Question: School birthdays: fun classroom activities or major recurring distractions?
Answer: A little bit of both, actually!
The most-common party scenario faced by any teacher is the school birthday celebration. In American culture, everyone is officially “special” on their birthday, and being special when you are a kid means celebrating multiple times: at breakfast when you get up, at dessert with mom and dad, when grandma brings your presents over. And, yes, with your classmates at school.
So teachers must sometimes make a tiny little fuss over birthday kids. After all, we want others to make a little bit of a fuss over our own birthdays, don't we? More importantly, teachers must accommodate the treats that birthday boys and girls bring to school.
Here's how to keep the B-day activities on track.
To celebrate or not to celebrate?
I don't go out of my way to celebrate birthdays. In fact, in my classroom, I don't even keep track of them. I let the kids' and parent's expectations determine whether or not I need to take classroom time for a mini-celebration.
Some school communities just don't have an expectation of a school birthday event. Others have deeply-ingrained birthday-party traditions built around fun classroom activities. Others are in between, and the kids are just happy to get the free pencil handed out by the office.
Before we start the party, however, remember that not everyone can participate.
Accommodating cultural differences
As I discuss on the school Halloween party page, there are religions that do not celebrate holidays – including birthdays. Be observant and listen for clues. You'll normally hear a child make a comment (sometimes wistfully) the first time cupcakes are passed around that they are “not supposed to celebrate birthdays.”
Be sensitive to this. Once you know there is a non-birthday-celebrator in your room, be sure to talk to their parents about it.
You may be able to tweak your approach or you may need to be ready to slip them out unobtrusively to another classroom before the mini-party gets rolling. Since your ten-minute party will occur at the very end of the day (if you value your sanity), these kids will never miss much.
School birthday party basics
As noted above, not every birthday boy or girl will expect that a fuss be made, nor will everyone who wants a fuss bring food.
If a student mentions it's her birthday, then I always give her a big congratulations and maybe lead a round of classroom applause. That's really all they want – some recognition.
But if food arrives, you've got to be ready. As with all parties, the primary rule is: keep it short. Ten minutes at the very end of the day is ideal.
If food does arrive, here's my tried-and-true process.
The birthday girl or boy delivers
- Designate one student to deliver hand sanitizer to everyone in the class…
- …and one to deliver napkins.
- The birthday kid chooses one other person to help out.
- The duo delivers the goods to each of the other students.
- Each recipient must say, “Thank you, happy birthday!”
- The birthday kid must respond with, “You're welcome.”
But no one eats yet!
After all of the treats have been delivered, the birthday kid gets the first bite. Then everyone else can start eating.
We are always teaching lessons, even on birthdays
So what have we accomplished here? Quite a lot, actually:
- We have kept the process (which may be repeated a dozen times every year) from turning into a messy grab-fest.
- We have encouraged social skills of politeness.
- We have made the birthday person the center of attention by having them serve others, rather than having the goods delivered to them (that will happen at their home party).
And what is your role in this process? Oohing and aahing and complimenting the treat, of course! Make a big deal about how the cake or cookies look and smell. This is another reinforcement that food – especially special food – is to be appreciated and not just shoveled in.
If you model this, your students will learn to be very complimentary of food at all birthday parties without prompting – another great politeness habit. And don't forget the final lesson:
The students – including the birthday kid – clean up.
Video tips: managing birthday parties
Final classroom birthday party thoughts
OK, because I know you are wondering: no, we don't sing “happy birthday.” Too distracting to other classrooms in my opinion.
And another important point: “You get what you get and don't throw a fit.”
Juvenile but true. This should be a well-known phrase in your classroom when it comes to parties. If there are plenty of snacks to choose from, a child may choose. If not: “You get what you get…”
Healthy food concerns? Relax
What about promoting healthy food for school birthday parties? Don't bother. You can't control what parents send in like you can for other classroom celebrations. Just fall back to plan B: limit the damage by controlling portions and relax.
But don't relax about food allergies!
You should know if any students have allergies. Be super careful with home-cooked treats and remember that eggs and dairy and nuts are hiding inside of fancy cupcakes and yummy cookies.
You may need to make a classroom rule (clearly communicated to parents) that only store-bought treats with ingredient labels attached are allowed in your classroom.
Be prepared with supplies
Paper and plastic products should be on hand in your classroom because many parents won't send them. A cake server, too.
Fun classroom activities are possible to pull off – even with yummy, distracting food involved – while still maintaining effective classroom behavior management. Polite, orderly and non-messy… and your students never even notice because they are too busy enjoying themselves!