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Leaders, Remember: Holidays Can Be Hard for Children

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Sad Student c Anna Yakimova Courtesy of 123rf.jpg

Holiday time is approaching. For most of us, it is a happy time with family and friends, with memories and fondly held traditions. Most schools engage in activities that help raise funds for families in need, offering food and other gifts.  It can make a difference for the young recipients, but there are other issues that run deeper than the need for food or gifts. Those issues are highlighted at holiday time, but remain percolating in the lives of students all through the year.  Those issues, as unique as every child's life story, are the same in one way. They hurt.

While charged with keeping buildings safe, making sure teaching, learning, and evaluation are taking place, and following standards and expectations, this time of year serves as a reminder that students live and come to school carrying burdens over which they have no control. They interfere with the child's well-being and their readiness to learn. Children can only learn when they can bring themselves to the learning environment ready to learn. Behaviors escalate this time of year, so let it be a reminder that students not only need understanding, they need help. We cannot ask them to ignore how they are feeling. And, we must not ignore how they are feeling.

High levels of warmth and nurturance from their caregivers is what helps infants develop qualities like perseverance and focus. Even the youngest of students struggle with managing their stress emotions. "The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the prefrontal cortex, which is critical in self regulatory activities or all kinds, both emotional and cognitive" (Tough.p.17). Secondary level students require being taken seriously, believed in, and challenged (Tough.pp. 120-121). Meeting these needs can make a difference.

Aside from learning gaps that may have accumulated, each day holds the potential for adding to those gaps, or even creating a break. The alternative exists when we really reach a child. But it is a complex network of adults that come in contact with children daily. Of course, that network includes teachers and school leaders but it also includes crossing guards, bus drivers, secretaries, custodians, classroom aides, cafeteria workers, coaches, volunteers, and other support staff.  The good news is that one adult can make a difference between a child feeling alone and lost or connected and valuable. The fact is that every child needs some adult to care enough to make the connection.

Reaching each child is a system responsibility. Reaching each child begins with the leader of the system and his or her leadership team across the district. Some come by it naturally, the business of keeping the well-being of students first and foremost.  But even those who are naturals can be pulled from that focus by the flow of administrative responsibilities that call for immediate attention. At the end of the day, responsibility and accountability for student achievement is the central responsibility of all in schools. But, that can't happen fully unless a foundational attention is paid to students' well-being. So although it seems somewhat invisible, this attention actually results in the very goal educators have for their students.

The holidays are difficult for many adults, perhaps even some reading this blog struggle with the power of tradition and finding meaningfulness around this time of year. The media romanticizes the holidays with images and stories of families and of love. Yet, many of our children live in circumstances where these images are part of the life gap that they are forced to hold.

Holiday time exaggerates what happens all year long. It can make it easier to see how students are feeling. This isn't simply a socio-economic issue for children. Poverty presents its own set of holiday trials for children, but so does divorce, family discord, disappointments, loneliness and job loss.  These are not limited holiday feelings, they are everyday feelings, and they are pervasive day in and day out in our classrooms.

Here, we are not powerless.  Sometimes there is cause to send a child to speak with a counselor because the child's expression is extreme.  But, every child benefits from each adult interaction when they are seen and known. The smallest change in an expression or hesitation in response can speak volumes if we are listening to children we know. Ultimately, the children who come to our schools need to feel they belong there and they need to feel how much we want to spend our days with them.  Some are engaged in activities and others are not.  Each of them, growing from childhood through their adolescence, cannot be emotionally agile enough to move from one emotion to another, from worry to learning, from fear to engagement, from experiencing disregard to offering respect, from feeling sad to feeling joy without the help of the adults in the system.

The leader's role is to lead the adults in the organization in the service not only of improving instruction and achievement, but in an awareness and sensitivity to the prerequisite to learning...the mental and emotional wellness of the students.  This requires open-hearted leadership, with an understanding that this is not an initiative, nor is it another thing to do. The well-being of the students is as important as whatever issue finds itself on center stage at the moment.  It means making sure each student, no matter their gender, skin color, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, no matter how they are dressed, or how they act is greeted with warmth and treated with care and respect. This must be true in the schoolyard and in the classrooms, on the school busses and in the cafeteria; it must be true in the locker room and on the field, in rehearsal and in performance, in the office and in the hallway. Let the looks on the faces of students and their behavior serve as an alert, and a reminder, that their well-being in the hands of everyone who works in the district. That can be the leader's 2015 gift to the children in the system.

Tough, P. (2012).  How Children Succeed.  New York:  First Mariner Books

Photo by Anna Yakimova courtesy of 123rf

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