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How to support children with SEND at festive times due to a change in routine

For lots of people the festive season is exciting; the flashing lights, the parties, presents, seeing friends old and new.  For others, especially children with SEND and their families, the festive season can be a very stressful time of year. Children with SEND will find it stressful for a variety of reasons- and we will look at why this may be and what childcare professionals can do to support children and their families.

Why would the festive season cause anxiety?

The festive season often involves a change in routine, for example a holiday from school, which can cause children with SEND to become unsettled and anxious. They may not have the language skills to understand what's going to happen next.

Childcare professionals can help reduce their anxiety by creating a visual timetable which will let them know what will happen during the day or week. This can help them to anticipate what is ahead of them and also let them know that there is an end to the unusual timetable during the festive season.

It can also be a time when children are asked to dress up and learn about different traditions by actively taking part.  

Children with SEND may struggle to understand that they or adults can play different roles and it may cause anxiety. Santa Claus or carol singers can seem threatening and alien when children aren't sure what role they play or why they are there. You may need to spend time explaining these social routines and teach children how to react and respond.

Sensory overload

We all have different environments that calm or excite us. Some children with SEND can get overwhelmed in a situation that we think is normal because they are very sensitive to noise or flashing lights.

Get to know the children in your setting’s sensory preferences and plan ahead. Ask the children’s parents if they are scared by noise or lights. Can they cope with unfamiliar tastes and smells?  All children will be different, so you will need to think about what activities your group will do over this period to make sure all children can join in.

Strategies to support children with SEND

Planning ahead is key to ensuring that all children have a positive time at your setting during the festive season. You can also share these strategies with parents to help them to prepare their child for the changes in routine during this time.

  • If you are going to go somewhere unfamiliar, try to prepare children by showing them pictures about where you are going and who's going to be there. Allow them to ask questions as this may help alleviate some anxieties.


Talk about what you do if, for example, you go to a pantomime or a party. You can role play it and practice what to do. This will help children to become familiar with what happens and how to react. Take photos in new situations so that you can create photo books to look at together and use in the future.

  • Plan specific support for sensory needs into your activity and make sure children know where they can go and what they can do if they feel anxious.
  • Children with SEND may not have the vocabulary needed to understand the new unfamiliar words, phrases and songs they are being asked to learn. You may need to plan in time to explain these, supporting this with visual clues and practicing this in your setting or asking parents to practice at home.

Reflecting on practice

You may already be aware of and using many of these strategies. However, it's often useful to reflect on what works for different children, as they may have a different response to another child.
It is also important to involve parents at the planning stages to make sure you know that your activities will get the response you want from children in your setting. You can also share good strategies with parents to use at home.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I already use visual timetables? If so what needs to change at holiday times?
  • How can I share this information with parents to help them during the holiday season?
  • Do we talk about what's going to happen so that we can plan ahead and make this an exciting time for everyone?
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