A Halloween Circle on Fear

This classroom activity uses Halloween as a taking off point for students to share their experiences of being fearful, explore how fear is a normal part of life, and share ways we can handle our fear. The activity is structured as a circle, but can be adapted for other formats. For an introduction to the circle process, click here.  


Setting the Stage

Send a talking piece around, asking students to share a Halloween story - an experience they’ve had related to Halloween, the holiday celebrated in the U.S. on the night of October 31. If you have immigrant students in your class who are new to the U.S., invite them to share any scary but fun experience they’ve had, perhaps associated with a custom from the country they came from.

Borrowing from the stories students share, explain that Halloween is a holiday celebrated the night of October 31st. It is commonly celebrated in the U.S.  by children dressing up and going around their neighborhoods, from door to door, to solicit candy and other treats, exclaiming "trick or treat!" Halloween is also associated with pranks and playful attention to witches, ghouls, bats, spiders and ghosts. The word Halloween stems from "All Hallows Eve," October 31st, which is the night before "All Hallows Day" or "All Saints Day," a Christian holiday.

The holiday can be traced back to ancient Celts, who lived in what is now the U.K., Ireland, and northern France. The Celts celebrated a harvest festival (Samhain) that also marked the beginning of the dark, cold winter. Celts believed that on this night, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred, and that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. To scare these spirits away, people would dress up in costumes and make loud noises. As the Catholic church moved into the region, November 1st became "All Hallows Day," a day to honor the saints of the Catholic church. The night before "Halloween" ended up becoming a mixture of Celtic pagan rituals, superstitions and early Catholic traditions. 

If you have students in your class from other parts of the world, ask if they have similar holidays in their countries either around the same time of year, or other times of year. Consider using this website to find out about holidays in other parts of the world.

Opening Ceremony: The Baby Bat

Read the following poem by Shel Silverstein out loud:

"The baby bat

Screamed out in fright,

'Turn on the dark,

I'm afraid of the light."


Ask students to take in the poem and think about what they are afraid of.

Go round

Send a talking piece around, asking students to share, without further explanation, one or two fears they have. Let students know that they can share big fears or small fears - any fears that they feel comfortable sharing with others in the room. Consider modeling the activity by sharing a fear of your own. 

Summarize what students share. Then explain that some of the fears we share are a result of evolution. Our brains are hard-wired to be afraid of such things as snakes, growling dogs, wide open spaces, and heights. Other fears tend to be common at particular ages of development or are based on personal experience or the context we find ourselves in.    

We all get afraid sometimes. Fear is a natural emotion that can be very useful. It can serve as a warning of sorts and keep us safe. Think of how the fear of getting hit by a car may keep us alert while we’re crossing the street. Fear of getting burnt may keep us away from a hot stove, and fear of getting bitten by a growling dog, will prevent us from going over to pet the animal.

Being afraid puts us on edge, which can sharpen our senses and help us react more quickly or become more focused. This can be useful when we’re taking a test, for instance. Fear of getting a bad grade or of being disappointed by how we do on a test may make us study harder.

Some people even enjoy getting scared. It’s why people go on roller coaster rides, go sky diving or might visit a haunted house. It might be why Halloween is such a popular holiday.

Of course, fear can also keep us from trying new things, having new experiences, going beyond what we know, stepping outside our comfort zone. Before we look at all of this though, let’s take a step back and get a sense of what happens in our bodies when fear sets in.

Physical Expression of Fear

Draw a large outline of the human body on the board or on chart paper. Hand out post-its or small stickers. Then ask students to think about fear. Where do they feel it in their bodies and how?

Instruct students to write different ways that fear manifests itself, each on a different post-it. Provide examples of your own, like how your head might ache, your stomach might get tight, your hands might get clammy, you might start trembling or get sweaty. 

Next ask students to get up out of their seats and come up to the board to put their post-its on the relevant body part of the body outline. Before they sit back down, invite them to look at where the different post-its are on the body and read how the different body parts are affected by stress.

Once students are back in their seats, ask them what they notice about the post-its on the body: Are there post-its that are clumped together? Do some parts of the body have only one post-it? Is there anything that surprises students about how the post-its are distributed?

Elicit and explain that these are the body’s automatic responses to fear, preparing it for what we call the "fight or flight response." To prepare for either fighting against a threat or fleeing it, our heart rate increases to push more blood into our muscles and brain. Faster and shallower breathing supplies our body with the oxygen it needs to react quickly. The pupils in our eyes get bigger to improve our eyesight.  

In modern days especially, many of the things we commonly fear are not actually life-threatening. (For instance, the fear of public speaking, or the fear of heights, when we’re looking out the window of a skyscraper.)  We don’t really need to either fight or flee, but our body can react as if we do.

Go round:

Ask students to think about a time recently when they experienced fear. What happened? How did you respond? What was the end result?

Summarize what students share. Students may have avoided the situation, or they may have chosen to engage with it, despite their fears. Their fears may have turned out to be justified or not. 

Tell students that it's okay to be scared. Everyone gets scared - it’s an ancient survival mechanism that has served us well. Being brave doesn’t mean not feeling fear, it means that you try not to let those fears alone determine how you will react to a particular situation.   

So let’s look at some things we can do to help us do that.

Go Round:

As we discussed earlier, fear affects the mind and body. In some situations (like crossing the street), these fear reactions keep us safe. In other situations, these same reactions may prevent us from seizing opportunities, getting to know new people, experiencing new and exciting things, flavors, feelings, etc. Fear can keep us from taking the kind of risks that allow us to grow. It may prevent us from standing up for what’s important to us and the people we care about.

Ask students to think about a fear that they used to have but don’t have anymore. What changed? 

Send the talking piece around, inviting students to share:  What have you done or could you do to overcome a fear you have?

Summarize and explain that all fears, no matter how big or small, are easier to face when we find someone to talk to and help us face it. This could be a good friend, a family member, a neighbor, or an adult at school. You might be able to think together about steps you could take to address the fear.

You might find a way to change the condition that is giving you fear, to create a greater sense of safety. You might also consider simply facing your fear, to "feel the fear and do it anyway." But remind students that some of our fears are healthy, and some situations should be avoided for our personal safety. Our bodies have good reason to warn us against going into actual threatening and harmful situations. 

However, if the threat is more mental than physical, there are strategies you can use to help you overcome your fear. One is to learn ways to relax and take gradual steps to overcome your fear. When you feel your fear coming on, you can use deep breathing, for instance, to circulate oxygen through your body, or move to shake out some of the stress response.

You can also use "self-talk." Think through what it is you are afraid of and why. Is the thing you are fearing really likely to happen? If it did happen, would it really be as bad as you are imagining? What strategies could you use to handle it?  

Have students go back to a fear they’ve had that lessened over time - perhaps a fear that they took control of in some way. If they can’t think of an example, ask them to think about something they still fear, that they are willing to share with a partner.

Ask students to turn to a partner and share this experience:

  • What did you tell yourself about the thing you feared, back when you were still afraid of it? Did the things you told yourself increase or maintain the fear? (Or, if you are still fearful of this thing, what do you tell yourself about it, and does that increase or maintain the fear?)
  • Now think about what you did or could do or tell yourself to help overcome the fear. Talk back to the fear.

Send a talking piece around, inviting students to share out.  If possible, give an example of your own. 


Closing Ceremony

Read the following quote by Nelson Mandela: 

"I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."

Mandela was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician, and philanthropist who was the country’s first black president, elected in a fully representative democratic election.