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After School Restraint Collapse: How It Impacts Self-Regulation and What You Can Do To Help

When you pick your child up from school, does your child meltdown? Don’t worry. This is totally normal. And there is so much you can do to help your child calm down. Find effective self-regulation strategies and activities for kids below.

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.

On my daughter’s first day of preschool, I arrived at the school pick-up area about 20 minutes before dismissal.

Three hours seemed like a minor eternity to be away from my firstborn. I couldn’t wait for pick-up time.

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 about her school day.

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?”

My feeble attempt at humour didn’t get her to snap out of it. I chalked it up to it 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 lot worse before they got better…

Weeks turned into months and I began bracing myself for pick-up time. Not only did my daughter not want to talk, but 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. There was zero self-regulation happening, and my asking questions about her day was simply making things worse.

Read: Stressed Out About Remote Learning? These 5 Strategies are Game-Changers

When it was time for pickup, 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 waited until she started talking about it. Every time I was tempted to ask her a question, I would simply take a deep breath instead. I had a hard time resisting the temptation, but now I know I need to take her lead. It was the best thing I could have done to help her manage her big feelings and decompress after a long, hard day.

children walking with backpacks after school

Read: How to Respond When Your Child Hates School

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 and he rarely has a hard time at pick-up. 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 feeling overwhelmed, hon. I understand. It’s hard being at school all day.”

He screamed more.

I tried offering food and bringing him outside.

Nothing worked.

Finally, I took a deep breath, picked him up, carried him to my room and just held him until he calmed down.

Read: Calming an Angry Child: Positive Parenting Strategies that Work!

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, and I understand that they sometimes have a hard time finding the words to describe their day. 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 and self-regulation at school, but then fall apart at pick-up time?

If you have faced regular after-school meltdowns, don't worry. Here are powerful, practical tips for kids to get ahead of crying and whining. Positive Parenting strategies. Parenting from the Heart

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 and simple, powerful strategies to promote calmness. Positive parenting. parenting from the heart

After-School Restraint Collapse: What is it?

If you too wonder if your child may be the real-life version of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, fear not. It turns out that after-school meltdowns for school-aged children are perfectly normal. In fact, the proper term for them is restraint collapse, when our children simply collapse from holding it together throughout their school day, and everything (good and bad) that happened during the day results in an overload of emotions being released now that they are at home.

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 and self-regulation.

Executive functioning involves three main mental functions:

  1. Working memory – the ability to retain and manipulate pieces of information in a short period.
  2. Mental flexibility – the ability to respond to different environmental demands and shift from different tasks or contexts with ease.
  3. Emotional regulation – the ability to use self-control and respond calmly and appropriately to the environment and situation.

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. Unlike at home, they use self-regulation to refrain from lashing out because of anger. And they try not to cry when they’re hurt. A child’s day consists of many ups and downs that have to be interpreted and processed.

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. They don’t have a hard time expressing themselves because home is their safe 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. This can make for a long day for a child, so when they finally come home, they are in need of a break to relax and unwind.

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.

Read: Simple but Effective Strategies Every Family Should Know

So this begs the question: what can we do to promote calmness after school?

What to do to promote calmness after school infographic

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. When I pick up my kids, I make sure they 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 your child’s day until they’ve had the chance to relax a bit.
  • Don’t expect a lot of self-regulation until they have had time to decompress.
  • 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 some physical activity is a great chance to blow off steam.
  • 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.

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 takes to stay self-regulated during class time. Two, they can refuel by eating the snacks I have. Or, sometimes we go for a leisurely bike ride. 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.

For additional reading

Calming activities to promote self-regulation after school

This is how to respond when your child hates school

Stressed Out About Remote Learning? These 5 Strategies are Game-Changers

Why you shouldn’t punish meltdowns and what to do instead

How to discipline a child – why you need to wait for the meltdown to pass

Experts say this is the best way to teach kids to read and love it too!

  1. First, I appreciate the fact that you took the time to write this! I have two school-aged children and from everything I hear their home time afterward can be a nightmare. My kindergarten son has ODD so school is very hard for him behavior wise. He expresses anger both at home and school in destructive ways.

    My 2nd grader tends to be super crabby after school, and hardly ever wants to talk about her day. I don’t like to force it out of her either.

    I think these tips may help with both of my little ones so I am definitely going to try them and pass them along to the people who care for them on a regular basis.

  2. Thanks for these tips.My kid shows such emotions after his playgroup.I always allow him time to relax or I go out side to play.But,now I got the idea of quiet activities.I will try these tips with my kid.

  3. Indeed, mine are also their “true selves” with me and daddy – and I think it’s a great thing but a trying thing! I guess we are strong enough to handle what comes at us, and my two preschoolers and one 2nd grader *definitely* give me a run for my money at the end of each school day. Thank you for posting this! xx Andrea, Go Diaper Free

  4. Great ideas. No mention of homework? At what point do you incorporate that into their after school routine? Especially when it needs done quickly since they need to go to extracurricular activities?

    1. Thanks so much for reading and for your kind words, Michelle. This may not be the answer you’re looking for. Loads of educational research suggesting that there is no benefit to homework and that it can, in fact, be detrimental. Home reading or math drills for practice are worthwhile. Otherwise, I would talk to the school and ask why the homework is being assigned and I would prioritize based on that.

