Guess what? Today is my birthday! That probably doesn’t mean much to you, but it made me think about how birthdays are being celebrated in the classroom these days. Or are they being celebrated at all? When I was in elementary school, if it was a student’s birthday, he or she got to bring in treats (usually cake, cupcakes, or cookies) for the whole class to share, we sang “Happy Birthday,” and the birthday person was made to feel very special for a day. It was awesome!
However, over the years, it seems that this birthday tradition has changed. When I was a substitute teacher, I was working in a second-grade classroom one day when one of the little girls told me it was her birthday. We sang “Happy Birthday” to her when the time was right, but I felt bad that there was no mention of her birthday in the teacher’s notes for me. Maybe the teacher was too ill to remember. Maybe, intentionally, there was nothing ever planned. I’ll never know.
After recently talking to some of my teacher friends, I discovered that classroom birthday celebrations are very different than they used to be, and some are even banned! They shared three main reasons for the change:
1. Birthday treats need to be healthy or not brought in at all; or they have to be non-food items.
The nutritional value of birthday treats (or lack there of) seems to be the main reason why birthday celebrations in the classroom are changing. With many schools having a Local Wellness Policy implemented, it is also carrying over into what may be brought in for birthdays. Parents are given lists of healthy alternatives that they can bring in on their child’s special day. Bringing in non-food items, such as pencils or stickers, is a great option, as well.
Also, many students have food allergies. Is it fair for those kids with nut, dairy, or some other allergies to have to watch their classmates enjoy a birthday treat that they can’t eat?
2. Birthday celebrations cut down on academic instruction time.
With more and more pressure for students to meet or exceed content standards, the “fun” things at school are being put to the side, including art and music lessons. Academic instruction time is spent on core subject areas. With around 30 student birthdays to celebrate in a school year, that adds up quickly and deducts from much-needed instruction time. Some schools have even said that any sort of classroom celebration must be held at the end of the day, after the majority of core learning is done.
3. Some families can’t afford to bring in birthday treats (healthy or not) to share with the whole class.
Budgets are tight these days, and for many families, spending money on birthday treats for the whole class and the teacher(s) is not a priority. Some students get hurt feelings when it’s their birthday and they don’t have anything to share with their classmates. It’s easier to cut out the birthday treats entirely than to have students with sad feelings on their birthdays because they can’t do what their friends do.
I understand the reasoning behind minimizing birthday celebrations in the classroom, but I think it’s so important to boost your students’ self esteem and make them feel special—especially on their birthdays.
So, what’s a teacher to do?
One of my teacher friends said that in her classroom, they dedicate 20 minutes on the first Friday every month to celebrate those students with birthdays that month. (For those students who have birthdays when school is not in session, they celebrate their birthdays on the closest month that school is in session.) They sing “Happy Birthday,” and they enjoy a healthy snack together—such as pretzels, carrots with dip, or fruit slices—which the parents usually bring in.
At my aunt’s school, they aren’t allowed to celebrate birthdays at all! A quick “Happy Birthday” at the start of the school day is all that her students get. She usually gives the birthday student a birthday sticker and/or a birthday crown to wear for the day to make him or her feel special.
Another teacher said that when it’s one of his students’ birthdays, the birthday person gets to be the “Star Student.” For the whole day, the Star Student gets to choose any or all of the classroom jobs that he or she wants. For example, many students choose to be the line leader and the materials passer on their day. The birthday student also gets to choose their playground equipment first and be dismissed to go home first. He said, “Basically, whatever comes up that day that involves choosing a student for something, I always ask the Star Student first. It doesn’t cost me anything, and they love it.”
What about for you? How are you allowed to celebrate student birthdays at your school?