By Kathleen Slack, MS, Intermountain Special Education Teacher
Scared, closed off, and wary is how they come to me. Super vigilant of a world perceived as unsafe, unpredictable, and hurtful. They view the world as devoid of trust or care. These are the children I teach in the residential program at Intermountain. These children seem joyless and without the sense of wonder inherent in all children. There is nothing more heart-wrenching than watching a young child play without laughter ever ready to fight or flight. Their previous experiences in school have generally been overwhelming, frustrating, isolating, and without success. I see my job, as their teacher, going beyond teaching academics, social, and behavioral skills. I also strive to open their hearts to the joy and wonder in the world. Though the holidays are a small part of the school year this season can be a great time to find fun, joy, and wonder through positive shared experiences.
Though often a source of stress, the holiday season is also a time of giving and sharing. Sharing not only gifts or food but, more importantly, experiences. However, bringing positive experiences to children who have experienced a chaotic, traumatic life is one thing, their ability to allow themselves to feel joy is completely another. It doesn’t happen overnight and can take weeks and even months before some children can smile or laugh with genuine abandon. Two little boys come to mind, one emotionally closed off from relationships and fun, the other always in flight mode ready for perceived danger in the sound of laughter too loud or a scream of excitement from other children. These boys were with me for the better part of a year before they were able to trust that they were safe and cared about and allow themselves to enjoy just being a kid. Another little boy who spent most of his life in institutions was so deprived of cognitive and emotional stimulation that he began to respond within weeks to a safe environment and unconditional care. Though the effect may not be readily noticeable, each positive, shared experience fosters trust and does have an impact.
In our class, the children feel a sense of belonging that fosters a sense of respect and responsibility through many shared, positive experiences. These experiences include acts of kindness and team projects or explorations that are art and literature oriented. Though literature, art, and acts of kindness are a conduit for positive, shared experiences throughout the year and across academic domains, the holiday season is a time when these activities are most easily applied and readily accepted by all children.
There are many wonderful stories with holiday themes. I try to find books that involve values and positive transformation. A witch who raises black witch cats for evil witches, then one day discovers a nice yellow cat in a litter. She changes her business to raising cats for good witches and fairy godmothers. This story helps turn Halloween from scary to fun and even nurturing. Another, about a young orphan sister and brother who get a call to help Santa save the North Pole from dark elves, is a story of empowerment, giving, and sharing. I have read these two books and others like them to both public school students and my students at Intermountain. Every child has embraced the books and the messages. Sharing these stories, then working together to fill our classroom with characters and scenes inspired by these holiday stories, instills a since of pride and accomplishment in every child. Just as having an active part in one’s environment creates a sense of belonging, the ability to give to others through acts of kindness creates a feeling of personal worth.
Every year my class sends weekly letters and art work to a soldier overseas. The children empathize with someone away from his family and enjoy writing the letters each week. Bringing joy to someone else feels good. My grandchildren volunteer at the Thanksgiving meal for the underprivileged. My own children delivered refurbished bikes, with their father, to children in our community. Sharing the act of giving is a powerful and positive experience for children and adults alike.
Shared positive experiences can be anything from a walk together to volunteering to help others. The important thing is that the experience is positive, shared, and talked about together. Expressing positive feelings and memories together will sustain the joy that comes from doing things together. Shared positive experiences can rekindle the joy in being together and even help to relieve holiday stress.
Kathleen Slack has a Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies and a Master’s of Science in Special Education. This is her fifth year teaching at Intermountain. Previously she taught in the California and Washington public schools.