Welcome back for part 4 of emotionally preparing your child for school, this instalment is relevant for new starters and school returners.
By now most children who are attending school this year will have had some time at school. I hope they have been getting on well! It is very normal to find this transition time tricky, and this might show up in a number of ways such as:
♥︎ Struggling with drop offs
♥︎ Coming out of school with what seems to be wild behaviour (being dysregulated)
♥︎ Not wanting to meet demands (e.g. homework, tidying away toys, brushing teeth)
♥︎ Having emotional outbursts and meltdowns
♥︎ Having more fears and worries at bedtime
Some of these things might seem really out of character for your child or might have seen these behaviours before but they feel more intense right now. There are a number of things at play which could be causing them at school including:
♥︎ Separation from you
♥︎ Adjusting to the new routine
♥︎ Tiredness from a long day
♥︎ Feeling like they need to meet expectations / follow new rules
♥︎ Social demands and making/keeping friendships
They might seem absolutely fine to their teachers and be “keeping it together” at school but you suddenly notice big changes in their behaviour after school, this is called restraint collapse.
We have been speaking with Kate from NurturedChildhood about why this happens and what we can do to support your child (and make things easier for you at home too!)
Kate offers 1:1 parenting and education support and advice to families. She was a primary school teacher and has a background in child psychology, she supports lots of families with ND children, and is a mother to an autistic son. She has brought all of her experience and expertise together to offer child-centred, nurture-based support for other families.
“Why does my child struggle so much/have so many meltdowns when they get home from school?”
When I was a teacher, I would often have children who appeared to be managing really well in school and on the surface seemed happy. But that wasn’t what parents were seeing at home and they would often describe a totally different child to the one I would see at school. So what was happening and why?
After school can be very challenging for many families and children, and can be more prevalent at the start of the school year (although not confined to that period of time for some children). Children might have a whole day of dysregulation, suppression of feelings and lack of autonomy inside them to let out. The ‘letting out’ and inability to cope with aspects of normal life is known as after-school restraint collapse and in essence is when children are ‘holding it together’ all day and then they release how they truly feel in the presence of those they trust, or in their safe place at home. Find out more about restraint collapse and why our children experience it here.
Ways to support your children who are experiencing restraint collapse...
Be mindful at school pick up
Take a deep breath before you collect your child and be ready to meet their emotions for what they are. Greet your child with a smile and a hug instead of questions about their day. On the way home try to give your child some time and space, if you think they might need it. If you’re driving home perhaps put on some relaxing music and stay quiet, or if you are walking home, perhaps just comment on the little things you notice. Every child is different, and this will depend hugely on your child. Always take their lead, but straight after school might not be the time for big conversations. When you child is overwhelmed or dysregulated after school, it is not the time to ask about their day or try and find out how they feel.
Children, like all of us, are often more irritable when they’re hungry and tired. Offer your child some water and something to eat to pick up their energy levels after a full and stimulating day– try to refuel with a mixture of fruits, vegetables and protein.
Opportunities to rest in play
Play that is child-led, open-ended, creative and something that brings them joy. Find ways for your child to play without too many rules or interruptions. I will be doing a series of ideas on my Instagram page over the next two weeks with ideas of what this might look like. But in essence, if your child loves lego and it fills their cup then find ways to protect their free time so they are able to fully immerse in the world of lego play – this might look like a pyjama play day on one day of the weekend, as well as time after school if they request that. Free play gives children an outlet to release their emotions and feelings. Play is an important part of emotional development for children and through play, children can express their feelings and learn to cope with emotions such as sadness, anger, and fear.
Try to find small ways to connect with your child outside of school time, giving them your undivided attention. This might look like playing a favourite game together to help them unwind, a walk to a favourite spot, planning a special meal, reading together and perhaps an increased bedtime routine to allow for more opportunities to connect. I often find that my son discusses his worries from the day at bedtime, when he is a place of calm and a place of connection. During the bedtime routine, not right before sleep, you could ask your child if they have any ‘tangles/knots that need to be undone’ or ‘squigly feelings’ that want to come out or are making them feel unsure. However you phrase it with your child, give them opportunities to discuss their feelings or worries outside of a emotionally charged moment.
Before school, try to find an opportunity for connection, however small. Try to give your child a little bit more of you in the mornings if you can and fill up their emotional cup before separation. Find a time to snuggle, read a story, brush your teeth together and make it silly and fun. Spending this extra time together in the morning can help ease your child into the separation of the school day while feeling more strongly attached to you. Dr Lapointe suggests “Just do something together full of the spirit of connection and care.”
