To the nervous system, excitement and fear feel the same.
Classroom parties. Decorations, change in schedule, novel activities… what provides excitement and anticipation for some students, may be experienced as fear and anxiety for others. When you create exciting (out of the norm) classroom opportunities, it is important to be aware of reactions such as fear, anxiety and other big emotions. You may be thinking, “It’s a simple Valentine’s Day party… what is there to be afraid of?”
When a body feels excitement, it experiences physical symptoms. This may look like an increased heart rate, faster breathing and a boost of energy caused by the release of glucose. Surprisingly, these are the same effects collectively known as Somatic Response or “fight, flight and freeze”. It makes sense why people would watch a scary movie or ride a roller coaster. Sometimes fear can feel exciting.
While we are not advocating for discontinuing special classroom events (those are the moments that make learning special!), we do recommend following these tips so all students can feel included and safe.
While surprises may feel exciting for some students, a trauma-responsive approach provides adequate warning and preparation. The week before your party, show your students the decorations. Take time to explain the art project and preview the playlist. All of these details create a predictable picture that allows students to feel safe. If there is a change in schedule, review the changes and display it visually. The novelty of the day can be a large component of the fear.
Beginnings and Endings
It is important to include a mindful beginning to classroom parties. We recommend belly breathing and intention setting. Creating an event with a class intention can be incredibly powerful. It can also serve as a check in and a place for students to voice concerns or ask questions. In addition, an ending to the event is also very important. So often the timing can go over and students are pushed out the door without getting the opportunity for closure. When students aren’t regulated before they get on the bus and return home, the transition becomes very difficult. Set a timer to make sure that you have 5 minutes at the end to regroup with a slow or releasing breath.
Releasing Activities Throughout
Depending on the length of the classroom party, students may need an opportunity to release throughout the event. In between high energy, offer a releasing breath or movement. We love our Move Mindfully® Permission to Pause poster, featuring Plank and Down Dog, as a great releasing option. Then, reset with a short rest, like Head on Desk.
Provide a Calm Corner
Even with all of our best planning, students will still get overstimulated. Offer a Be Station, or a place where students can reduce visual and audio input. It could be another classroom with dim lighting, soft music and areas to hide. Or, it could be a space in the classroom with noise cancelling headphones and sensory objects. During your check in at the beginning, offer and describe choices that will empower students to self regulate and normalize over-stimulation.
Monitor and Offer Choice
If students are unable to self regulate, it is helpful to be prepared with alternative options. Not into the dance party? Offer students a place to color. The competitive nature of bingo stressing you out? Provide a beading activity. The most successful classroom parties offer choices.
Classroom parties are important. It is important to celebrate, create community and be playful together. However, approaching planning with a trauma-responsive lens will allow all students to feel successful and included.
What have you done to create inclusive classroom parties? Leave a comment!