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Ahren Hoffman
BY Ahren Hoffman

13 Ways Special Needs Parents can Stay Sane over Winter Break

Holiday time and winter break can be busy, unscheduled and sometimes chaotic. This article will guide you on how to prepare for the break from school and the change in routine. Here are tips to fill family time, quiet time and social time over winter break!

Family TimeHappy couple with two children making big snowman

The holidays often bring vacation time from work for caregivers and no school for the kids. The change in routine can sometimes be a challenge for typically scheduled families and the holidays can harbor chaos on one end of the spectrum or even more threatening, boredom on the other.

This is where planning before the much needed break comes into play! More preparation up front before the vacation makes for a more relaxed and enjoyable time as a family. It is important to keep the troops on a schedule, but toss in some unexpected activities and events throughout the day to add an element of surprise into the routine!

Here are two holiday helper ideas for family time:

1. Schedule

Create a schedule on a fridge calendar or bulletin board. Much of the daily routine can stay the same to keep the family rhythm, but surprise activities and events sprinkled in will add some spice.

Example Schedule:
Wake Up, Breakfast, Get Ready, Morning Event/Activity, Lunch, Afternoon Event/Activity, Independent Time, Dinner, Shower/Bath, Bed.

Even though the activities will be different, there will be a schedule to follow so kids (and parents!) don’t completely lose that part of their regular routines and the transition back to school is (hopefully!) less stressful.

2. Activities/Events

Try and incorporate surprise activities and events into the holiday break to fill time as a family.


  • Make holiday decorations
  • volunteer at a pet shelter or elderly home
  • bake cookies or make candies
  • get out the board games for a family game night or even have a game morning!


Check out what your community has to offer

  • ice skating, library
  • story times
  • free museum days
  • gather the neighbors to create leaf piles or make snowmen.

Independent TimeBoy Playing with letters

Everyone needs a little time to be alone! Everyone, especially children with special needs, need some down time each day. This “down time” could mean:

It can be challenging for kids to settle down. To assist, have the quiet time happen in a room that isn’t cluttered or busy. Environment can help or hinder independent time. Here are three holiday helper ideas for independent time:

1. Quiet Time Bin

This bin can be filled with “do it yourself” toys and games. Puzzles, books, iPad, handheld games. These should be things that don’t need constant supervision and the child (and parent) feels confident doing alone.

2. Busy Box/Bag

Raid the Dollar Store for items to fill a busy box or bag! You never know what you will find and your child will be just as surprised too! Small puzzles, fidgets, books, crafts, etc. can be used to fill the box or bag.

If you are up to it, create a scavenger hunt around the house with a list of things for your child to find that you found at the Dollar Store. After they find all of the items on the list, they can play with them. Another idea for a mess-free scavenger hunt is to give the kids a list of items that can be found in the house (e.g. slipper, pen, banana, etc) and have them use a digital camera or smart phone to take a picture of their findings. It keeps them busy and doesn’t create more mess for you to clean.

3. Activity Corner

Create an area with pillows and stuffed animals, books, puzzles, games and other favorite items that will keep your child busy for a bit.

A final thought to these fun activities is making sure your child knows when the fun ends- set a timer, give them a watch or clock, give warnings. Time management is key to making sure the activities end on a positive note and transitioning to another activity is as seamless as can be.

Social TimeDoes My Child With Special Needs Scare You?

Is it easier to throw in the towel and not attend family/social functions? Maybe. But planning and little creativity can ease the anxiety you may feel when you are faced with holidays, traditions and family or friend events. It can be challenging to attend a social function- there is a rush of activity, new faces and unfamiliar voices which may cause kids to become fearful, over-stimulated, withdraw or act out.

For kids who have difficulty regulating attention and/or become stimulated easily, the exaggerated embraces and loud noises can oftentimes be very confusing and overwhelming and hinder behaviors. Here are seven holiday helper ideas for extended family/social time:

1. Travel Bag

Have a bag ready to bring the comforts of home (toys, games, books, etc.) to the party. Make sure your child helps you with this task so they know what they have before arriving to Aunt Edna’s.

2. Photos

Get out old photos and albums to go over family members before the party. This will give your child the comfort of knowing who is there and what faces to expect when going to the party.

3. Role Play

It’s game night with charades! Act out scenarios of the party- how to introduce yourself, pretend to be Grandma, etc. This can be a fun game to play regardless of your child’s comfort level or social skills, and can be helpful in easing the anxiety of a once or twice per year party.

4. Escape Place

Locate a place at the party your child can go to relax and have some down time if needed.

5. Photographer

Bring a camera to the party! Allowing your child to commemorate the party by being the photographer can help with the awkward group conversations and social scenarios. Gotta keep getting the shots when you’re the photographer!

6. Gamer

 Have your child prepare a game beforehand and facilitate the game for the entire group (or just the kids) to play at the party. Or even bring a favorite board game to play with cousins and other kids.

7. Nutritious Food

It’s tough! But try to be cognizant of what your child is eating. At holiday parties there are yummy-laden foods which can also affect a child’s attention, anxiety, mood, energy, etc. Make sure your child has good nutritious snacks like apples and peanut butter so they have something to maintain blood sugar level and won’t snack as much at the party.

Ahren Hoffman

Written on December 16, 2013 by:

Ahren Hoffman IS the manager of Industry Relations and Partnerships for the National Lekotek Center. Lekotek, is a not-for-profit and leading authority on toys and play for children with disabilities. Lekotek is dedicated to providing children of all abilities access to the benefits of play experiences. Visit for a complete listing of toys. You can also find them onFacebook