  5. Thank you for such an insightful article. I have 2 in preschool for the past few weeks and have been struggling with this after school behavior. I feel like I understand them so much better after reading this, thank you!!!

  6. I have a 15 yr old daughter that has done this since kinder & she is now in 10th. She has found her own comforting measures as she has grown, but it doesn’t take much to set off the meltdown. Thank you for writing this, I don’t feel so alone.

  7. This is an awesome read. My son has just started “reception” and is easily frustrated after school. I have been getting upset with his behavior only because I’m excited to hear about his day etc but you’ve put it all into great perspective. Thanks for the advice…..Time for me to change. Keep writing. Have a blessed day xx

  8. Pingback: Your Weekly Dose of Montessori | Glen Montessori School
  9. My daughter just started preschool and this was really helpful! I was wondering, do you have any tips for the car ride home? The first five minutes or so she’s fine and then it ‘clicks’ and she starts throwing tantrums, whining, screaming about pretty much nothing. Any ideas?

    1. Hi Marla, Thank you so much for your question. You’re basically describing how our car rides home from preschool used to go. My daughter was an angel at school (according to her teacher) and was inconsolable on the way home. I used to pack a favourite snack for the ride home – sometimes it was even a treat – to get her blood sugar up ASAP. Kids tend not to focus on eating when they’re excited about school. This may help. If not, let me know and I can always ask my parenting group for you.

  10. Thank you so much for these thoughtful tips. What about before-school meltdowns/anxieties? My 4-year old starts to fixate on “I’m shy” and how he “just can’t” go to school. At least for today, he was totally fine once we arrived but I worry that the before-school anxiety may intensify one morning and I worry about what to do…

  11. As a clinical social worker, I concur with your great information! The only aspect I would caution readers against is the one day off per week. Our school district has strict attendance policies and after the 4th day of being absent for the school year, the parents receive a notice. After the 5th day, they are called to truancy court with the county attorney and staff from the school. Unfortunately charges can be filed against parents and in some cases, children who are not attending school regularly are removed from the home and placed in foster care. It has really helped with truancy, however it doesn’t allow for mental health days or just needing days off in general. So, while I agree in taking time off, just be aware of your school’s policies.

  12. Thanks for this helpful post!!
    You don’t mention this, but besides tantrums and defiance, would another behavior be hyperactive? My 5 year old just started Kindergarten in August and after school she’s like a crazy person, so hyper, yelling, disobeying, etc. At bedtime (even with pushing it earlier) instead of passing out she seems even more hyper and plays in her bed for at least an hour.

    She had two weeks off for fall break and during that time kind of went back to her “normal’ self. Went back to school last week and back to the crazy hyper behavior and defiance.

    On top of that it is her first school experience (was home with me up until now) and she seems to catch a cold at least every month, if not more. I know she’s building up her immunity but that is challenging too!

    It’s all very discouraging and makes me not like kindergarten very much 🙁

  13. An interesting article. With lots of parental advice and strategy for dealing with this seemingly typical, if not unwelcome, dichotomy of behaviour . But are we not missing asking a more fundamental question? Rather than providing strategies for dealing with children that are living a “split life” – one in a regulated socially acceptable framework in school where there boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable social behaviour – and the other where the child has no such constraints at home which all of the comments seem to endorse and offer strategies for purperuating this duality. Should we be considering that home life and parenting ought to provide a more structured environment with an acceptable level of discipline and regulation to reinforce the good socially acceptable behaviours that are being learned in school? Surely anyone who is expected to behave differently at school (or work for that matter) and home will have difficulty in understanding who they are and what “normal” is. I’m not suggesting for one minute that we return to Victorian times but suggest that there comes a point where as parents we have to adapt to support our children as they grow. Perhaps the issue is not that school is too hard and that it takes effort from children to control their impulses during the school day, perhaps the issue is that as parents our children will always need to be nurtured as they did when they were younger and we don’t have strategies for updating our own training to deal with the transitions our youngsters make when they go to school. Good manners, common courtesy, sitting at the table to eat as a family and time spent together, together with parents enforcing appropriate behaviour and setting clear expectations of what is and what is not acceptable from a young age would provide a stable and common platform on which children would not have to “be different” at school from at home – they could just be themselves in all situations? Hey just a thought so don’t shoot me down – after all trolling isn’t socially acceptable behaviour either 😉

  14. Wow! I was so worried until I read this. My 3 year old just started pre-k and when he gets out of school, he’s a completely different person! I only wanted him to go 4 days a week but in the area of nyc that I’m in, it has to be 5.

  15. Thanks for writing this. My little one has a complete meltdown when I (dad) pick her up from school, but she doesn’t when she is picked up by someone else. It is heart-breaking that she appears to not want to be with me…and I am at a complete loss as to what to do. Once we leave the school, she is usually her happy self, however, getting her into the car and into her carseat are quite the challenge while we are in the line.

  16. Thank you so much for this helpful article. I faced the same problem yesterday with my four year old son picking him up. It happens nearly daily and I felt so bad about preschool and being a good mom. Now I realize we need to try some different things to help this and sometimes a big hug is the best answer.

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