When you pick your child up from school, does your child meltdown? Don’t worry. This is totally normal. Find out why self-regulation is so hard for children as well as simple, powerful strategies to promote calmness.
Includes a free printable with these strategies at the bottom of this post.
On my daughter’s first day of preschool, I arrived in the school parking lot about 20 minutes before dismissal.
Three hours seemed like a minor eternity to be away from my firstborn.
As the minutes crawled by, I was antsy. All I wanted was to see and hug my child. When the rusty red school doors swung open, a queue of wide-eyed three-year-olds with oversized backpacks made their way out. I burst out of my car ready to have my daughter in my arms.
When I nervously asked about my daughter’s day, the teacher assured me that my little girl was engaged and involved. I was so proud! As I fastened her into her car seat, I told her, “I can’t wait to hear all about your day!”
Once I got onto the backcountry road on the way to our home, I turned the radio off. I couldn’t wait a moment longer. I started asking her a litany of questions.
Suddenly, my normally articulate daughter wasn’t so chatty. I did my best to get her talking.
“Did you play in the kitchen centre?”
“Did you make any friends?”
“Did anyone get eaten by a dragon?”
Even my feeble attempt at humour didn’t get her to snap out of it. I chalked it up to being the first day of school and figured her stories would come in time.
Boy, was I wrong.
Her after-school meltdowns got a whole worse before they got better…
Weeks turned into months and I began bracing myself at pick up time. Not only did my daughter not want to talk, she also was the most challenging she’d ever been. She would scream, pinch her brother, and sometimes even hurl her lunch kit towards the front of the car.
When I pick her up, I learned to tread very lightly. I give her some crackers or a cheese string to eat right away. I stopped asking about her day and wait until she starts talking about it. Now I know I need to take her lead.
But it’s not just her.
Just over two weeks ago, my oldest son started kindergarten. His teacher has raved about how well he’s acclimatized to school. But last night, after eating me out of house and home, he exploded. He fell onto the floor a crumpled ball of screaming tears. No amount of coaching, reassuring or promises of dessert got him to snap out of it.
I tried to help him through his meltdown by expressing understanding.
“You’re tired, hon. I understand. It’s hard being at school all day.”
He screamed more.
I tried offering food and bringing him outside.
Finally, I resorted to picking him up to my room and held him until he calmed down.
This morning, he was bright-eyed and bouncy as if none of it had ever happened. In fact, he was thrilled at the prospect of another day at school.
I had to get to the bottom of this.
I understand that kids are tired after school. Nevertheless, I felt like this dissonance between what my kids’ teachers were experiencing and how my kids were after school deserved greater investigation. Why is it that children can be pillars of composure at school and then cease to function afterward?
After School Meltdowns: Why is my Child so Grouchy After School?
If you too wonder if your child may be the real-life version of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, fear not. It turns out after-school meltdowns for older children, are normal.
Dr. Heather Wittenberg explains,
‘Children save their best — and worst — for us, as parents. They’re their “true selves” with us. It takes energy to “be good” and follow the rules — especially for young children — so when they get home, they let it all hang out.’
When they’re at school, children work especially hard at executive functioning.
Executive functioning involves three main mental functions:
- Workng memory – the ability to retain and manipulate pieces of information in a short period.
- Mental flexibility – the ability to respond to different environmental demands and shift from different tasks or contexts with ease.
- Emotional regulation – the ability to respond calmly and appropriately to the environment.
Executive functions develop over time and are relatively novel skills for young children.
In the classroom, children are with unfamiliar adults and new children, learning new routines and lessons. They change contexts from the classroom to the library, gym, recess, and lunch where the expectations are different and the behaviour. Unlike at home, they refrain from lashing out because of anger. And they try not to cry when they’re hurt.
In contrast, when a child is at home all day, he is more comfortable expressing any emotion he feels. He is less inhibited and more inclined to throw a puzzle piece when it isn’t fitting just right or scream when a sibling is invading his space.
Executive functioning also requires controlling impulses.
At school, a child must wait in line and sit still when told to. She can’t simply grab her lunch whenever she so chooses or cut in front of the line to get to gym class faster. In contrast, when she’s at home, she can eat when she feels like eating and lie down when she feels like lying down and jump when she feels like jumping.
As adults, we can relate. At work, we dress and act professionally. And even as adults, when we get home from a long day, we feel a sense of relief to just be unencumbered by more taxing mental functions. The difference between us and our kids is that this now comes naturally to us.
We’ve had decades of experience doing this.
So this begs the question: what can we do to promote calmness after school?
In my experience, there is no cure-all.
As a parent, I can do everything possible to make the evening go well and there can be tears or they can shut down. Nevertheless, there are very effective strategies to help to avoid after-school meltdowns.
- Before anything, FEED THEM. After school, I make sure my kids have a snack on the way home from school. This gets their blood sugar up before they get in the door.
- Sometimes, they need to lie down and rest either with or without a parent.
- Avoid asking about their day until they’ve had the chance to relax a bit.
- Invite them to partake in quiet activities. Doing puzzles, painting, colouring, and playing with play dough can be a nice way to unwind.
- Set up an invitation to play. Or, bring out an old box of forgotten toys and let them play open-endedly.
- If you can, go play outside. Fresh air and a chance to blow off steam can be a game changer.
- Avoid discipline when they are in the midst of a meltdown. Read why here.
- Consider allowing for the occasional day off. Developmental neurology experts Siegel and Payne Bryson suggest that children need to be pushed when they’re on the verge of being capable and need cushioning when they just cannot function. Knowing our son fell into the latter and also knowing that kindergarten is the beginning of a lifelong relationship with education, we decided to essentially put training wheels on until he was ready. When my son started kindergarten and was having hour-long meltdowns by mid-week, we decided to give him a max of one day off a week to help ease his transition. By November, he no longer wanted or needed the day off.
- No matter, be patient and model calmness. I have to remind myself repeatedly that I can only control my reaction.
Download your printable with these tips to promote self-regulation and handle afterschool meltdowns.
A final note about after-school meltdowns
When the weather permits, I pack a picnic, meet the kids at school and head to a park for the first hour or so after school. This seems to work the majority of the time. For one, they get to blow off all the steam it took to stay self-regulated during class time. Two, they can refuel by eating the snacks I have. If they are too tired, we head home for some quiet, screen-free time. They love puzzles or colouring.
It isn’t an exact science, but, since enacting these strategies, my kids have (almost) no after-school meltdowns.