How Educators Recharge Over Winter Break

How Educators Recharge Over Winter BreakAs fulfilling as working with students of all ages can be, the daily challenges you face may leave you feeling depleted and headed toward burnout. Our Advisory Board is here to share what they’re doing to recharge over the winter break in hopes of sparking a few ideas for you.

Already know how you’ll recharge? Share your plans for the winter break in the comments below.


There are a few ways that I like to recharge over winter break, but my favorite is a winter outing in the woods with my family. We usually pile the kids on a toboggan and pull them through a snowy forest. The soft blanket of snow and the quiet creaking of the trees help quiet our minds from our busy lives. There is a peacefulness in the winter that reminds us to be in the present moment because all too soon spring will be around the corner.
Jenny, school psychologist

I spend time with my family over break and travel to a different state. The change of scenery helps me recharge. I like to walk through stores and eat at local restaurants that I cannot visit in my home state.
Gina, music teacher

I’m recharging by reading all those great books I’ve been wanting to read, by hanging out with my husband, and by napping—a lot!
Nancy, rock star teacher

During winter break, I will “cut the cord” to my job. I won’t check emails, work on evaluations, or complete paperwork. I’ll make sure I have one day that is not planned so I can do as I please!
Josephine, school social worker

My favorite way to recharge over winter break is to bake. I love baking! It brings back wonderful childhood memories of spending time with my mother in the kitchen. While I love sweets, I usually give most of them away. Baking is a great stress-reducer, and the baked goods make a perfect holiday party hostess gift or a thoughtful gift for unsung heroes like your postal delivery person or local grocery checkout person.
Wanda, high school guidance counselor

Winter break is a time for family and rest; however, I also use it as a time to regroup and recharge for the second semester. My mom is a retired career educator, so we will engage with her in some shoptalk; she always has great insights, especially since she gets to sit back and view things from outside the classroom. I spend some time looking at a few articles from professional magazines that I have not read, seeking ideas to approach not only delivering content to students, but also getting them reengaged with learning. Finally, I take a little time to learn something I want to learn. It is always good to practice being a learner, especially in informal situations and settings.
Beverly, AP teacher

How do I plan to recharge? I plan to recharge by relaxing and enjoying the holidays. The holidays have a way of putting a smile on everyone’s face. I plan to enjoy my family and friends over the winter break. I love to see my children cozy in their pajamas and in the spirit of the holiday season. This rejuvenates me for the next six months, until summer break.
Bianca, counselor

For me, recharging is spending time with my family and friends and doing things for myself. My students take so much of my energy during the school year, so I use the breaks for “me time.” The little things are important to me, and I always take time to appreciate them when we have school breaks.
Dana, English teacher

Midyear breaks are a vital time for me to recharge. Celebrating a holiday by being with family for an extended time enables me to once again feel holistic. Winter break is also a convenient time to catch up on sleep and read books simply for pleasure, not necessarily for professional responsibilities. It is okay to allow for personal fulfillment.
Gail, district quality compensation program coordinator

Over Christmas break, I will read books for leisure and take time to exercise! I will also spend quality time with my own kiddos and enjoy being “just a mom” for a couple of weeks!
Ashley, school interventionist

I plan on catching up on sleep, house projects, and quality time with my family over winter break. I would love to sleep in until I wake up naturally—without an alarm—even just one morning over break. I have some pending house projects that I would like to finish. And I would love to have lazy days with the kids where we play games and make zero plans, just see where the day takes us.
Emily, school counselor

I plan to recharge this winter break by sitting down and making goals for self-care. I plan to work on the more “fun” aspects of my work to help prepare myself for getting back to work. For example, part of my self-care will be putting calm jars together for classroom teachers. Although it is work, I set the boundary of doing only activities I enjoy, while being very intentional about setting aside everything else.

I also plan to spend time with those who help me recharge. It is important to spend time with those who help bring happiness and joy to my life.

