5 Ways to Cope with After School Meltdown

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5 Ways to Cope with After School Meltdown

As parents/caregivers, we are excited to pick our kids up from school or daycare at the end of the day and hear all about their activities. But many of us are all too familiar with the “after school meltdown,” also called “after school restraint collapse.” This is a term to describe your child’s release of pent-up emotions from the day. Some children experience it while others do not. Your child may appear withdrawn and silent or your child could express big emotions like crying or anger after returning home. This is most common at the beginning of the school year as children adjust to their new schedule. If we know from the teacher that our child had a great day and participated well at school, then what is causing the change when returning home? Here are a few factors to consider and how you can help your child.

1. School has lots of expectations.

At school and daycare kids are often in a larger group with less one-on-one time with a caregiver, expected to sit still for longer periods, follow certain rules, follow a specific schedule, complete frequent transitions, manage their own materials, and navigate friendships. Children must use a lot of their focus and energy to follow these expectations. They may feel tired from a long day or a new schedule. For kids that are overwhelmed by sensory input, the loud noise from the cafeteria, fluorescent overhead lights, and kids bumping into them in the hall can further increase stress. Children that are non-speaking may also have a harder time getting their needs met. Many kids may bottle up these emotions during the day for the sake of being a “good student,” only to express them when they return home.

2. Time away from the parent/primary caregiver.

Children may attend school or daycare for 6 hours or more each day. This is a long time away from a parent/caregiver and it feels even longer for young children. Children that have a healthy attachment to their parents feel the most comfortable coming to them when they are hurt for comfort and to release their emotions. Kids know they can safely show their emotions at home and still feel supported and loved. Therefore, they may seem fine during the day but demonstrate stronger emotions after we pick them up.

How can parents/caregivers help?

Prepare them for the day.

Spend a little time together before school, discuss the schedule the night before and talk about what you can do together when you pick them up. 

Connect with your child.

Let them know how happy you are to see them, give them a hug if they like hugs, and let them know you missed them. Try not to ask them any questions about their day until after they have relaxed a bit or until they start discussing it themselves. 

Offer a snack and a drink.

Lunch was probably a few hours ago and kids have been playing and learning and need to refuel their bodies. Provide water and set out snacks for when they come home. When my son started preschool last year, I gave him a snack right away in the car which also helped. After he had a snack, he was ready to tell me about his day.

Co-regulate with your child.

If your child starts having a meltdown, try to co-regulate. Before kids can develop self-regulation (identify their feeling and what they need), they need experience with co-regulation. This means helping your child to meet their body needs and understand their emotions. It’s useful when our kids feel overwhelmed, but we can use this at other times for regulation. It can include offering support, being a calming presence, and thinking about what we can do to help them regulate such as offering a hug, turning down the lights, or reducing other stimulation and helping them observe what’s happening in their body.

Let them decompress after school.

Relax together by taking a walk or bike ride, playing their favorite game, listening to music, reading a book, or simply just being together. Many kids (and adults) enjoy having a routine and so scheduling downtime together after school lets them know what to expect. Outdoor time and free play after or before school are crucial for children as it helps improve physical ability, executive function skills (like memory and problem solving), and social skills.

Check out  Des Moines Outdoor Fun for more ideas to play outside. Save homework for later after they have had time to decompress. 

I like this reminder from Allison Davies- Music and the Brain via Latinx parenting. 

“Children never, ever CHOOSE the meltdown, or any anxiety-related behavior, in the same way, that YOU would never, ever choose to have a meltdown in front of your family, colleagues, or friends! A meltdown is not a choice, it’s a byproduct of a brain that isn’t coping with something. And that brain needs to be showered in love, compassion, and safety. Not punishment, fear or shame.”

We can support our children so that they have a great school year and can come home to relax in our presence. 

Whitney Alaniz, MOT OTR/L

Whitney Alaniz, MOT OTR/L

Whitney Alaniz, MOT OTR/L is an occupational therapist turned (mostly) stay-at-home mom. She has worked with adults to young toddlers and has a special interest in early childhood development targeting fine motor skills, feeding, sensory processing, and coordination. She loves incorporating this knowledge with her own two little boys through play. When she’s not running after her little ones she enjoys traveling, cooking new recipes and eating chocolate from her secret stash.

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