In previous articles, I have written about supporting children with social, emotional and mental health needs (SEMH) and how we can support staff with their SEMH needs. In this article, I am going to continue that thread and explore ways to support children with their well-being during the Christmas period, when routines are disrupted and senses are heightened.

As I am writing this article, it is November, many early years settings, schools and families across the country will be starting to plan for Christmas. The children I work with are already talking about it. The Christmas adverts have just begun to appear. You may fall in the camp of loving all things Christmas, hanging out decorations as soon as you possibly can. On the other hand, you may be happy to put a tree up on Christmas Eve and take it down on Boxing Day ( I must admit I fall into this category), or Christmas may be an event you choose to not take part in at all. Whichever part of the Christmas spectrum you fall in is fine, but if we work in the early years, we need to think about how we do this Christmas thing with children, especially those with social, emotional and mental health needs.

You might be wondering why I am particularly concerned about children with SEMH needs over the Christmas period; for the past seven years, I have been working with a specialised team in Bath called Nurture outreach service, Brighter Futures. We support children with their well-being in the reception year at school. The children I support often find transitions tricky; they are often easily unsettled by change, often they have high sensory needs and can become easily overwhelmed by overly stimulating experiences. The run-up to Christmas is one big and often long sensory explosion and change, and many of the children I work with find this problematic.

Just for a moment, think about all the things you do around Christmas and when you start?

Is your usual routine disrupted for Christmas preparations for weeks before the event?

Do you have a play which you practice for weeks before and then perform to parents?

Do you decorate your setting with lots of decorations, lights, things hanging down, a Christmas tree?

Do you play Christmas music in the setting for weeks in the run-up?

I am not suggesting that you should not do these things, but I would like us to stop and reflect on how some children may experience these changes.

The importance of routines for childrens social, emotional and mental health needs

Routine is vital for all children; children who have higher SEMH needs particularly need consistent and predictable routines. When we change their routine, they can find this unsettling and frightening. Sometimes they show us how they find this hard through their behaviour, maybe being violent, refusing or hiding. It is important to remember to communicate well with children about changes to support their mental health needs. We are often great at communicating bigger transitions but can sometimes forget the smaller changes. If you have planned to start getting ready for Christmas, let the children know, pre-warn them. Do some gentle moving towards it. If you are going to change the routine, for example, starting to practice the Christmas play each day, let them know a few days before this change is happening. You could make an additional image for the visual timetable for it. Talk about Christmas and the story before you start making the changes to the routine; this will help them put it into context. Don’t presume they know what all these preparations are for and about.

When you did the exercise above about what you do in preparation for Christmas, you may find you had an extensive list. In my experience, early years setting usually start Christmas preparations later than schools. Schools often feel they have so much learning they need to cover each day, Christmas on top is enormous pressure, and they need to start it early to fit it all in. I massively sympathise with this. However, I still feel that starting the Christmas play preparations and singing in the second week of November, once bonfire night is out the way, still feels too early. Also, by starting it early you are potentially exciting the children into thinking Christmas is soon, and it’s not; that is very confusing to a four-year-old.

A question to ask, who are the Christmas preparations for? This may sound like a silly question, and you may quickly say it is for the children. But I encourage you to ask the question. Are the Christmas plays, Christmas cards, for the children or are they for the parents? Sometimes there are things we do because we think the parents want them/ expect them. However, this does not mean it is the best for the children. If we are going to do plays and cards and parties, we need to make sure these are something the children enjoy, and that they are having a positive experience. Sometimes I watch the preparations for Christmas, and I am unsure if anyone is getting a positive experience.

We want the Christmas experience to be a positive one for everyone.

Take a look at some of our other articles on the topic of children's well-being and mental health needs!

A few things to consider for children with SEMH needs:

Have we done enough preparation to let them know about the changes?

Is the environment too sensory-stimulating? For example, lots of things hanging or flashing and noises can trigger some children.

Remember that not every child has to do everything in the preparation; always think about each child’s individual needs, what they can cope with, and what they enjoy. For example, if you have children who love singing and acting out a story, that is great, but if you have a child who finds that upsetting, find something else they can be involved in or adapt it to meet their needs.

Be flexible and make quick changes! If a child is showing you they cannot cope, then adapt and change.

I am not advocating ditching Christmas, but I am encouraging a reflective exercise to think about what your current cohort of children will benefit from.

Win a copy of Sonia Mainstone-Cotton’s fabulous book

“Supporting Children with Social, Emotional and Mental Health Needs in the Early Years: Practical Solutions and Strategies for Every Setting “

We have three copies of Sonia’s book to give away. Three lucky readers picked at random will receive a free copy of the book!

To enter the competition email marketing@parenta.com by Monday 3rd January 2022

Sonia Mainstone-Cotton

Sonia Mainstone-Cotton is a freelance nurture consultant, she has worked in early years for 30 years. Sonia currently works in a specialist team in Bath supporting 3- and 4-year-olds who have social, emotional and mental health needs. Sonia also trains staff across the country: she specialises in supporting the wellbeing of children and staff. Sonia has written 8 books including: 

Supporting children with social, emotional and mental health needs in the early years” published by Routledge,  Supporting young children through change and everyday transitions”, “Promoting Emotional Wellbeing in Early Years Staff” and “Promoting Young Children’s Emotional Health and Wellbeing”. Sonia is also the series advisor for Little Minds Matter series of books promoting social and emotional wellbeing in the early years with Routledge.

Website - http://soniamainstone-cotton.com

Email - sonia.main@icloud.com

Instagram - @mainstonecotton


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