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Avoiding After-School Meltdowns

Karen loves picking up her daughter, Lupa, from preschool. Lupa greets her with a big hug and shows her mom the art she made at school. But when they get home, Lupa goes into meltdown mode, becoming irritable and easily frustrated by everyday things that on a non-school day wouldn’t upset her.

Lupa’s mom wonders if there is something going on at school, so she calls the preschool teacher only to find out that Lupa is doing beautifully in school, and is described as “having lots of friends and a joy to have in class.” While this is a relief to Karen, she can’t help but wonder what’s causing these upsets at home.

Lupa’s behavior is not uncommon for a preschooler or young elementary school child, and chances are if you have a child in that age range you’ve experienced it first-hand.

In simple terms, it’s what many parents describe as an “after-school meltdown.” Fortunately, there are ways to overcome it.

Causes of after-school meltdowns

Preschoolers and young children are still learning to manage their “big” feelings, both at home and in school. There are a number of reasons your child might feel extra emotional after school:

  • Your child is still adjusting to being away from you during the day. They may experiencing homesickness, a longing for familiar environment and predictable interactions.
  • Your child is overtired from the busy day, or is adjusting to a new nap (or lack thereof) schedule. School is packed with physical and mental activities, and children have little autonomy over what or when they do them.
  • Learning to transition from one activity to another. They may be learning that they finish sooner than their classmates and need to wait patiently, or that they typically don’t finish what they are working on before being asked to move to the next activity. Both are skills that take time and focus to learn.
  • Having to wait turns and share with fellow classmates. Especially if they are your first or only child, they are used to having more control and choice about what and how long they do an activity.
  • Being told “No” by teachers. Ideally, teachers explain why they are limiting an activity, but remember teachers are managing many active children at the same time and may not have focus to do so every time. This may feel abrupt or slighting to your child, so this adds another feeling to process from their day.
  • Not knowing how to ask for the things they need while at school. They are still learning to recognize what they need, put it into words, and be brave or assertive to ask in a way that is likely to result in success.
  • Feeling extra hungry or tired at school. Remember, school is structured for the average child. Your child may be used to snacking when they want or zoning out with a book or screen when they are tired.

There’s a lot for preschoolers to process throughout their day and many children become masters at “keeping it together at school, and losing it when they get home.” This is a pretty common observation by parents—and it’s not without reason.

YOU are your child’s safety zone. At home with you is where your child feels safest to unload their emotions and stress. As an adult, maybe you go for a walk, paint, call a friend or exercise when you feel overwhelmed. Children do not have this coping skill yet, but you can help teach them to manage their emotions in healthy ways.

How to address meltdowns when they happens

When Lupa gets home from preschool, she immediately wants to start playing with her dolls. But knowing that her daughter needs to eat after a morning of preschool play, Karen tells Lupa that she needs to eat lunch first before she can play. This sends Lupa into hysterics.

Rather than ignoring the behavior or sending Lupa into a time-out, what Lupa needs is a “time-in” with her mom. Think of it this way: Your child just spent hours away from you, the last thing your child wants is for you to ignore them—especially if they are experiencing separation anxiety at school.

The goal is to get your child into a calm state of mind, while also allowing them to express their feelings.

  • Find a comfortable spot to sit with your child.
  • Offer hugs, back rubs, hold hands—whatever touch is most comforting for your child.
  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings: “It must be frustrating to wait to play. Let’s calm our feelings and think of a solution together.”
  • Ask your child if they would like to read a book, sing a song, or draw a picture together as a way of calming down.
  • Offer lots of praise to your child.
  • If your child needs to eat or rest, you can give choices that keep you next to them. “Let’s  get some lunch and then sit down together. Would you like to put the peanut butter or the jelly on your bread? Do you want milk or water with your lunch?”

Head meltdowns off at the pass

Once you recognize that your child is sensitive to after-school meltdowns, there are strategies you can use to help minimize them:

Who doesn’t feel cranky when they are hungry?

  • Don’t skip breakfast. Include a protein item, such as eggs, cheese, Greek yogurt, or meat and avoid sugary foods and juice.
  • Pack snacks. Even if your child’s school provides snacks, your child might need more to eat during the day. Ask your child’s teacher if it’s appropriate to pack along some extra cheese and crackers or apple slices and designate a time when your child can eat their snacks before they get overly hungry.
  • Have a snack ready to eat on the way home, such as Greek yogurt or string cheese and crackers.

No such thing as “too” much sleep

  • Set an early bedtime. Include a routine that emphasizes connection, such as stories, cuddles and music.
  • Offer an after-school rest. Even preschoolers who gave up napping over the summer, might need one during the school year.
  • If a nap isn’t going to happen, have a “quiet hour” where you read books in bed or talk about the day.

Other strategies to try 

  • Minimize the number of transitions you have to make on a school day. For example, save running errands until your child is in school or for a no-school day.
  • Offer a calm home environment. Avoid over-stimulating activities such as video games, or loud tv or music.
  • Find a healthy way for your child to decompress after school: bike rides, kicking a ball, walking, listening to music, rest time.
  • Stay calm and present in the middle of an upset. Don’t take an after-school meltdown personally. It’s about letting go of the stress from the day, or learning to move from one environment or activity to the next.

More time together

If your child is experiencing after-school meltdowns, it may just be that your child needs more quality time together with you when they get home. Carve out time each day to pay special one-on-one attention to your child. Adjusting to a new routine and school takes time. But knowing that you are waiting for them at the end of the school day with a big smile and open arms, goes a long way in making your child feel safe, secure, and loved.

This article is brought to you by Parenting Now Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (andupdatemywebsite.com).


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