Reduce demands and expectations
Be mindful of the overall expectations being placed on your child across a week. For many children, quieter afternoons and weekends will be necessary to enable them to recharge and regulate after school. Some schools don’t allow reception children to attend after school clubs for this reason. As parents, we might want to consider reducing other demands and social engagements, until such time as your child seems more settled and has a greater capacity to enjoy additional expectations on their day and their time.
Support your child through separation
We can support our children by helping them to feel connected to us even while apart (known as ‘bridging strategies). Allow your child to ‘take you to school with them’. There are lots of suggestions on my NurturedChildhood Instagram page on how to do this, but some examples of this might be to write notes for their lunch box, fill their hands full of kisses, put a photo of your family in their bag. This allows children to have something tangible to remind them that you are thinking of them and supporting them through their day. I also have suggestions of books to read with your child, which can help them to know that even when you are not together, you are still connected through your love and hearts, and that this connection can never be broken. Even when apart.
As the school year goes on, you can expect after-school restraint collapse to ease up a bit - both because of your children’s increasing maturity and their adjustment to the new routine and environment. If their big emotions seem to be continuing well beyond the first term and you would like some support, then please reach out. As a parent and a teacher I have experience of supporting children from both angles. I will be covering lots more ideas and support through a series of posts on my Instagram page over the next few weeks.
Huge thanks to Kate for sharing these amazing tips with us. She has also written us a really detailed account of the psychology around restraint collapse. It really helps to have an understanding of why our children are behaving the way they are and that they are not just "acting out" even if it looks like they are! Be sure to check it out here.
She is currently offering 25% off 1:1 Nurture Hours, where you can ask her anything childhood and education related. She is super lovely and totally gets it! You can drop her an email here to find out more- firstname.lastname@example.org
I want to talk to you briefly about separation and regulation strategies.
I talk about separation anxiety a lot as this has played a big part in our going to school struggles over the years, I am sure you are aware that this is why I designed the Love Note Patches so I could support my daughter and other children like her. The reason that they work (they aren’t a magic fix but they will certainly support your child) is because they are a bridging strategy (as discussed above) and they help your child to feel connected to you when you are not there. They may be a little more confident in the morning by knowing that they have a reminder of your love for when they need it, and they might seem a little less anxious in the day because they can access it whenever they want for comfort. It is also a reminder that they will be back with you again soon.
Here are a couple of tips to get a little more out of them:
- Give the patch a little rub or a kiss in the morning when you drop your child off as part of your goodbye routine. You can tell them that it is charged up with love and that they can give it a little rub whenever they need it.
- Have a patch from your child (or something else that is theirs such as one of their toys or a picture they drew you) and tell them you are keeping it with you for the day to remind you of them. For some children it really helps to know that you won’t forget them and that you will be thinking of them during the day too.
Sensory strategies for regulation
My mum used to call it my “mad half hour” because I would come home from school and zoom all over the place, jumping off things and laughing hysterically (I actually remember doing this!), but now I have more understanding of my nervous system and actually I was dysregulated from the day at school and this was my body going into a “hyper” state. I see this a lot in my kids too! The trick here is to try and catch them before they have a meltdown and put some strategies in place because once in meltdown mode there isn’t too much you can do until it passes. Using some of the strategies above from Kate such as having quiet time, snacks and reducing demands will help, you can also use other sensory strategies like snuggling them up in a blanket, blowing bubbles (calming breath work) and playing with sensory activities like water beads or kinetic sand depending on your child.
For neurodivergent children (including those that are highly sensitive) it is likely that it would also be beneficial for the school to also put some strategies in place to support them to stay regulated throughout the day such as allowing them to have sensory fidgets at school, movement breaks and quiet time built into their day. Our brains and our bodies work together here and we can use physical strategies to help us stay emotionally regulated (I find this all fascinating by the way). If after the transition period your child is still struggling after school it is definitely worth speaking to their teacher about it to see if there is anything they can do to support them during the day too (even if they seem “fine” at school). Kate can also offer advice on what accommodations you can ask school for and how to reach out to them:
"For some children who are more sensitive to their environment and changes, and those who are neurodivergent, they might need more sensory support before and throughout the day. If you would like to discuss this we can look at your child’s sensory profile and their sensory diet across the week, adding in supports and adjustments where needed. Everyone has sensory needs - after a long day teaching I couldn’t cope with any music or tv noise in the evenings. My capacity for noise was maxed out! This might be the same for so many children and together we can become detectives and work out what your child needs more or less of"
Thanks for tuning in again, it was a biggie this time with a lot to cover! Next week I will be chatting more about tricky drop off's on Instagram and on the newsletter so keep an eye out of this is something you and your little ones have been struggling with.