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Understanding Your Child’s After-School Meltdown

Big transitions and new routines, like starting school, take a lot—physically and emotionally—out of kids. During this transitional stage of either starting school for the first time or returning from a long period away from the classroom, your child might feel extra tired and emotional—especially after school. This is sometimes known as the “after-school meltdown.”

While many children get used to the new routine after a few weeks, you can still support your child and build your relationship with them now as they adjust to this transition.

What causes 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 be experiencing homesickness, a longing for familiar environments, and predictable interactions. Making friends takes time and energy. Learning the give and take of interacting with peers is a skill they are still learning.
  • Your child is overtired from the busy day, or is adjusting to a new nap (or lack thereof) schedule.
  • Your child really needs to move their body after sitting in the classroom most of the day. Sometimes this energy comes out in a meltdown.
  • School is packed with physical and mental activities, and children have little autonomy over what or when they do them.
  • Just moving from one activity to another is hard for many children, especially if they are really enjoying what they are doing. 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. These are skills that take time and focus to learn.
  • Being expected 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.
  • They are getting used to a new adult in authority who may communicate in a slightly different way from you. They are learning a new set of expectations and rules.
  • 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. They may need to wait to get what they need when they are not used to waiting.
  • 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.

Addressing meltdowns when they happen

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.”
  • A breathing exercise may help:  breathe in as if smelling a flower, breath out as if blowing out a candle.
  • 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 specific praise to your child. “You must be so proud of yourself for all the new things you are doing like…(list)”

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?”

If they need to move their body, offer a game of catch or kick a ball back and forth. A walk in nature will calm and refresh both of you.

Once you recognize that your child is sensitive to after-school meltdowns, there are strategies you can use to help minimize them, including packing extra snacks for school and after-school; setting an early bedtime that includes a routine that emphasizes connection, such as stories, cuddles and music; offering a calm environment at home.

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 Grilley and consultant Jay Thompson (andupdatemywebsite.com).  

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