Celebrate a Sensory-Friendly Valentine’s Day in the Classroom  

Are you an educator looking for ideas to support students in your classroom? This blog post is for you! Valentine’s Day classroom celebrations are often filled with candy, cards, and heart-themed activities. Classroom celebrations bring excitement. However, for students with autism, sensory sensitivities, or sensory disorders, Valentine’s Day celebrations can be a confusing and overwhelming experience. As a result, many children may not enjoy classroom celebrations. Even virtual, online and remote classroom celebrations are a challenge. Teachers often look for help to create sensory-friendly classroom that accommodates all students’ needs.  

Three strategies to celebrate a sensory-friendly Valentine’s Day in the classroom  

While planning Valentine’s Day celebrations for your students, being mindful of three things to create a fun and memorable time for everyone in the class. They are:  

  • The classroom environment,
  • Being prepared, and
  • Choice of activities.

Anne, an elementary school teacher, contributed to this blog post. Anne has been teaching kindergarten and grades 1-3 for almost 30 years. Like many teachers in recent years, she has navigated from teaching in-person to teaching virtually and back again. In this blog post, Anne shares ways to create a sensory-friendly classroom. Her deep experience will help you to create fun, accessible and inclusive celebrations both in-person and virtually.

Create a sensory-friendly Valentine’s Day classroom environment

A calm and relaxing classroom environment helps students! So, too, does creating calm moments during exciting celebrations. Consider your routine, teach social expectations, and adapt the physical environment. 

Follow your classroom routine

Like any holiday, Valentine’s Day celebrations disrupt your daily classroom routine. For many children, changes in routines cause anxiety. A study, “The Everyday Routines of Families of Children With Autism:  Examining the Impact of Sensory Processing Difficulties on the Family” by Schaaf et al (2011) found that autistic children often display avoidant, sensory seeking, and tuned-out behaviour in response to unwanted changes in their routines. Ultimately, making engaging in activities at home and at school more difficult1.

Thus, changes in classroom routine may lead to a stress for your students! In particular, your students with autism. What to do? Before and after any new Valentine’s Day activities, for example, ensure you include your typical classroom routines. As well, add in anything familiar to anything new. Think about the words you use and the materials you use. Essentially, keep some of the old with the new!

Young person holding up Valentine's Day craft.

Teach new social expectations

Celebrations, like Valentine’s Day, bring new social expectations and vocabulary! Use the opportunity to teach new social expectations. For example, teach students about new phrases like “be my Valentine.” Students may not know how to respond to giving and receiving Valentine’s Day cards.

Create a calm environment

Celebrations, decorations, fun, candy, novelty are sensory-rich. So too, do bright festive colours, harsh overhead lights, and loud music lead to overwhelm. Keep a calm, quiet area in the classroom, where students can take a break from novelty. Consider a decorated zone and an undecorated zone.

Plan and prepare for a sensory-friendly Valentine’s Day 

As a teacher, you already know planning and preparation is key to learning! Creating a welcoming sensory-friendly Valentine’s Day needs the same. Lay the groundwork for expectations and communication ahead of time. The following strategies are teacher-tested!

Communicate about the expectations in advance

Explain what will happen during the celebrations to create a more sensory-friendly Valentine’s Day. Set expectations ahead of time. Help students be more prepared for changes in routine. For example, use a social story, which helps students understand social expectations. Be sure to talk about upcoming celebrations well in advance. Show and tell students what to expect: what will be the same and what will be different.

Contact parents in advance, too. Parents need to know about expectations for their children! Let parents know what changes will occur. And, importantly, if there is anything they need to prepare.

Discuss the history of Valentine’s Day with students! Students benefit from learning traditions, celebrations, and vocabulary. Connect the meaning and significance of different holidays, like Valentine’s Day to strengthen classroom values. For example, if your classroom value is treating everyone like a friend, Valentine’s Day can be framed as a day to continue honouring friendships. 

Celebrations are another way to continue to respect and honour the things that make us unique. They help us understand others a little more

Anne E., Elementary School Teacher 

Coming up with sensory-friendly lessons and presentations also helps to reduce anxiety and increase learning. So, display lessons in simple, easy-to-understand ways that do not overwhelm the senses. For example, alternate the use of words, pictures, and numbers. Make visual information simple.  

Are you celebrating virtually? Make sure you have good quality audio. Sound, in particular “scratchy” sound, is hugely distracting!

