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  • Writer's pictureJoan Medlen

The Ultimate Routine-Killer: Winter Break

The holidays. Winter break. New Years.    Change.

For most families of school-aged children, it started this week. The most intense time of the school year:  Winter Break.

When my boys were in school, these two weeks were the hardest to survive. It’s impossible to focus on your children during this time. There are work-related parties, neighborhood parties, charity events, plays, special events, family parties…. the list is endless. When I did try to do something fun, we were all overwhelmed by the crowds.

It all adds a layer of stress that is tough to manage for anyone.

For people who experience intellectual and developmental disabilities, this mayhem of winter break, can be a nightmare.  Why? Because nothing is predictable. The routine is in shambles.

Let’s face it. Routines are often what save the day. They provide structure to the day. When following a routine, you know who will be there, what is expected of you, how long the event will last, when it is done, and what will happen next.

From a parent perspective, routines require less thought to be able to successfully support a child. From the child’s perspective, these routines provide a feeling of safety and security. Handling one or two blips in the routine is do-able if the rest of the routine remains in place.

During winter break, all bets – or routines – are off. Nothing is the same. Regardless of what holidays you celebrate during this time, when school lets out these last two weeks of December, absolutely nothing looks normal.

I’m here to offer some ideas for survival!

First, as often as possible – especially for the more stressful events – offer your child a way to understand the event. Provide a pre-teaching story. Use photos if your child does not read.  Unlike a social story, in which the focus is on the expected behavior from your child, a pre-teaching story tells your child what to expect, or what will happen. The story should included,

  1. When the event will happen (day, time, where in the routine in the day)

  2. Who will be there.

  3. What will happen there.

  4. What can I do there? What are my choices?

  5. How do I know it is over?

  6. If I am overwhelmed, how can I tell you?

  7. How can I escape if I need to?

  8. What will happen when it’s over?

Print the story for your child ahead of time. If it is a big event, such as a New Year’s Party, print it and read it days in advance. Include a countdown to the day of the event. If that’s not possible, it is still useful to have it in the car on the way to the party.

The purpose of the pre-teaching story is to give your child the information they need to handle the situation as best they can. The story helps reduce anxiety and the build up that can happen when they don’t know what to expect. When you print the story for them to have, they can read it as many times as they need. Sometimes even during the event.

I’ve been doing this for years. In fact, at one point, I created a 3 inch square book with Velcro spots to add the information to the story. The story was then a part of the routine. I merely needed to add the photos of people, places, and choices. Andy and I would read the story all morning before an afternoon family gathering. He carried it with him in the car. When we are meeting family we do not see often, we use cartoon images and then took photos to fill in later. In these cases, Andy helps take the picture. This helps build a social bridge between him and the person he’s meeting.

With today’s technology, pre-teaching stories could be created and used on iPods, iPhones, or iPads. Apps such as iPrompts ( $49.99), First-Then Visual Schedule ($9.99), flip videos, or a folder of photos are very portable options for creating pre-teaching stories.

I know I just added “one more thing” to do during your busy winter break.

It is one thing that may make the expected parties and gatherings easier for all.


For coaching on how to create useful pre-teaching stories and other visual tools, contact Joan or visit her website to learn about coaching packages.

Here is an example of a photo social story for a new experience. Though not an “event,” it shows the structure of the story creation.

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