It’s that time of year when the hustle and bustle of the impending winter holidays seems to be taking over everything. This, of course, includes our schools…and more specifically the behavior of many of our students!
Some of our students are simply emotionally charged by thinking about what type of gifts they hope to get, or where they plan to travel, or all of the exciting things they expect to do while out on vacation. So, teachers and administrators do their best to keep them focused and properly engaged throughout the last few days right before vacation - no small feat, I know!
However, I would like to draw your attention to the many students whose behavior seems to originate from points far removed from excitement about the upcoming holidays. I’m talking about students whose behaviors are rooted in their experiences with trauma, poverty and chronic stress whether we realize it or not. Some of them might be students who you felt “you were finally getting somewhere with” or “finally connecting with,” but suddenly their negative behaviors and/or habits have returned or possibly worsened. Sometimes our students themselves may not be able (or simply chose not) to explain what has caused this spike in inappropriate behavior, but it is typically rooted in anxiety and manifests in many ways. Some become verbally or physically aggressive, some try to avoid conversations or activities regarding the upcoming holidays, and others simply start “shutting down.”
The truth is, for an increasing number of our students there is nothing to get excited about when it comes to the holidays. While we shouldn’t forget the fact that many of them won’t receive any special gifts, or take any special trips over the holidays – their real concern is surviving the holidays. For many of them, these days when schools (the only safe place they have to go) are closed, are days when they will need to figure out how they are going to get something to eat. For some of them, these are days when they need to figure out how to avoid various episodes of domestic violence amongst family members or even their own abusers for longer periods of time without the reprieve of school. So naturally, their emotions are running high and they are not necessarily doing their best thinking these last few days right before vacation.
Does all of this make it ok for them to be physically or verbally aggressive and inappropriate? In short - no. It is not a matter of excusing negative behavior, BUT it is a matter of us UNDERSTANDING the possible reasoning behind the behavior and helping them through these difficult times with love and empathy. Part of the stress many are experiencing is a type of separation anxiety from the only safe place and safe people they have on which they can depend. This is why social emotional learning is so important. Life is about relationships. So, what can teachers and administrators do to help during these difficult times? Actually, there is a lot we can do to provide support and here are a few tips that you might consider trying if what I’ve discussed seems to be happening with any of your students…YOU CAN BE THE DIFFERENCE.
(1) Remember you are human too. Research tells us the holidays can be tough on everyone and stress is typically at an all-time high. Although it can be a challenge, try not to take it personally. Gauge your responses – both verbal and nonverbal. Remember, you are trying to diffuse a situation and not make it worse. Three keys to success when responding to challenging behaviors are (a) controlling your tone/voice, (b) carefully choosing your words, and (c) relaxing your body language…special note: breathing also helps 😊
(2) Allow “Cool-down” time for the student (and maybe even you). It can simply be a matter of acknowledging that the student is upset and letting them know you will give them (and yourself) a minute to calm down. This is about giving them an opportunity to regain positive control of words and actions and not forcing a conversation that you already know would not end well for either of you at that very moment.
(3) Respond with Praise and Empathy. Look for the positive. Recognizing even the smallest positive point can make all the difference in the world. Acknowledge their perspective. There is a saying “people’s perceptions are their reality” and this is no different with our students. It isn't a matter of agreeing or disagreeing. It is a matter of acknowledging their feelings and letting them know you care.
(4) Focus on Gratitude. Throughout this week, have your students start the day (or your class period) with writing down or sharing something for which they are grateful. Challenge/Encourage them to do this over the holidays. Great research reveals gratitude improves physical and psychological health, enhances empathy, reduces aggression, improves self-esteem and so much more!
What do you find to be most effective when supporting students during these challenging times? Please feel free to share your thoughts and suggestions with us.
Author: Sylvia E. Fuentes