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Cakes, Cookies, and Student Birthdays: How to Celebrate in the Classroom

Birthday kid blows out candles

I love celebrating student birthdays in class; it's a fun break in the day to celebrate the kids, and I'd like to think that's why we teach in the first place. When lighting the candles in your own school, be sure to set up party guidelines that are manageable and ensure each student feels equally celebrated. But when and how should you celebrate? I've found a good system after a little trial and error.

At first I used a time right before the end of the school day so I could avoid teaching a group of kids coming down from a cake-induced sugar high. But this year, I use a ten-minute period during homeroom to celebrate, which works well because there is a clear beginning and ending. It also occurs about two-thirds of the way through the day, so my student can be honored by his or her friends for the rest of the afternoon.

It's best to make sure the celebration takes place when everyone in the class is present and that there is time to sing, eat, and clean-up.

Party Prep

First things first: Make a birthday chart so everyone knows whose birthdays are coming up and whose will occur over a vacation or during the summer. Then, create a Birthday Committee, the job of which is to do some research on the birthday girl or boy—like finding out their favorite color (for birthday hats, crayons, and other celebratory items) and their favorite song (to be played during their class party). It shouldn't take up core class time, but it should also make sure the honoree knows they can bring in treats that week.

Give it academic purpose, too: The Birthday Committee can also take charge of finding out if any historical figures or celebrities share the same birthday, which can be a lot of fun and relate to the curriculum you're in the middle of.

Consistency Is Key

For the party itself, reach a happy medium between the 45-minute shindig and the five-minute passing-out-of-treats that just seems like a break between Language Arts and Math. I have the same party for each child—it takes about ten to fifteen minutes. We sing "Happy Birthday," play their favorite song, and they pass out the treats they brought. Then, I let the kids chat, eat, and enjoy the free time. At the end of the party, everyone helps with the cleanup. This is an easy process because we simply throw out the paper towels, paper plates, or whatever else was used.

Making every birthday equally commemorative ensures that every student feels honored and celebrated on or around their birthday. There shouldn't be a competition to see who had a better class party, so keeping things on the same level is crucial. Your party plan should be accessible to both the family who can only afford one box of cookies and the child who brings in triple-layered chocolate cake made from organic coconut sugar.

Keep Treats Under Control

Before any treat can be brought in to share, keep in mind you shouldn't leave out any student in the class with a nut or fruit allergy. I don't go to a single potluck where this isn't a policy, and birthdays should be no different—all students should be able to chow down. Additionally, everything should be pre-cut and ready to distribute—no cutting boards, knives, or peeling fruit.

When it comes to drinks, no juice. Drinks spill and become a sticky mess, particularly if a child's journal gets covered in sugary cranberry punch. Then, in the middle of your lesson, they stain their white shirt, and now you need to make a call home to a parent. What if the drink spills on the floor? Now you've got an afternoon full of dealing with sticky shoes, the sound of which makes fingernails dragged down a chalkboard seem pleasant in comparison. You can tell I've had my experiences down this road.

I don't permit candles, either. Burning down the school is the wrong way to celebrate a birthday. These protocols are communicated to parents at the beginning of the year so everyone is on board.

Be Inclusive

How can you celebrate kids who have birthdays in the summer or during vacations? Set up a day for each to bring in treats and celebrate. I try not to do a single day for all the kids who have August birthdays. Giving them their own day gives them their own sense of pride and ability to bask in their next year of life. We teach students to rejoice in what life is, so let each one get their moment.

If the birthday boy or girl is from another country or speaks another language, don't hesitate to sing "Happy Birthday" twice—once in their native language and once in the instructional language. This is a great opportunity to learn a new song and a new language, so make it fun! Feliz cumpleaños! Hau`oli Lā Hānau! Alles Gute zum Geburtstag! Buon compleanno! Bon anniversaire! Felix natalis!

Remember, celebrating a student's birthday is supposed to be fun. This child should be basking in the limelight of their birthday, so let them! And with clear guidelines as to how, when, and what, everyone will feel equally loved.