota.

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The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.

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