Enjoying the Holidays During a Pandemic

by Angela Nelson, MS, BCBA
Executive Director of Clinical Services,
Rethink Benefits

A guide for families raising children with learning, social and/or behavioral challenges

Rethink suggests following the recommendations of your public health officials for guidance on holiday gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic.


As the winter holidays approach, you might be wondering how to balance supporting your child’s learning, social and/or behavior challenges and adapting to the unique circumstances of celebrating during a pandemic. Our team has compiled a list of ideas we think you’ll find helpful. There are many holidays across cultures, worldwide, during the latter months of the year. This time of year is often filled with fun, family, great food, nostalgic movies, traditions and maybe even presents. This season can also create a wave of stress – a lot of stress. There are more people to see, more events to attend and prepare for, more decorations and distractions, time off from school/work/therapies – the list goes on. Now with 2020 being in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we may also have to deal with modifications and changes to our usual celebratory routines. This can be hard for some kids (and adults, too!). Holidays often requires extra preparation, organization and logistical planning in order to keep stress to a minimum. Let’s take a look at some examples of how families can maximize the holiday cheer this year:

Prepare Ahead

Teach valuable skills your child will benefit from having now, so he/she can participate in holiday activities. These include:

  • Motor skills — Practicing spinning a dreidel, crafting, unwrapping and wrapping presents
  • Language skills — Using manners (Please, thank you), following instructions (Don’t touch!)
  • Academic — Budgeting and purchasing presents, baking, counting up on an Advent calendar
  • Social skills — Turn taking, sharing, gift giving, playing games, having a conversation with unfamiliar people
  • Self-help skills — Tolerating winter clothing, trying new foods, sitting at the table
  • Physical distancing – Role playing safe distances
  • Mask wearing – Practicing wearing masks for increased durations of time

Plan Traditions Carefully

Decor Tips:

  • Set presents out right before opening to reduce temptation
  • Involve your child in decorating
  • Add decorations slowly or scale back what you put out if change is difficult for your child
  • Be mindful of safety (plastic vs. glass ornaments, fake vs. real menorah candles)

Celebration Tips

  • If you won’t be celebrating in-person with others, consider telling your child sooner rather than later to help him/her cope with a possible upset
  • Consider writing a social story (an illustrated teaching story in first-person) to help your child understand how this year’s holidays may be different
  • Get your child involved in brainstorming “distance” holiday games and festivities that might be fun to do over video conference, or select alternative activities to do at home
  • Practice attending religious ceremonies via video conference so when your holiday comes, your child will be more familiar to this format
  • If you plan to attend religious ceremonies in-person, practice going, stake out a spot and plan an escape route if this is not a regular occurrence for your child
  • Practice being around more stimuli (smells, candles, music, etc.)
  • Place a picture of the gift’s recipient instead of name tags on gifts, so your child can participate in gift giving independently if he/she cannot read
  • Wrap up toys/gifts your child already owns if your child is overwhelmed by new/unknown items, so he/she can still participate with others
  • Prepare an event book of past pictures/descriptions to help your child anticipate this year’s festivities, especially if they will look similar
  • Use a visual schedule/calendar to set expectations for things such as when a Christmas tree is coming/going, the dates of Kwanzaa, etc.

Keep Behavior Protocols Running

  • Work with teachers/therapists to help you prepare and suggest ideas to maintain skills
  • Ask for help from your support network to keep protocols consistent (child-care workers, etc.)
  • Keep exclusive reinforcers handy (items, toys, snacks that are highly motivating but are restricted) for long car rides and behavior expectations during events
  • Use visuals such as sticky notes or a reminder on the refrigerator of what behaviors you are working on with your child and what they are earning, as it’s easier to forget during holiday time

The Day of the Holiday or Celebration

  • Define social expectations for your child if you will be around other people and if there are any rewards associated with appropriate behavior
  • Define social expectations for the caregivers to alleviate confusion and frustration (e.g., take turns between child monitoring/play facilitation vs. family/friend socializing)
  • If mealtime is difficult for your child, give yourself permission to eat ahead of time to avoid food struggles
  • Brief family members of any special requests (pets out of the room, lower the music, need a quiet place for a home base, etc.)
  • Give yourself a pep talk. You are prepared and doing the best you can. This is your holiday, too!

During the Festivities

  • Stake out a quiet spot for your child to find retreat, if needed
  • Introduce your child slowly to family/friends
  • Use a concrete visual aid (e.g., an ornament) to signal when it’s someone’s turn to open a gift if impulsivity is a challenge for your child
  • Watch for behavioral precursors, as they may come up more quickly in stressful situations
  • Give tasks/jobs so your child feels included (e.g., helper in the kitchen) • Allow staggered gift giving or reserve for later if your child gets overwhelmed
  • Inform unfamiliar/new people of your child’s needs and how to act around them
  • Watch for safety hazards as not all environments or homes are child/baby proofed the way your child is used to at their own home
  • Reserve special one-on-one time for your child to help him/her feel safe
  • Allow breaks or give special roles during eating if your child cannot sit for long periods (e.g., the “roll passer” or the table interviewer)
  • Enjoy yourself!

Overall, this time of year can be sprinkled with stressful scenarios and, while we can’t prevent everything, practicing, preparing and planning ahead can help to make for a more enjoyable holiday season for everyone. We invite you to reflect on some of these tips to see how you can personalize them to your family and the holidays you enjoy.