Lastly, I plan to focus on wellness and healthy habits. By doing this over break, I plan to create a habit that will be carried over into my workday. Often simple things like making and eating lunch can be set aside on busy days. I plan to be more intentional about my own personal health.
Brigette, elementary school counselor

How will I recharge over winter break? I will be vacationing overseas. I love to travel, and I make it a point to visit a new place on planet Earth at least one time per year. These adventures can include a road trip to a small town I’ve never been to, a visit to a state I’ve never been in, or a long flight to somewhere faraway. Putting myself physically in another spot takes me away mentally!
Rebecca, ASD behavioral coach

The Free Spirit Advisory Board of Educators is a group of professionals who provide feedback that helps make Free Spirit books be even more beneficial for kids, teens, and the adults who care about them. Interested in becoming a member? Recruitment is ongoing! For more information about the benefits and responsibilities of membership, download our Free Spirit Advisory Board flyer and our Free Spirit Advisory Board application.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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Enter to Win a $200 Free Spirit Gift Certificate!

Enter to win a $200 gift certificate!Thank you for another wonderful year! For our final giveaway of 2017, one lucky reader will win a $200 gift certificate to use at

To Enter: Leave a comment below telling us what makes you a free spirit.

For additional entries, leave a separate comment below for each of the following tasks that you complete:

Each comment counts as a separate entry—that’s four chances to win! Entries must be received by midnight, December 22, 2017.

The winner will be contacted via email on or around January 2, 2018, and will need to respond within one week to claim his or her prize or another winner will be chosen. This giveaway is in no way affiliated with, administered, or endorsed by Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. Winner must be a U.S. resident, 18 years of age or older.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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Helping Students Cope with Holiday Stress

By James J. Crist, Ph.D., author of What to Do When You’re Scared & Worried: A Guide for Kids

Helping Students Cope with Holiday StressThe holidays can be a joyful time for many of us. Kids look forward to gift giving, having time off from school, and perhaps seeing relatives who live far away. But as we all know, the holidays are also a stressful time. So much to do and so little time to get it done! Schedules may be disrupted, which can be tough since most kids do better when sticking to a schedule or routine for meals and bedtimes. And when parents and other caregivers are stressed, kids feel it too.

Stress around the holidays can also affect the behavior and performance of students at school. By being sensitive to these issues and checking in with students around the holidays, school counselors can play an important role in helping kids navigate holiday stress successfully.

Sources of Holiday Stress
Changes in routine can be stressful to many of us. Kids may stay up later during the holidays, which can make them more irritable if they are not getting enough sleep.

Watching food intake is another challenge. High-calorie foods are everywhere, which can be hard for kids who need to watch what they eat. Some kids also may misbehave more when they eat too many sugary treats.

As we know in working with kids, not all families function well. Relatives who do not get along are often expected to get together during the holidays and avoid getting into arguments. And in today’s politically charged environment, many of us may be nervous about conversations that might arise during these family gatherings. Kids may not know how to react if the adults around them aren’t getting along or aren’t even speaking to each other.

For kids whose parents aren’t together, the holidays can be especially difficult emotionally. Court orders often dictate which parent gets the kids for the holidays. This can mean traveling great distances for some. While most kids look forward to their time with the absent parent, others may dread it if the relationship isn’t close. It can be tough leaving the rest of the family behind as well. Some kids may be disappointed if they are not able to spend as much time with their absent parent as they would like, particularly if that parent is unable to take time off.

If students have recently lost a family member, the holidays may be their first without their loved one. Families handle death and grief in different ways; not all are open to talking about it. Feeling sad about the absence of a family member can definitely interfere with enjoying of the holidays.

Giving gifts presents its own challenges. Kids may want to get gifts for family and friends but not have money to buy them. Or they may feel bad if they receive gifts from friends and are not able to reciprocate for whatever reason. Some kids stress about whether or not the gifts they give will be liked, while others may be prone to disappointment if they don’t get what they want.