Send out multiple reminders

Create a countdown calendar for special events, like Valentine’s Day classroom celebrations. Host a questions and answer period for your students. Questions and answers can be both verbal and written.

Furthermore, visual calendars are very helpful. Provide a specific breakdown of special events or activities. Help students follow along, step by step. Once again, knowing what to expect helps decrease anxiety.

Practice Valentine’s Day activities in advance

Prepare students with instructions about Valentine’s Day activities. Hold a practice session, if needed! Practice giving and receiving cards, for example. New social expectations often contribute to sensory overload. Thus, help students feel comfortable with new expectations.

Choose sensory-friendly Valentine’s Day Activities

Themed activities are a fun part of Valentine’s Day celebrations. But fun is often individual from student to student. Arts and crafts can be sensory-rich for the tactile sense, as an example. Moreover, collaboration amongst students can also be a challenge for some. Here are more ideas to help your students:

Select sensory-friendly activities

Incorporate your students’ special interests. In addition, get student input! For example, does your classroom share a popular book or character? Include them in Valentine’s Day celebration. Get students to suggest activities, themes, and ideas. By involving students in planning the event, you develop expectations and familiarity that ultimately puts them at ease. 

Find a variety of sensory play activities to choose from. For instance, Valentine’s Day-themed sensory bins, Bubble Wrap Hearts, Thumbprint Magnets, and Pink Oatmeal are a few suggestions from Mess for Less. Moreover, find virtual activities suggested by We Are Teachers that can easily be adapted to hybrid and in-classroom situations.

Finally, movement helps the sensory nervous system both calm and focus! Add in movement breaks. Ideas are as simple as stretching arms up and making hearts with arms overhead! Or, tapping feet for the number of letters in the words “Saint Valentine’s Day.”

Valentine’s Day classroom activity ideas

  • Write a Valentine’s Day card to a friend or a parent
  • Practice learning and drawing heart shapes
  • Colour in a Valentine’s Day-themed sheet
  • Give students 3 minutes to find and count all the red things in their room (or house for a virtual classroom). Have the students share the results of their count in turns
  • Have students try to make a heart shape with their fingers, arms, legs, and bodies
  • Pass a pre-made paper heart. Virtually, have students figure out how to show a heart moving across their screen by holding it in their hands. Get them to move it from one end of the screen to the other and then “pick it up” from the previous student and “pass it” to the next. Great visual-motor skills are needed!   In-person, have them pass it with their feet, for example.
  • Do a burst of teacher-led jumping jacks and then get them to feel their heart pumping by placing their hands over their hearts

Anne shares that hands-on activities and lessons are effective ways to engage your students creatively. For example, Anne encourages the students to bring common items found around their homes to assist during lessons and activities, both in classroom and virtually. Additionally, she will sometimes prepare items that parents can pick up for their children to use during online school.  

Plan ahead before facilitating activities

Anne suggests taking 5 minutes at the beginning of every virtual class for a “soft start.” Let students greet their peers. She suggests running lessons and activities for approximately 20 minutes at a time. Then give students a structured and planned screen break. Furthermore, this will give them time to use the toilet or get a drink or snack. Ultimately, short virtual sessions and planned breaks create more engagement.  The same strategies can be used in classrooms, too!

Running activities in smaller groups of 4-5 students helps to create an inclusive event for everyone. Students tend to interact more with the lessons and activities as they are less overwhelmed and in control of their environment, in smaller groups.

For virtual or remote classrooms, encourage students to keep their microphones on during an online or hybrid celebration allows for greater conversation amongst students, increases participation, and develops a safe online learning environment.  Be mindful about too much noise and bring in silent breaks if needed!

Anne identifies another effective way to help increase your students’ engagement: give students choices within activities. For instance, Anne gives her students the opportunity to choose between different activities based on their interests. Therefore, give your students options for activities. Ultimately, this allows them to incorporate some of their interests into their learning.  

Help your students anticipate and enjoy Valentine’s Day classroom celebrations without becoming overwhelming. Adapt these suggestions can help make your classroom celebration on Valentine’s Day both fun and sensory-friendly. 

Special thanks to teacher Anne for sharing her valuable advice!  

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Source

  1. Schaaf, R. C., Toth-Cohen, S., Johnson, S. L., Outten, G., & Benevides, T. W. (2011). The Everyday Routines of Families of Children With Autism:  Examining the Impact of Sensory Processing Difficulties on the Family. Autism, 15(3), 373–389. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361310386505
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