‘Tis the season, and Winter Break is almost upon us.
Teachers, therapists and students alike will all have time off from daily routines, established transitions and normalcy as we know it will cease to exist. Those of us in the special education community know all too well that a well intentioned 2 week break can be anything but relaxing for a child—or family, that craves sameness, consistency, and the norm.
So what is a parent/caregiver to do?
Not all of us are graced with extended vacation with endless time to engage our vacationing littles—many of us only have the statutory holidays off and the littles end up in any combination of grandparent, babysitter, nanny, or seasonal camp care. The absence of consistency is based on convenience alone—but try explaining THAT to your routine-driven little monkey.
In a time when family gatherings are frequent and chaotic, established eating patterns are replaced with haphazard offerings (“surely he/she can have candy canes for breakfast—after all, he/she IS on vacation”), caregivers vary by day and for some, location may change altogether...(road trip anyone?) here are some ways to keep the calm without losing your cool.
1. Free-time...yes! Free-for-all...NO! Of course your little monkey deserves a break from OT, SLP, ABA/IBI, school, playgroup, social skills group, or otherwise therapeutic endeavors—but a word of caution, just because you’re allowing ‘free time’ doesn’t mean you have to do-away with regular rules and expectations that are in place to help your child—not limit his/her overall amount of joy or glee.
Free-time means a break from prescribed therapies and school, it means time to ‘be a kid’ and engage in age/developmentally appropriate activities. Free-time means making time for the kinds of activities you don’t otherwise have time for: Finger painting, sensory exploration, art-making, being silly, dressing up, community outings, movie dates, baking, and pretend play. By now you may be realizing that free-time for your little one doesn’t mean much free-time for you (or whoever is entrusted with the care of your child). Yes, play is fun—and yes it is work ...but it’s really important work.
It’s important that you maintain some structure, even if it’s just by ‘scheduling’ a few sequential play tasks in an afternoon, or planning outings/adventures that create a sense of purpose.
Free-time is supposed to be fun, but it’s not supposed to be a free-for-all.
It doesn’t mean you have to allow free-access to all those most desirable items you usually limit for good behaviour and it doesn’t mean you have to facilitate endless hours of TV, YouTube or IPAD time. Kids learn through play—it keeps them learning, engaged and most importantly helps them maintain social and communication skills while they take a load off.
2. Maintain normal bedtimes and wake-up routines. If you maintain ONE routine throughout your entire winter break...make it this one.
If you think it’s hard for you to adjust to ‘back to work mode’ after several weeks of sleeping until noon and partying into the wee hours of the morning---imagine how your child (who likely already struggles with transitions) will do when it’s time to go back to school. Not only is it important for your child’s internal clock, but it is immensely valuable for you as parents/caregivers to ensure that you can have some consistent down time once your littles are dreaming of sugar plum fairies.
Burning the candle at both ends will not serve any greater purpose. Your kids will thank you for taking ‘me time’ and for maintaining their regular sleep patterns and you’ll thank yourself once the time comes to return to school and instead of your kids being grumpy AND tired...they will only be grumpy ;)
3. Whoever the caregiver/babysitter/nanny/respite work is...they HAVE to be willing to follow your ‘never break rules’.
When extended breaks occur the team of caregivers can seem a little hodge-podge; Ms. Mary on Tuesday, Nona on Tuesday, therapist Shelley on Wednesday, Mommy on Thursday, and Daddy on Friday. While everyone has good intentions, you cannot expect a team of caregivers to respond exactly as you would, and you can’t expect them to magically know the ‘never break rules’...unless you make it explicitly clear. I am sure we can all appreciate that whenever a non-primary caregiver enters the picture, a certain amount of leniency can be expected—I am not refuting this. What I am insisting on, and putting full responsibility on the parents for communicating, are the rules that help your child understand what is expected of him or her, the rules that facilitate his/her development, the rules that must always be upheld.
While at home, you may have 5-7 “never break rules” like...
”You must always use your words, you must always take one bite before saying I don’t like it, you may never run on the stairs, you may never have dessert before dinner, you may never talk back, you may never watch TV after 8pm, you may never xyz...insert family-specific rule here”.
Some of you may have more therapeutic/child specific rules like “you must always use a full sentence, you must always put your socks on by yourself, and so on..”
I encourage you to choose your top 2-3 and make these explicitly clear to whomever is responsible for your child. By picking your battles and highlighting only the most essential rules you increase their likelihood of sticking with them, upholding your standards, and creating some consistency across the myriad of support workers in and out of your home. This brings me to my next point...if at all possible, keep the environment consistent.
If you have 3-5 different people caring for your child (which is reasonable presuming they are all known to your child in advance, have a good rapport, understand your “never break rules”) have them come to you. In this way, you can clearly post your “never break rules”, you can provide any additional tools which may be needed (visual schedule, communication devices, reinforcers, timers etc.) and can control the variables a little more easily (i.e. you can leave lunch prepared so you know what they are eating, limit access to whatever you feel necessary, and so on).
4. Cut yourself some slack.
The holiday season can be stressful at the best of times...don’t let the season get to you!
Don’t be hard on yourself, don’t set goals you can’t keep up with, and take time to consider what you’re doing right. My guess is...you’re probably doing more RIGHT than WRONG but it can be those isolated occurrences that you analytically review, and which contribute to your overall sense of defeat.
Your job is hard.
Being a parent is hard.
The holiday season, though joyous—can be hard.
Everyone has an opinion.
Everyone has their two cents.
Everyone will ‘tell you how it is’.
The bottom line is, you’re the sheriff of your own town, the captain of your own ship—it’s a badge you should wear proudly during the good, bad and the silly! Happy Holidays!