Mental Health Issues Can Add to Holiday Stress
Kids with mental health issues often have a harder time coping with the holidays. Anxious kids may worry about how things will go, particularly if they have to be around people they don’t know well. Depressed kids may get their hopes up that the holidays will be happy, only to be disappointed when things don’t go as planned. Or they may be more irritable (a common depression symptom in kids), which can elicit negative reactions from others, including loved ones. Kids with ADHD often get overly excited and may act without thinking (for example, opening gifts that don’t belong to them or eating cookies that are baked for special events), which creates stress for other family members. Kids on the autism spectrum may be overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the holidays and the changes from their usual routines.

Addiction problems in family members can be heightened during the holidays. Use of alcohol or other drugs may be more prevalent over the holidays, particularly during parties. Kids who have witnessed conflict or violence at home that involved parents under the influence may become quite anxious, not knowing what might happen or who might get hurt.

Cultural Issues
As our country becomes more multicultural, kids are learning more than ever that not all people celebrate the same holidays. This can be awkward. Asking a friend what he or she wants for Christmas, only to find out that the friend is of a different faith and doesn’t celebrate Christmas, can lead to hurt feelings. Kids whose families do not celebrate Christmas may feel left out, even though their faith may be strong.

Saying “Happy Holidays” covers all bases with regard to celebrating difficult holidays, though people of some faiths may feel their beliefs and traditions are not being properly recognized. This can be a great educational opportunity to teach kids about how people of different faiths celebrate the holidays.

Helping Kids Cope with Holiday Stress
One of the best things you can do as a counselor is simply to listen and validate students’ feelings about the holidays. Don’t rush to offer advice or reassurance, as kids don’t always see that as helpful; they already get enough of that from parents. When you meet with students, be sure to ask how they celebrate the holidays and how they feel about them. If you know students’ parents are divorced, ask how the holidays work in their families and what they think and feel about the arrangements. A good starting question is, “What do you think you could do to make the holidays go better for you?” If needed, you can help students come up with strategies for making the holidays easier to handle, such as taking a break or asking for help when they feel overwhelmed.

Encouraging kids to help out over the holidays is a great way to help them be more responsible, reduce the stress of the holidays on their parents, and perhaps even provide some bonding time. Making cookies together can be fun and tasty!

Reminding kids to do their best to stick to their regular bedtimes, limit unhealthy treats, and get plenty of exercise can help them keep their stress under control during the holidays.

For kids who may feeling lonely during the holidays, encourage them to make sure they have contact information for their friends at school. This way they can talk or text over the holidays or even get together.

Dr. James J. CristAuthor James Crist is a psychologist specializing in children with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. He is the clinical director and a staff psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Center in Woodbridge, Virginia, where he provides psychological testing and individual, couples, and family psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults. Visit his website at

Free Spirit books by James Crist:

The Survival Guide for Making and Being Friends WhatToDoWhenYou'reScaredAndWorried What to Do When You’re Cranky & Blue Mad

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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Personalized Learning and Gifted Students

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

Personalized Learning and Gifted StudentsOne of the most recent buzz phrases in education is “personalized learning.” Having been in the field of education for 30 years now, I’ve heard a lot of these buzz phrases (“whole language,” “new math,” “outcome-based education,” “performance-based education,” “new standards . . .”). All of these initiatives were supposed to be the magic potion that would raise student achievement, close the achievement gap, and prepare kids for college and careers.

Most of my professional development focus has been on differentiation and gifted education. As I read through the materials on personalized learning, I had to keep asking myself, “How is personalized learning different from differentiation?” Are we repackaging differentiation as personalized learning to increase the market value of books and professional development? Additionally, to date, I’ve not seen any substantial evidence or research that makes a distinction between personalized learning and differentiation. Same stuff, different box?

In 2014, a group of philanthropies (including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) and school and technology advocacy groups (including the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and Silicon Schools) came together to create a four-frame working definition of the attributes of personalized learning. This definition is intended to “help educators design student-centered instructional models.” As of the development of this definition, no schools have fully employed all its traits. The recommendation is to begin somewhere and grow from there.

I view the definition as a framework that can be used to involve students in ownership of their learning processes. The framework includes what, when, how, and where students learn—very similar to the what, how, and why of differentiated instruction. For gifted and advanced learners, the personalized learning framework can give options for tailoring their learning pathways.

