Learning Opportunities for the Holidays

The holidays can be stressful. There’s so much to do, so little time! The hustle and bustle of it all can feel overwhelming. I recommend approaching the holidays as an ideal opportunity to create concrete learning opportunities. Before diving into our identified list of 7 moments for meaningful growth, here are three quick teaching tips that you will see in each of the examples:

  • Use questions to help move towards goals
  • Be prepared for things to not go ‘according to plan’
  • Our behaviors are examples that our families follow


  1. Inviting Guests
    • If we are hosting a meal, we often have to start thinking about who will be invited. Why start here? Well, what are we going to eat? How much food do we need? Do we have enough seats? The rest of the planning process depends on all of this! This also is a great opportunity to help teach perspective taking and theory of mind. Why do we need to invite people early? They may be making other plans themselves. It’s a great opportunity to involve and get buy in from our neurodivergent loved ones to participate in the whole process. See who they think should be invited, how should we invite them, and then do it together!  
  2. Menu Setting
    • Setting a menu is a great way to work on executive function skills like planning. It is also a great opportunity to work on previewing skills. What are people going to eat when they arrive? Any snacks or appetizers? When you involve someone in the menu setting process, you continue maintaining buy in to support in the rest of the process. If you want help with the cooking, it’s great to let people help with choosing what will be prepared in the first place. Once the menu is created, you can then decide when is the best time to go food shopping.
  3. Food Shopping
    • Food shopping involves a deal of planning, time management, and preparation. So you have a menu, but did you get all the recipes? Let’s make a shopping list so we don’t go into the store blind. You also have to consider when is the best time to go food shopping. Too early and your freezer may have a turkey in it taking up all the space, but too late and you run the risk of not getting your ideal turkey size! When making your food shopping list, and going shopping, it is a great time to think about and discuss budgeting. How much money are you budgeting for dinner? Maybe you make those bourbon-pecan candied yams this year, but you can save a bit on the green beans (Campbell’s mushroom soup and the crispy onion casserole!). These are some of the decisions people make every year, but this isn’t “taught.” Involve your neurodivergent loved ones in on the thought process so they can learn the secrets too.  
  4. Prepping Dinner
    • The day has arrived. Prepping a large dinner is a real test on time management, prioritization, planning, and a whole host of other executive functions. I still remember my mom saying things like, “well if I get the turkey in by this time, I can then work on the mashed potatoes, and I’ll still have 30 minutes to work on the green beans.” As you are getting ready, think out loud and prepare – what if we made the dessert early? It doesn’t need to be hot, so that’s okay right? Incorporate some scheduling, create a timeline for the day. Many people do this in their heads, but maybe it’s better to write it out so that others can be a part of the process. You can involve those you are trying to teach in the whole process, but try and give them responsibility over one or two dishes. The types of questions to ask may be “How long do you think it will take to peel the potatoes?” “If you don’t know how long, who can you ask?” “Do you want to build in some extra time just in case things take longer than expected?” This is also a great time to work on some theory of mind and perspective taking. There may be limited room in your kitchen, so each person helping out doesn’t need to only worry about their own tasks, but you all have to work together to share limited space.
  5. Budgeting
    • We already discussed some budgeting when it came to planning a meal, but what about everything else that does into the holidays? Things like decorations and gifts can quickly add up. This is a great opportunity to involve our neurodivergent family members so they can learn how to budget as well. Instead of just shopping together to buy gifts, with some arbitrary budgeted limit, be very explicit. “I will give you $400 to buy presents for everyone you want to buy presents for.” A great place to start is generating a list of people that we want to buy presents for. This is the “wish list,” but then we have to prioritize the people that we should certainly be buying presents for. You may really want to buy presents for your friend up the street, but only if we buy presents for grandma first.
  6. Proactive Thinking
    • Prepare for things to go wrong! Is your crazy uncle insisting on trying out a deep fried turkey but you are not quite sure it is going to work? This is a great opportunity to teach proactive thinking and proactive problem solving. I remember growing up and hearing about the “back up” turkey and having no idea why anyone would need one. Share the insight for these back up plans, and why you are doing them so others have the opportunity to learn these skills and tactics as well. Are you one of those households who sometimes has stragglers come to your home during the holidays? This is why you may have some extra food or chairs for people to sit at. It’s important to help develop that internal monologue of “what could go wrong?” The best way to teach this inner voice to others is to speak it out loud. You aren’t being a worry wart, you are trying to model and teach to others how you proactively think and problem solve. The key here isn’t to have a meltdown when thinking of things going wrong, you are simply preparing for it!
  7. Stress Management
    • Repeat after me: Things. Go. Wrong. But that’s okay! You can be the best proactive thinker and problem solver out there, but there are always going to be circumstances and situations that we can’t prepare for. Many people like to handle the holidays on their own to limit stress, but I always like to share with people: Stress isn’t a bad thing. How we react to stress is where things can fall apart. Developing stress management skills is so important. The only way to practice stress management, is to face stressful situations. Number one stressor in my house during thanksgiving – “There aren’t enough drippings for the gravy!” Somehow, every year, my mom gets stressed about this, and every year, the gravy comes out tasting amazing. Help teach stress management techniques in the moment. What works for you to get through the day and all its curve balls? Involve your loved ones in the process. For me, I like to think about taking stress, venting for about a minute, putting it into a little proverbial box, and then putting it into the cabinet. Whatever techniques you use, try and pass that on to those helping us.


I wish everyone a happy holiday season. Enjoy the time with your family and seek out these learning opportunities. Nothing made me more proud as a kid than when I helped make my first stuffing. The joy I felt when I saw others enjoying it is indescribable. Share these opportunities with our neurodivergent loved ones because it is a great motivator to help them learn to use their executive functioning skills in a very concrete situation. Also, remember to pull out the camera when someone is tasting their stuffing, the look on their face will bring you a lot of joy.

-Casey Schmalacker is the Assistant Director of New Frontiers Executive Function Coaching (www.nfil.net).