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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.
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.
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.
Finally, I took a deep breath, picked him up, carried him to my room and just 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, 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?
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:
- Working 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 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.
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. 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.