For purposes of this post, I’ll highlight at least one idea for gifted and advanced students within each of the four frames of the personalized learning working definition.

Learner profiles outlines the students’ awareness of their strengths, needs, motivations, goals, and feedback. Motivation to learn is most often propelled by how a student sets goals. Psychologists call this a learner orientation toward goal setting. There are four types of learner orientations:

  • Mastery approach: those who set goals to increase their personal best
  • Mastery avoidance: those who are fine with being “good enough,” thus their goals are set to a minimum
  • Performance approach: those who set goals to beat others or be number one
  • Performance avoidance: those who set goals so as not to fail

In most cases, our current schooling process is based on ranking and ordering of students: GPAs, AP test scores, and class ranks. This competitive mentality sets in play the performance approach mindset for many of our gifted and advanced students. We should be encouraging the mastery approach goal-setting orientation—measuring personal achievement as a scholar and a caring individual.

Personal learning paths defines how students achieve high expectations and standards of the disciplines. Gifted and advanced learners move at a pace very different from the general population. Allowing gifted and advanced students to personalize the pathways they will take to achieve the standards of each discipline will encourage them to have great ownership of their learning and to explore in more complex and relevant ways. This could include students meeting standards through mentorships or internships or through taking college courses while in middle school or high school. Experiential learning, such as spending a summer working as a camp counselor or math tutor, could count toward credits in a child development course or community involvement requirement. Personalized learning paths allow gifted and advanced students to engage in authentic opportunities that will produce meaningful products with value to others.

How each student progresses toward mastery is called competency based progression. This involves continuous ongoing assessment and individualized advancement. One of the most often cited complaints by gifted and advanced learners is the lock-step pace of curriculum and instruction. In the personalized learning model, students would set goals (based on standards of the discipline), define mastery (based on proficiency criteria), and seek out ongoing feedback and assessment. Gifted and advanced students could demonstrate mastery early, move into more advanced learning experiences quicker, and seek feedback and ongoing assessment from professionals in their preferred fields of study. Students would not be limited to the constraints of the K–12 system and would be involved in genuine expert learning.

The fourth frame is flexible learning environments. The needs of students and their design of learning drives the where, when, and who. The learning goals a student has set will define where the learning will happen (online, through mentorships or internships, in the workforce, on a college or post-secondary campus, in an art museum, on an international trip). Students are not limited to the K–12 school times; learning can take place over the summer, on weekends, or in the evening. The who includes who will be involved in the learning (such as professionals in the field, classroom teachers, school administrators, college or university professors, theater directors, fashion designers). It also includes working with other students in small or large groups. Gifted- and advanced-level students thrive on these kinds of open opportunities to learn differently, apply skills in authentic and meaningful ways, and engage in collaborative conversations that expand their thinking and world perspectives.

My take on personalized learning is that it has the components of differentiation. However, the framework provides us with another articulation of how to successfully address the learning needs of all students. For gifted and advanced learners, we may now have the license to allow them to pursue their learning passions in a variety of authentic, relevant, and meaningful ways.

Richard CashRichard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition Differentiation for Gifted Learners

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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How Parents Can Advocate for Their Child with Special Needs at School

By Andrew Hawk

How Parents Can Advocate for Their Child with Special Needs at SchoolThe relationship between the parents of a student with special needs and the personnel of the school the student attends can be tricky to say the least. I have seen disagreements erupt from parents thinking students get too much time in the special education environment and from parents thinking that students don’t get enough time. Some parents ask for accommodations that the school is unwilling to provide. In several cases, parents advocate for their student to have a one-on-one teaching assistant or extended school year services. Schools will sometimes shy away from these things because they can be expensive.

If you are unhappy with the way something is going at your student’s school, you have more power than you think. Here are some ways you can advocate for your student.

Be Informed
Don’t just read your procedural safeguards; go online and review the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Knowledge is power. This is especially true when it comes to special education. You may want to go to your state’s Department of Education website and review state law, too. IDEA is the guiding light in special education law, but some of the details vary from state to state.

