Many teachers and students eagerly await the upcoming winter break. But winter break isn't always a joyous time for every student. For some students, the school year brings stability, the comfort of friends, and two meals a day. Winter break, though, can bring challenges—some students are alone, taking care of younger siblings during the day while their parents are at work. Other students face even more dire family situations, such as subpar income and lack of access to resources, food, or support.
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Class inequalities are more common than you might think, and it's your job to help your students cope with the difficulties they might face over winter break. Here are some strategies that can help.
Use the Peer Buddy System
For many students who face inequalities, having a friend in the classroom to help them through tough times can make all the difference in their educational success. Kathleen Liakos, a licensed social worker with more than 15 years' experience working in schools, emphasizes the importance of ensuring that vulnerable students have a peer buddy to check in with during breaks. If students can talk to or text a pal over the break, they'll feel less isolated.
Before winter break hits, create a peer buddy system in your classroom to give every student a helping hand while they're away from school. Encourage students to invite their friends to their gatherings if they know their classmates have no place to go.
Encourage Kindness and Empathy
It's common for students to burst into the classroom after winter break to show off their new toys and gadgets. But class inequalities can manifest in wide-ranging emotions. For example, Joselyn, a senior in my class, once told me that the most she ever received for Christmas was a $5 bill from a relative. Seeing her fellow students flaunting their new smartwatches and smartphones made her feel left out. To make sure every student feels included, remind your students to be considerate of classmates who celebrate other holidays or don't receive the same gifts that they do.
Liakos urges educators to teach their students to be humble, to never brag or show off, and to express empathy in the classroom. I often share videos of young people helping others, like the ones showcased on Ellen, to help students understand the impact of compassion.
Be Considerate When Assigning Work
Because students have varied experiences over winter break, many of which can stem from class inequalities, be cautious with classroom discussions that focus on specific holidays, and limit classwork that asks students to tell what they did during their time away from school. When I was in elementary school, I can remember teachers asking students if Santa Claus was good to you. But Santa doesn't visit every student. Be mindful of any presumptions behind your assignments to make sure that you're making every student feel heard and respected.
Connect Families with Resources
Work with school social workers, school resource officers, and administrators to connect families to any resources they might need over the holidays. Liakos once conducted a gift drive at her school for needy students. Most communities have food banks, and some schools can provide students and their families with gift cards or holiday dinners donated by community members.
Set Up Check-Ins
School provides much-needed structure and services to many students. Liakos advises that social workers and counselors meet with vulnerable students prior to the break to ensure that these students have safety plans for the time they're out of school. As a teacher, you can work with counselors and social workers to help students beset by class inequalities feel safe and supported during winter break.
Take Part in Community Service
One of the most meaningful community service field trips my students ever took was to serve Christmas Eve dinner at My Brother's Table, a social service organization in Lynn, MA, that addresses the needs of the hungry by serving free meals to friends and neighbors. My students have also participated in gift bag donations for the critically ill through Community Servings, a not-for-profit food and nutrition program providing services throughout Massachusetts and Rhode Island. These experiences put the holidays in perspective for many students.
Spend the months before winter break creating community service opportunities for your students. Organize a sock drive for people without a home. Write letters to soldiers and veterans through Operation Gratitude. Or visit elderly people in nursing homes. Supporting your students as they plan these volunteer opportunities can help them better understand class inequalities and be more compassionate toward peers who might be facing those kinds of challenges at home.
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Winter break is a fun and joyful time for many, but it's important that teachers remember those who struggle during the season. These tips can help ensure that every student has a healthy, happy winter break.