Scanlan Center for School Mental Health
Teacher high-fiving student

Managing Winter Break Transitions: Promoting Wellness for Self and Students

Educator Wellness

I recall my time as a school counselor in the field, struggling to say goodbye to the kids for winter break.

Over the fall semester, I connected with students who needed school or, in other words, found school to be a safer, more predictable place than their homes. I realized that school was the only place where some students were sure they would get a meal, be heard, and be nurtured. 

As winter break approached, I began to question how these students would do. I even admit to being tempted to instill false hope in these students, telling them “It’ll get better in the new year” or “After the break, you won’t even remember.” 

While I worried about my students, I was also in need of this break, often more so than the kids. 

Here are 5 strategies to help your students ease into the long break (and back into the school routine) while still prioritizing your own wellness:

#1 Be kind to yourself.

We know that words have power. Certain words can uplift, motivate, encourage, soothe, hurt, belittle, oppress, and discourage others.

One way to think about language is how we speak to ourselves privately and how this inner voice relates to how we view ourselves, others, or the world.

Another way to think about language is what we say to others. It is important to note that how we speak to and treat ourselves relates to how we interact with others.

When you feel overwhelmed, stressed, or simply ready for a much-deserved break, it is easy to dismiss yourself by neglecting your own needs, values, and passions. This internal self-dismissiveness translates to how we interact with our students and families. 

Take a moment to reflect on the language you use with yourself as you experience various emotions. Are you kind to yourself? Do you remind yourself of your why? How does this inner voice influence your interactions with students, families, and colleagues? 

Positive self-talk helps build relationships with others. Generally, those who engage in positive self-talk are happier, opportunistic, and can bring out the best in others. Check out this article for 6 ways to practice positive self-talk

#2 Avoid broken promises.

The broken-promise effect occurs when positively affective events such as long-awaited school breaks, holidays, milestones, and new years do not live up to a person’s expectations.

When people reach these highly anticipated events and recognize that their troubles or stressors did not magically disappear, they feel disappointed, almost as if a promise had been broken.

For individuals struggling with mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, or suicidality, the broken promise can worsen the individual’s mood.

To avoid broken promises, set realistic expectations of any celebrations in your class or school, and make students aware of the many ways people spend winter break, including various cultural celebrations, resting, working, etc. 

While the break or new year may not miraculously change you or your students’ circumstances, staying grounded and engaging in positive coping can promote perseverance. 

Here is a video you can use in your class to teach your students about intentional breathing to combat stress.

4-7-8 Breathing Exercise to alleviate Anxiety and Stress for Teens and Adults
4-7-8 Breathing Exercise to alleviate Anxiety and Stress for Teens and Adults – YouTube Video

#3 Share resources for basic needs with students and families.

For educators, it can be stressful wondering how those students who rely on school for basic needs such as food, transportation, and safety fare during school breaks.

By sharing resources for basic needs with all your students and families, you can help students you know are struggling, and those you may not know are having a hard time.

Some teachers post basic needs flyers in the classrooms with QR codes linked to resources or email families. The Scanlan Center for School Mental Health has a user-friendly resource database for the State of Iowa to share with your families.

#4 Reflect and recharge.

The winter break is an opportunity to engage in professional and personal self-reflection and prioritize recharging.

Do you ever take a moment to reflect on the first few months of the school year? What have you accomplished? What you are proud of? What challenges you’ve triumphed over? How have you managed your own well-being?

As you reflect, note what you discover about yourself, such as your strengths and opportunities for growth. 

Recharge your batteries by doing something that brings you joy. Whether on your yoga mat, spending time with your family, jamming out to music, calling a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, or cuddling with a soft blanket and book, these small moments of joy ease your stress and re-energize your purpose.

My favorite way to recharge over the break is by recreating my grandmother’s holiday recipes. Even though she is no longer living, it brings me joy to carry on her cooking and prepare a meal to share with others.

#5 Prioritize relationships upon return from break.

Returning from winter break can feel like the first day of school all over again for students and staff.

Students often fail to remember the classroom routines and norms, and sometimes, new students join your class. 

Plan time and activities dedicated to reorienting and rekindling relationships. 

For example, as a welcome-back activity, you could facilitate time for students to reflect on their academic performance and well-being during the last semester so they can develop personal goals to improve both. Having students share this in small circles or groups could foster community building. Make sure to check in on these goals throughout the rest of the spring. 

Whole group socialization after winter break can begin with a collaborative discussion around existing expectations, norms, and routines. Taking time to allow students to contribute their experiences of norms and expectations and contribute new ideas and solutions could increase engagement, belongingness, and safety. 

You could also scaffold an assignment, activity, or project in a way where students complete one portion before winter break and a second portion after winter break to provide continuity. 

More importantly, focus on strengthening relationships with your students. Check out these active listening and belonging-building strategies to help establish a welcoming, supportive classroom environment the moment students walk back in the door: 

Tevin Middleton, a former school counselor and school-based mental health provider, is currently a Scanlan Center for School Mental Health Social-Emotional-Behavioral Health Workforce Expansion Trainee and Ph.D. student in Counselor Education and Supervision at the University of Iowa College of Education.

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