Keep Paperwork
There will be a lot of paperwork. Individualized education plans (IEPs), meeting notices, and progress reports are some of the items you can expect to receive from your student’s school. I recommend keeping these in a three-ring binder and taking the binder with you to all IEP meetings. This will help you track and understand the changes the school may suggest to your student’s IEP.

Monitor Progress Reports
Students should be making progress toward their IEP goals. If students are not making progress, it is important to find out why. Was the goal too ambitious? Is a change in instruction needed? If there is one mistake I see parents making, it is that they do not pay enough attention to progress reports. I understand that a lot of pieces of paper come home from school, but progress reports are just as important as report cards. If your student is not making any progress, you may want to explore extended school year services.

Consider Extended School Year (ESY)
Extended school year is a program for special education students who show a lot of regression in learned skills during long breaks (such as over the summer), are not making adequate progress toward their IEP goals, or are at a pivotal point in instruction. ESY can be a costly endeavor that the school administration did not consider when budgeting, so they may be resistant to it. But legally, schools have to offer ESY if data supports students receiving it. Have you ever heard the old saying “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”? If your student is not progressing, you should be the squeaky wheel.

Call an IEP Meeting
The law requires that schools have one IEP meeting per special needs student per year. However, the teacher or parent can call an IEP meeting at any time. There is no limit to how many can take place in a year. If something isn’t right with your student’s learning or educational plan, call a meeting to discuss it. You can do this by contacting the special education teacher who is acting as your student’s case manager.

When disagreements arise . . .

Be Aware of the School’s Point of View
While you’re advocating only for your child, it’s the school’s job to meet the needs of all students. In addition, there is a lot of pressure on schools to keep students in the general education environment as much as possible. This pressure comes from the federal Department of Education and trickles down to individual states’ Departments of Education. However, if your student’s needs are not being met, you are within your rights to ask for more services.

Start with a Phone Call
When something happens that concerns you, whether it be a bad grade, an unfair consequence, or something else, I recommend starting with a phone call. If a phone call does not work, you can elevate to a conference and then, if needed, to an IEP meeting. School personnel will rate the seriousness of your concern based on which of these you implement. I recommend starting small and working up.

Do Research of Your Own
In many cases, schools will point to research findings that validate their chosen course of action. If this occurs, do some research of your own. See if there are studies that support your side of the disagreement. If you find reliable research that supports your case, share it with the school.

Be Professional
Teachers understand that parents are passionate about their child’s success. However, you should always try to maintain a professional demeanor when talking to school personnel, even if you disagree. In many cases, your student may have the same teachers for several years. A heated meeting can lead to many awkward meetings in the future.

Consider a Parent Advocate
If you are having trouble resolving an issue with your student’s school, contacting an advocate is a logical step that many parents follow. Some counties employ advocates as a resource for parents. In many cases, people who act as advocates have a special interest in special education. Sometimes advocates are retired teachers or parents of grown special education students. An advocate is there to help parents negotiate solutions to disagreement with their child’s school. These people act as your representative, so choose someone professional. If you are unsure how to find an advocate, a quick web search should be all it takes.

Consider a Facilitated IEP Meeting
Parents are often unaware that they have the right to request a facilitated IEP meeting. In these meetings, your state Department of Education will send a state facilitator to assist with the case conference. The state facilitator will be a neutral party. He or she should be able to shed some light on how the state views your case from a legal point of view.

If All Else Fails
When everything else has failed, you can request an arbitration hearing. An arbitrator will listen to both sides of the issue and will make a ruling for the parents or the school. In most cases, schools will try to avoid arbitration at all costs. Win or lose, these hearings create bad press for school systems. If you need information about how to go about setting up an arbitration hearing, information should be available on your state’s Department of Education website.

Andrew HawkAndrew Hawk has worked in public education for sixteen years, starting as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher, and for the past five years, has worked as a resource room teacher, providing services for fourth and fifth graders. Working as a special education teacher has given him the opportunity to work with a variety of age groups and exceptionalities. Andrew earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University, and in 2016, he completed a second master’s degree in educational leadership, also from WGU. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2017 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

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