Additional Resources:

How to prepare your child with special needs for Chanukah

13 Holiday Survival tips for your child with special needs

How an autism family prepares for Thanksgiving


Angela Nelson has more than 15 years of experience working with individuals with developmental disabilities and their parents. She is the Vice President & Executive Director of Clinical Services at Rethink Benefits, overseeing a team of clinicians and generating content to support and empower families. Angela has a master’s degree in Counseling and is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). She lives in sunny Los Angeles, has 2 daughters and loves the outdoors.

Top Take-Aways From Webinar on Meeting the Needs of Children with Behavioral Challenges Virtually

by Dr. Kurt Hulett, Author, and Special Education Advocate


View the webinar that was moderated by Kurt Hulett on 10.7.2020

“Remember, it is relatively easy to teach social skills and provide social-emotional supports via web-based technologies. School districts need to be creative in figuring out new ways of reaching and teaching students.”

Kurt Hulett

Take-Away #1:  The Law has Not Changed in Light of COVID-19:   

The Department of Education has made it clear since the beginning of COVID-19 that the requirement of FAPE will continue as it has since 1975, although it may look different as far as how services are provided and determined. As we move forward, it is believed that hearing officers and courts may offer some grace to school districts for the spring of 2020 and the implementation of IEP’s; however, this is only as it relates to the “how” of services. The expectation is still that FAPE must be provided as outlined in each IEP and progress toward goals are made and monitored.

Take-Away #2:  Always Progress Monitor and Document Evidence:

The importance of progress monitoring was recently enshrined in the landmark Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (2017) Supreme Court case. The High Court noted, “To meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” The High Court continued, “A child’s IEP need not aim for grade-level advancement if that is not a reasonable prospect … every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectivesIt cannot be right that the IDEA generally contemplates grade-level advancement for children with disabilities who are fully integrated in the regular classroom, but is satisfied with barely more than de minimis [trivial] progress for children who are not” (emphasis added). The issue of progress monitoring has been identified as one of the most critical issues to come out of the Endrew F. case, and one issue that has the potential to place school districts in hot water. Legal experts predict that the field of special education, post-Endrew F., will see an increase in state complaints and due process cases around the issue of progress monitoring.  At the end of the day, and at a minimum, school districts must follow each and every child’s IEP, document the services provided, and document the progress made toward goals and objectives.

Take-Away #3:  If Confusion or Lack of Clarity Exists in the IEP — Take Action and Revise

According to the panel, every school district should have a robust plan to ensure the implementation of FAPE. It is clear, however, that certain behavioral goals — which were written for implementation in a classroom interacting with other students — will be impossible or extremely difficult to implement and progress monitor in virtual environments. In these circumstances, the panel recommends reconvening the IEP team and amending the IEP goals and/or short-term objectives. The new goals and objectives need to focus on the unique needs of the child and take into account his or her physical setting. If virtual, each and every goal should appropriately address each child’s needs, while also being relevant and reasonably progress monitored. Remember, it is relatively easy to teach social skills and provide social-emotional supports via web-based technologies. School districts need to be creative in figuring out new ways of reaching and teaching students.  

Take-Away #4:  Student and Parent Engagement is Critical  

Parents and students need to be provided with the instruction and supports to develop the skills necessary to advocate for themselves. Schools should reach out to families and offer training in the area of self-advocacy. So often we expect students and parents to inherently possess these skills, whereas the great majority of the time they simply need to be taught the skills. In addition, parents of children with behavioral challenges may be facing increased and elevated levels of stress as they are losing daily (in-person) supports, in addition to being the primary provider of daily supervision and even, potentially, instruction. Schools need to reach out directly and regularly to both parents and students to see how they are doing and to see what the school can do to support them. Even if it is simply engaging in conversation and providing human interaction, these touch points can go a long way to supporting folks in a homebound environment. Remember, parents want the absolute best of their children, but sometimes they need support to know how to best proceed. As well, the regular touch points can help teachers to evaluate the mental and emotional health of students and to continue to assess his or her needs. We must remember the importance of human interaction and direct communication during this new norm.

Take-Away #5:  Virtual Doesn’t Have to be Less

Unfortunately, due to many variables and perceptions, virtual instruction and services are often considered inferior and less desirable to in-person learning. In many circumstances, the services that have been traditionally provided have only been done so in-person. As we focus on the individual needs, however, of each child — in particular students with behavioral challenges — the panel noted that many kids are actually flourishing with virtual learning. Many students come to school with social anxiety and other disorders that are aggravated by significant over-stimulation; therefore, a number of students nationwide are adapting well in this new environment. By removing the social and behavioral challenges presented for some students during in-person learning, they have more capacity, time, and energy for learning new skills and content. If we look closely, we can find silver-linings in even a pandemic!

Learn more about how Rethink Ed’s Social Emotional Learning Platform, Skills Platform, and Behavior Success Suite serves students, educators, and families in fully remote learning environments. If you’re a school leader that would appreciate a look at how our team could serve your community, request a demo.


Dr. Hulett is a leading special education advocate and educational consultant based in Central Texas. He works extensively on behalf of children and families engaged in the IEP and Section 504 process. He is well-known for his ability to navigate difficult situations and secure the educational services, goals, and desired outcomes for the parents and students he serves. In addition, he trains principals and administrators in the utilization of both best practices and legal approaches to special education management. Dr. Hulett is the author of the best-selling text “Legal Aspects of Special Education.” He is committed to helping all stakeholders meet the needs of students with disabilities.