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Recess brings little joy

Educators say behavior issues may rise at holidays as some pupils lose sense of safety

By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / December 23, 2011
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A pouting first-grader stood in the principal’s office at Haley Pilot Elementary School as classmates took to the playground with wild abandon yesterday, excited about the upcoming winter recess.

He didn’t answer when principal Angel Charles asked why he had “an angry face,’’ but she had her suspicions: holiday stress. “He’s typically not down here for any reason.’’ Yesterday, however, he got into a schoolyard tussle with a classmate.

There are students in urban schools who do not relish the thought of seven days away from the classroom or the presents, parties, and bountiful meals that traditionally accompany winter break, which starts today for Boston’s public schools. Educators say students from unstable homes or those struggling financially become anxious and act out as the holiday season approaches.

“Students who are the most at-risk and vulnerable feel their sense of safety going away,’’ explained Anne Whittredge, a retired principal and consultant working with principals on supervision and evaluation.

“For our most at-risk students, school is often the place where they feel safe,’’ Whittredge said. “There’s structure they count on, and adults who are constant.’’

It’s a phenomenon that occurs in kindergarten through 12th grade, she said.

Adults should expect seasonal frenzy to come with an uptick in tantrums, outbursts, and other behavior issues, said Whittredge as she waited to begin a training session at Blackstone Elementary School in Boston’s South End.

Her advice: “Be slow and be gentle. Respond. Don’t react.’’

Blackstone and Haley do their best to practice wish fulfillment through food, clothes, and toy drives. A dozen Blackstone students received jackets, hats, gloves, and scarves from the South End police station.

The Haley school’s parent organization assembled 30 gift-wrapped food baskets with everything needed for a holiday feast, including the masher to smash potatoes. And more than 200 gifts were purchased, wrapped, and delivered to Haley families.

Both try to deliver gifts directly to families so “parents have something to give them on the day,’’ said Salome Briceno, Blackstone’s director of family engagement. “Some families, you wake up, and the tree is empty. Nothing’s there.’’

The Haley school, in Roslindale, has a diverse population, with some students coming from affluent families and others from low-income families. Their wish lists range from iPod nanos to school uniforms.

“To know there are kids in the classroom who have so much and others who don’t, doesn’t sit well with anybody,’’ Charles said. “You can tell in the faces and in the behavior. Kids exhibit the same kinds of things as when adults are depressed. They’re agitated, withdrawn, in a general malaise.’’

First-grader Robert Woods excitedly recounted what he had learned since the school year began. Stratus clouds, he explained, mean rain.

“Sometimes they snow, and sometimes they thunder,’’ he said. But when the conversation turned to the winter break, Robert’s mood turned somber.

“I want to be in school,’’ he said, responding with a shoulder shrug when asked why.

Robert, Charles later said, has no idea that Santa got some help from the school.

His classmate Anjelyna Hernandez, however, was much more enthusiastic.

“Christmas is only three more days away,’’ she said breathlessly, after explaining that trees have branches, roots, and a trunk. “I was good.’’ (She asked Santa for a LeapPad, which is a child’s tablet computer.)

Charles said students derived a sense of hope from seeing stacks of gifts and food collection bins, which helped cut down on misbehavior this year. “There seems to be a sense of excitement because of the possibility: ‘Oh, could that be for me?’ ’’

True to form, the student sent to the principal’s office for fighting nosed around the remaining gifts with his alleged victim.

Wondering where a cup full of candy came from and what was in the big, silver box (an Easy Bake Oven) and the small red and white boxes (books and a set of blocks).

“Are you snooping around my presents?’’ Charles said in feigned horror. “Get out of there.’’

The pair’s schoolyard tiff apparently had been forgotten as they teamed up for some good old-fashioned holiday gift recon.

Akilah Johnson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.

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