Nativities, Christmas fairs, parties, school trips, decorations, Christmas jumper days – all these seem to be staples of the season in many schools.

Sadly, for some children, the onset of Christmas festivities can add to the challenges they experience in school. The traumas of Christmas past may be lurking not far beneath the surface, ready to burst out amidst the heightened emotions, disrupted routines and sensory overload of the Christmas classroom.

Here are our ten top tips for supporting children who struggle with the season:

Tip 1

Acknowledge that Christmas can bring up some big feelings. Make space to share worries.

The relentless drive to have fun and enjoy Christmas can feel out of place for children who may be worried about lack of money, more stress in the family, or the impact of increased seasonal alcohol consumption on their lives. For children who have experienced terrible Christmas times in their earlier lives, the arrival of decorations and Christmas songs can trigger powerful negative memories. Giving time and space for children to feel and express worries about Christmas means that they can feel heard, understood and supported.

Tip 2

If a child talks non-stop about Christmas, it may not be excitement, but anxiety.

Is there a child is your class who is constantly talking about Christmas, or asking the same questions about seasonal activities in school over and over again? This kind of fixation can be a sign of deep anxiety, betraying a need for extra support and increased nurture.

Tip 3

Make sure parents and carers know about changes and special events in advance so they can support children.

Many children with a background of trauma thrive best in predictable environments where routines are stable and well understood. School routines often become very elastic at Christmas, leaving children adrift and feeling unsafe. If parents and carers know what is happening, they can help to prepare their child for the changes ahead.

Tip 4

Include things like parties, Nativity rehearsals and other special events on visual timetables in advance.

As school routines become more flexible, support systems that children have used to help them remain regulated in school can become useless if they are not updated. Make sure that all support structures are updated to take account of Christmas activities and changes to timetables.

Tip 5

Keep to normal routines as much as possible, such as the start and end of the day, form time, breaks and lunchtime.

Daily classroom routines can act as anchor points for struggling children. Even if the school week is full of unusual activities for Christmas, keep as many daily routines in the same format as usual to help children stay regulated.

Tip 6

Step up support from the child’s key adult.

Key adults have a vital role to play in maintaining struggling children’s sense of safety and regulation. Resist the urge to re-deploy teaching assistants and mentors to other activities as the children who need them are likely to need them even more as the end of this long term approaches.

Tip 7

Plan extra support for children who struggle with special events and make use of calm-down zones.

Children who struggle to regulate their own emotional responses during a normal school day will need even more support during the festive season. Expect heavy use of regulating activities, calm-down zones and other support systems, and provide non-punitive alternative activities for those who are just finding it all too much to manage.

Tip 8

Remember that disco lights and loud party music can cause problems for children with sensory processing difficulties.

Christmas can be a sensory feast of sounds, sights and smells, but be aware of those children who are unlikely to be able to manage such an overload of sensory information.

Tip 9

Ready-portioned party food and treats are better than a free-for-all if children have food anxiety issues.

For children who have experienced food scarcity or unpredictability, the prospect of a buffet-style spread of party treats can be a source of huge anxiety and obsessive thoughts and behaviours. Make sure that children know when, where and how party food and treats will be served. Serving it already portioned onto plates or in cheap cardboard carriers will reduce anxiety around there not being enough for everybody.

Tip 10

As the school holidays approach, some children will need extra support to help them manage the transition.

Christmas unfortunately falls very close to the end of term, and so comes packaged with anxieties about transitions. Ensure that supporting struggling children to transition to the holiday period does not become an afterthought amid the parties, performances and unpredicabilities.