My son doesn’t understand Christmas. At least, not like most children.
He doesn’t care for Santa Claus coming to town.
He doesn’t care to put out cookies and milk in anticipation of the gifts on his non-existent list.
He doesn’t even care about the pretty packages with bows and ribbons that sit under the Christmas tree for weeks.
I need to clarify that it’s not for lack of trying that he doesn’t quite understand what all this hoopla is about.
I have spent the last 10 years of his life trying to make Christmas special and memorable and tradition-filled. But, despite my efforts, I have come to realize that Christmas is just like any other day for my son.
In the past, I became heavy-hearted about it. I asked, “Why bother?” and “Who am I really doing this for?” Finally, after brooding about it, this question arose: “How can I make this holiday developmentally appropriate?”
Oh, yes. I went there.
I put on my teacher/consultant hat and thought about Christmas with an adaptive approach–like I do all other themes we tackle in our homeschool.
In the past, I have done things to make the holidays memorable. I have even devised a plan to make things easier on us when we’re out and about and with others. But, when it comes to Christmas as a thematic unit, it’s challenging to break apart the theme that has been so ingrained in our own lives since childhood.
I’ve put together some tips for you on how to teach Christmas (or any other holiday) as a theme for your child with special needs. I would like to point out that I’m not suggesting watering down the holiday so that you deprive your child or suck the fun out of it completely for yourself, too. This post is intended to make the holidays feasible for a child who just doesn’t grasp it yet.
Always begin a unit with the questions:
- Is my child developmentally ready to understand this?
- Which parts will he comprehend?
- Which parts are beyond his developmental level?
- How can I adapt/modify the concepts?
Recognize the abstract
I devised a short list of abstract holiday words/concepts so that I am conscious of them and don’t take for granted that my child will know what they mean on his own.
Abstract holiday words (requires higher-order thinking):
- giving and receiving
- “Merry Christmas”
- magic and miracle
- Jesus, Mary, and Joseph (the Christmas story)
- Santa Claus (the story of his arrival)
Make the abstract concrete
Developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, suggested that children only learn to think abstractly in the stage he called the “formal operational stage.” Roughly, this is the age group between 11 and 16. Modern-day psychologists argue that abstract thinking can happen earlier–if children are taught and experience abstract concepts early on.
For a child with cognitive delays, we know that abstract concepts may only come after the ages suggested by Piaget. Some children may never develop these abstract reasoning skills at all. But, that does not mean that you cannot expose your child to the experiences.
The best way to have your child experience abstract concepts is through hands-on activities.
I give a couple of examples using the concepts from the list above to get you started.
Giving and Receiving
If you’re working on the giving/receiving part of the holidays, you will need to practice this concept in concrete ways. Wrap up some individual toy blocks (your child can observe or even participate in this–depending on his abilities). As you wrap you can say, “Let’s surprise dad with this package. Let’s give him this gift. He’ll love this gift! Let’s go give it to him!“ Have your child hand the gift to dad (it can be done hand-over-hand), and then wait as dad acts surprised and thanks your child for it.
You can do this over the course of several weeks. Wrap different items and surprise members of your family or even friends who come to visit. Focus on the words: give, gift, surprise.
What other things can be given?
- give kiss
- give high-five
- give hug
- give crayon
Santa Claus Coming to Town
Santa is a fictional character (yes, he is) who never ages, works at the North Pole, and keeps elves as helpers. He spends the entire year making toys in his workshop. Then, once a year, he responds to all of the letters from children and delivers their presents at precisely the same hour while riding around the world on a sleigh pulled by eight flying reindeer.
The magical part of this story is abstract. Yet, many children understand that Santa is an elderly man with a wife who hand-makes the toys he gives to children.
Make the abstract concrete through:
- acting out the Santa story (for or with your child)
- puppetry (similar to above)
- crafts (Santa, reindeer, gifts, etc.)
- baking/eating foods that Santa or his reindeer would eat
- scents of the season (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger)
- Christmas sensory bins (ornaments, mini toys, Christmas figurines like Santa, reindeer, etc.)
- listening and singing carols that include Santa in the lyrics (ex: “Up on the Housetop”, “Who’s Got a Beard That’s Long and White”)
- connecting with ideas your child already understands (ex: if he learned to give, as in the activity above, you can connect Santa coming and giving to all children)
- use of developmentally appropriate words, signs and facial expressions (ex: make a happy face when talking about being “nice” and a sad face when expressing “naughty”)
- use of images in magazines (there are plenty at this time of year in full color), picture books, cookbooks, and even online printables to have your child see and manipulate as you talk about the concepts
My son might not fully understand the idea that Santa Claus flies around all night long on Christmas Eve, but he will have experienced hands-on activities that help him to better internalize the concepts.
Related article on this blog:
Which holiday concepts do you struggle with teaching? How can you think about the concepts differently from now on?