It’s The Holiday Season, So Whoop-De-Do: Managing the Holiday Madness

The holiday season is upon us and that can mean madness in our classrooms. Why is that? The truth is, we are often the primary culprit of the chaos. We spend months tirelessly pre-teaching routines and procedures and establishing behavior expectations, only to ease up on them or even abandon them during the holiday season. Now, our intentions are good. We want to infuse a little joy during the holiday season. We want to have a little fun. We want to give students a little break. The joy, fun, and breaks usually mean a change in routines and expectations, and then we are surprised (or even upset) when students disengage or become disruptive while watching Elf for the umpteenth time.

How can we avoid the traps and temptations of the season? Here are 10 ideas to help you manage the holiday madness.

  1. Routines and Procedures: Routines and procedures are your friend! You’ve worked hard since day one to establish them, now is the time to rely on them. By now you should have established protocols for things like how to begin and end class; expectations during different teaching and learning modes such as teacher-directed learning, group work, and independent practice; and clear guidelines for the use of technology. If you can predict it, you can prevent it. Work with your team to identify a major or common routine that either most teachers see as a concern or a skill that all students could benefit from reteaching. We all have those one or two misbehaviors that drive us crazy, so be sure to establish clear routines for “pet peeves” or behaviors that can test your last nerve. And, yes, they should know them by now, but they are adolescents and they forget…squirrel.
  2. Refresh Your Expectations: Don’t assume they know! They are teens. The prefrontal cortex of their adolescent brain isn’t fully integrated, so they often lack executive functioning skills to quickly adapt to change. That does not mean they can’t learn the necessary skills. You can help them through intentional and explicit teaching, modeling, and practice. This is especially true right after Thanksgiving and when returning after winter break. Be creative in how you teach them! Research suggests we need to hear things nine different times in nine different ways to internalize them (and, let’s be honest, if you keep telling them the same way and the misbehavior continues, obviously they don’t understand the expectations). Take time to refresh and clarify expectations.
  3. Get Them Moving: Many teachers don’t like starting new content before a break, so the days get filled with movies and other unengaging or low-interest tasks. If it was just one movie it probably wouldn’t be a big deal. But we can’t be too surprised when students get a little stir crazy after watching several movies in a day. Our knowledge of adolescent development tells us that a still student becomes a bored student and a bored student will find a way to entertain themselves – often manifesting as misbehavior. Use brain breaks and other team-building activities that will not only better engage them, but also get them up and moving to burn some of that pent-up energy.
  4. Use Proximity—Astute teachers may plan properly for the uncertainties of the holiday season, but then become complacent when it comes to supervising the projects and activities they have so carefully planned. We assume that students understand the assignment and expectations, but they are prone to the temptations to goof off and their effort can wane with the impending break. Use proximity to your advantage, because we know that a teacher on their feet is worth two on their seat! When you are up and moving you can head off frustration, confusion, and misbehavior before it can derail the best-laid plans.
  5. Provide Opportunities to Socialize—We know young adolescents are social creatures, so be sure to provide time for them to socialize. Funnel energy into icebreakers, group activities, and other purposeful interactions. Use project-based learning, simulations, and other hands-on activities with high relevance and engagement. And, remember, just like the adults, they need a chance to catch up with each other after the break, too.
  6. Accentuate the Positive—Focus on what is going well. Provide specific praise for those who are engaged, exhibiting expected behavior, or working hard. Success breeds success. When you keep the focus on what is going well, you will see more things going well. Each redirect should have four praises – the power of positivity!
  7. Provide Incentives—Yeah, it’s extrinsic motivation, but there will be times when you just have to make it to the end of the day. Never underestimate the power of a candy cane or sticker to increase engagement. The incentives don’t have to be wild or lavish, sometimes you just have to get the ship pointed in the right direction.
  8. Have a Plan B—While it is always wise to have a backup plan at your disposal, this is especially useful with the ever-changing schedules and hectic pace of the season. These include highly engaging activities such as escape rooms, or a Kahoot! or Blooket you can pull out at a moment’s notice. It might just save you from potential chaos!
  9. Prime the Pump—For some, being away from school can be stressful, while the idea of returning can be stressful for others. Consider sending a note to the students in your advisory letting them know you miss them and look forward to seeing them. Or, drop a note in your Google Classroom or send an email explaining upcoming lessons/activities/projects you’ll be starting when they return. Believe it or not, your students miss you and the routines of your classroom while they are away!
  10. Ease Out and Back In—Remember, it is called a break for a reason. Don’t saddle your students with homework or projects to do over the break. Aside from some light, relevant reading, students should rest and recharge over breaks. Imagine how you’d feel if your principal or superintendent gave you a “special” project to do over the break. Also remember that none of us will be 100% on the first days back from a break. Plan your lessons accordingly to avoid frustration.

There you have it, ten ideas to help you navigate the holiday season. In short, rely on your routines, procedures, and expectations; use your knowledge of the characteristics of young adolescents to guide your planning and teaching; work with and support your team; and remember to have a little fun along the way. There is no doubt that this time of year can be a bit hectic, but with a little forethought and planning, you can say “whoop-de-do” to the madness of the holiday season!

Todd Brist, Ed.D. is Principal of Watertown Middle School in Watertown, South Dakota, an AMLE School of Distinction. He is the author of The Successful Middle School Advisory.


  1. Having a plan for managing the holiday madness is a must! I have had classes in the past where you could tell that the teacher did not have a plan on how to deal with holiday break energy. It is something that should be prepared before the school year starts or at the very least soon after school begins once you know your students. Also, reinforcing the routines and expectations of the class are super important before the holidays. The students need to know that they are still in school and are still expected to keep their routine going.

  2. Holiday madness in the classroom is a very real thing. It is known from previous teachers that this is the time of year when students do not pay attention because they are excited about the holidays. I believe a way to keep classroom management in effect is by refreshing the classes when November starts and a week in December.

    1. I so appreciate Todd’s article. He is right about planning for this busy time of the year! I always told my staff to be extra aware and sensitive that many of our students do not have a “Norman Rockwell” type of holiday and they often react angrily! It is easier to be angry than admit that they are going home to less than ideal conditions, which is why our planning as a staff is essential to a successful classroom experience this time of the year! By following Todd’s suggestions combined with an awareness and sensitivity that our actions can contribute to the chaos we can have a successful experience for all of our students and staff!

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