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The "Holiday Blues" for Students with Physical Disabilities: Sandy's Story

written by: Barbara • edited by: Laurie Patsalides • updated: 7/12/2012

The weather outside is snowy and windy, with gusts circling the school playground at 40mph. School has been closed for the past two days. For Sandy, school closure is a time of the dreaded "Holiday Blues," as he remembers the fun of wheelies in the playground during dodge-ball and peer laughter.

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    Sandy's Story and the "Holiday Blues"

    For Sandy and many students with disabilities who attend school communities, the holidays can be a time of stress and depression, especially during scheduled and unscheduled school closures. When schools are closed due to the weather conditions or an emergency situation, that time of separation can be an especially tumultuous time for students with special needs who are conditioned to structured learning environments and instructional accommodations governed by IEPs (Individualized Education Plans).

    In Sandy's situation, his IEP includes additional accommodations like physical therapy (PT) three times a week and weekly visits with a speech pathologist to work on verbal diagnostic issues, so he especially misses the structure of PT and working on his language and speech skills. After two days of school closure due to an unexpected winter snowfall, Sandy is feeling bluer than the coldest biting wind whipping up the flaky snow, and covering everything in Sandy's neighborhood and the city, including his favorite elementary school.

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    Having Physical Disabilities in the Classroom

    Sandy is a precocious 10 year old fifth grader, who loves to cut wheelies in his wheelchair out on the playground when he's not playing dodge-ball or basketball with his classmates. In Ms. Crowder's fifth grade class, Sandy is vivacious and incredibly engaging in class. He is a definitely a leader in exhibiting outstanding academic and social skills in his individual and group presentations. With his slight speech impediment, he is still able to verbalize his needs and wants in the class and students are so attuned to his voice, that they at times don't hear his mispronunciation of certain words like "cuq" instead of "cue." What Ms. Crowder has noted is that the other students listen attentively when Sandy presents because he is their valued classmate and friend.

    For Ms. Crowder, Sandy is an ideal student academically and socially, but lately she's noticed with the impending holiday break that Sandy is out of sorts. He seems withdrawn and irritable which are a definite contrast to his usually sunny disposition. Sandy keeps asking to go online to see the weather report for the week which Ms. Crowder obliges initially. In speaking with Sandy's mother, Ms. Crowder learns that Sandy isn't sleeping through the night and he is constantly asking her about the weather and when will school start again. Sandy's mother thinks that her son appears to be coming down with a case of the "Holiday Blues," so she works with Ms. Crowder to figure out ways to help her son transition from the structure of daily school to the closure of school for the winter break.

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    Creating Learning Consistency

    In many school communities, Sandy and other special needs students see school closure and especially abrupt school closure as a breakdown in the consistency of a much needed and adhered to structured learning environment. Try using the following tips below to help students like Sandy see that school closure can become extended learning time to develop their favorite things to do beyond the classroom.

    • Anticipate school closures and prepare for expected school closures. Winter break, Thanksgiving, Mid-Winter break, holidays, and teacher professional days are a given on the school calendar. Help students with disabilities prepare for school closures by providing them with a school calender and using the calendar daily to mark down the days to the first and last school closures.
    • Have a larger sized school calendar visible in the classroom. Allow special education students to use a marker to put a check or x-mark on each day leading to holiday closures. Talk about what the holidays mean and how sometimes schools can close unexpectedly due to weather, emergencies such as a flood in the science lab or a medical outbreak like the flu.
    • Create projects around holiday closures that can extend into the holiday season or the school closure. For students with special needs, this will extend the learning objective and keep them preoccupied during the school closures.
    • Meet with student and parent prior to school closures and develop a game plan on school lessons, activities and special interest projects that students can engage in during their time off. Make sure that PT and speech pathologist schedules have built in make-up days during the school year.
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    Unease Over Upcoming School Breaks

    In a week, Sandy and the other students at Airedale Elementary School will be out of school for two weeks during winter break. As Sandy silently watches his nondisabled peers screaming excitedly in the classroom on day one of the weekly countdown, he feels himself shrinking inwardly and disconnecting from his peers and the learning in the classroom. As the week proceeds quickly to the last two days before school closure, ten year old Sandy, is not his precocious outgoing self and his fifth grade classmates are not sure how to act in the classroom around him.

    Ms. Crowder, Sandy's teacher is not sure how to act either, so she meets with Sandy's IEP (Individualized Education Plan) resource teacher, Mr. Paul to figure out how to intervene and get the exuberant and precocious Sandy back before school closes in two days. Mr. Paul points out that Sandy is a student with disabilities confined to a wheelchair who will not have his three times a week physical therapy sessions nor will he have the pull-out opportunities to work on his reading deficiency and writing skills that happen twice a week. The consistent structure that now defines Sandy's learning environment will change dramatically for a 10 year old who arrives daily on the special bus with its wheelchair lift and grabs the day with an exuberance and joy that creates a classroom atmosphere that is engaging for other students.

    After talking with Mr. Paul, it is apparent to Ms. Crowder that Sandy needs an intervention of strategies that will help him deal with school closures and the "Holiday Blues." In designing the intervention strategies for Sandy, Ms. Crowder is hopeful that other students with special needs will find them helpful and constructive as well.

    Teacher Tips for Dealing with the "Holiday Blues"

    • Create a learning environment where students feel comfortable talking about their feelings and fears,
    • Spend special talk time with students experiencing change of moods or behavior before a designated school closure,
    • Talk to parents, IEP resource staff and other teachers to chart a student's behavioral change or change in learning engagement,
    • Provide students with a detailed and consistent school plan of school work and projects that can be completed during the time off and make the learning plan fun,
    • Acknowledge the student's feelings and use them as a constructive learning tool to address student's who may not be as vocal about having problems with school closure,
    • Let students have something special in the classroom (i.e special book or class picture) that they can take home to care for during the holiday break or school closure,
    • Give students a personalized calendar and mark the days on the calendar when school is closed and put stars on the first day back to give students anticipation for when school will reopen,
    • Have students journal and reflect during their time away from the classroom,
    • Figure out a way to have the student's physical therapy or other resource services maintained during the time off.

    There are many strategies that can be used to help students with disabilities like Sandy deal with the "Holiday Blues." Teachers should remember that the holidays and school closures may have different meaning for students with special needs in the classroom.