School Climate & Safety

How to Stop Students From Ghosting (and More Halloween Advice for Educators)

By Evie Blad — October 25, 2023 5 min read
Closeup of child's hands painting pumpkin with spooky face.
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For some educators, Halloween is a favorite time of the year, a chance to be creative and share in fun traditions with students, a time to go big or gourd home. For others, the holiday kicks off a frightening slump as (energy) zombies come to feast on students’ (and teachers’) motivation.

Wherever you fit on that spooktrum, there’s something for you in the Education Week archives. Over the years, our reporters and opinion contributors have covered all aspects of the of the howliday, including student engagement, cultural sensitivity, and learning opportunities.

So grab your pointy hat, gourd your candy with your life, and dig into the cauldron of good ideas.

(Before we get this party startled, here’s a Halloween list of deaducation—I mean education—puns that didn’t fit into this post: the science of treating, No Candy Left Behind, the Every Student Succeeds Cat, and the Common Gore State Standards.)

Oh my, that was groanworthy, but at least you’ll have pumpkin to talk about! Read on!

Stop students from ghosting

One of the scariest things about Halloween? At a time when schools are spooked by high rates of chronic absenteeism, many report some of their lowest levels of attendance the next day, this 2021 story reports.

“Kids are out later, they’re eating a heck of a lot of candy, and there is a likelihood that if a kid is struggling or griping about going to school, that maybe the family says, ‘Hey, stay home today,’” Michael Romero, a regional superintendent for the Los Angeles Unified School District said at the time. “And if it is a kid who struggles with attendance, with chronic absenteeism, it’s just more likely that they don’t come back.”

Some tips from educators on ensuring the spooky season doesn’t trigger an attendance slump:

  • Don’t fight it. Schedule parent-teacher conferences or teacher work days on Nov. 1 to give students a built-in day off.
  • Communicate with parents in advance. Use the week before Halloween as a time to check in with families, paying particular mind to students who already have concerning attendance patterns.
  • Avoid stacking too many non-academic events in one day. If every class plans a party or a movie, students might get the message that they don’t need to show up, educators said.
  • Boo-tilize—I mean utilize—competition. Award a prize for classrooms with high attendance on Nov. 1. Carrots—and candy corn—are typically more motivational than sticks.
  • Try throwing a pumpkin off of the roof. Seriously. Hedy Chang, a national advocate for improving school attendance, said such a Nov. 1 stunt can motivate students to fight the candy coma and come to class.

Lessons lurk in students’ candy hauls

A fun holiday doesn’t mean schools have to take a break from rigor mortis—I mean rigorous—learning opportunities.

At one school, teachers used the chocolate students collected trick-or-treating as a jumping off point for a long-term, multi-disciplinary learning project that incorporated concepts ranging from world politics, economics, and geography to literature, data collection, and botany, as this opinion piece describes.

“Just after Halloween, they dug into their Trick-or-Treat bags to collect baseline data on the most common types of chocolate candy bars—the makers and the ingredients,” wrote former teacher Jessica Wood. “Sixth graders were surprised to notice the same manufacturers over and over (Mars, Nestle, Kraft) and that the common ingredient (along with sugar) was cacao. Who were these manufacturers? Where were they getting their ingredients? Students’ questions were many, and we had fully ignited their interest.”

The teachers used stories and artifacts they’d collected on a grant-funded trip to West Africa, where much of the world’s chocolate originates, to teach about cacao farming, candy manufacturing, and West African culture. Students learned about real-world child labor concerns associated with some popular products and ethical concerns involved in production, and they made their own chocolate concoctions.

“Any rich real-world topic that allows students to be scientists and historians can inspire students with opportunities to connect to their own lives and create work they are proud of,” Wood wrote.

Be mindful of offensive costumes

If your school allows students to wear costumes in class, it’s important to set clear expectations for what is and is not appropriate, educators and advocates said in this 2014 story.

Researchers have found that students’ learning and engagement in school is closely linked to their sense of belonging. And that emotional safety can quickly be upended if a classmate dresses in a costume that mocks their culture, like cartoonish Native American garb, blackface, or items that draw on cultural stereotypes.

“Native peoples are a contemporary, LIVING group of people, not a costume ... Stop putting us in the same category as wizards and clowns,” Adrienne Keene, an assistant professor at Brown University, wrote in a post rounding up offensive costumes.

It’s best to have conversations about appropriate costumes in advance to prevent harm, to communicate clearly with families about what’s acceptable, and to use discussions with students as learning opportunities about why stereotypes are offensive, educators said.

Some families also decline to celebrate Halloween for religious or personal reasons. Students can be sensitive to scary images and ideas. And some participate in more general “Harvest” celebrations that emphasize fun and tone down the fright factor. It’s important that those students don’t feel excluded or othered by school events that are intended to be happy and uplifting.

Some schools have addressed these issues—and added an educational element—by setting a theme for student dress. Students may dress like their favorite book characters or historical figures and explain their costumes to classmates, or participate in an optional costume parade after school or during the weekend.

Sneak in some social-emotional learning

Self-control is key for students’ success, both in the classroom and in their careers, says this 2022 opinion essay from psychologist Angela Duckworth, who popularized the concept of “grit” among educators.

And there’s no better illustration of the value of self-control than a big plastic pumpkin filled with candy. Eat it all now and you’ll have a tummy ache. Space it out gradually and the sweet treats will last longer.

But rather than avoiding a candy binge through sheer willpower, students could hide the bucket out of sight, as Duckworth did with the king-sized candy bars she planned to hand out to trick or treaters.

Such “situation modification” can be a helpful skill to transfer into other environments, Duckworth wrote. Students don’t have to accept the circumstances as they find them. They could store their cell phones outside of their bedrooms at night to avoid long TikTok sessions or find a quieter place to study to promote focus.

“We’re not born knowing this self-control strategy,” Duckworth wrote. “We learn it.”

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