How can I help my child avoid after-school meltdowns?

Q. My daughter recently started kindergarten and it has been a huge transition for her. Prior to this school year, she only attended a half-day preschool four days a week. She comes home from school extremely cranky and has been having major meltdowns. I know she is exhausted and feels overloaded at the end of the day. What can I do to help her?

A. I’ve talked with many parents of elementary-age children who share similar stories about their child’s after school experience. It is common for children, especially for younger students, to come home mentally and physically exhausted from school.

Their days are full of demands, new learnings, peer interactions, sensory experiences, and quick transitions from one activity to another. Not to mention, many students eat lunch early in the day and return home with a hungry belly in need of a snack. All of these variables together set the stage for a tired and emotional child on the brink of a meltdown.

Your kindergartner is now experiencing longer school hours and an additional day away from home. Until she becomes acclimated to this new schedule, she may feel overwhelmed and somewhat disconnected. Those feelings combined with all of the new information she is learning and processing throughout the school day can lead to challenging afternoons, meltdowns, tantrums, and difficulty at bedtime.

Let’s look at some strategies you can incorporate into her afternoons and evenings to address this challenging behavior.

Hold the questions
Of course, you want to ask your daughter about her day and the wonderful things she learned as soon as she gets home, but it’s better to wait a bit before you do. Greet her with a simple hug and positive “hello” and then give her time to decompress. Once she’s had time to zone out and settle into your home setting, she should be ready to tell you about her day.

Have a snack ready
Most children are starving after school and headed for a cranky hunger crash. Make sure to offer your daughter a snack and drink right away. Whether you offer it to her in the car after pick-up or have it ready on the table when the bus pulls up, that snack will help boost her energy and hopefully curb her mood. 

Limit screen time
Your daughter may need to watch her favorite show to calm down upon arriving home. However, do try to limit after-school screen time to a maximum of 20 or 30 minutes. You should also follow this rule yourself. Use the time you have with her after school to connect and help her work out feelings and issues that may come up. Your full attention will be very reassuring to her.

Incorporate playtime
Many children enjoy some down time in the afternoon following a long school day. Try to find time to play with your daughter. It doesn’t matter what you do—bike riding, coloring, crafting—as long as you do it together. Your one-on-one attention will help her feel reconnected with you and less overwhelmed.

Make a space for homework
Set up a designated space and specific time for your daughter to do her homework. She will find comfort knowing her homework routine, which will help to lessen her stress for this daily task.

Do not overschedule
Your child is coming home from a highly structured day at school. She needs unstructured time to wind down and relax. Try not to overschedule her afternoons and eliminate her free time.

Be consistent with bedtime.
Keep your daughter’s bedtime consistent. Most 5-year-olds need 10 or more hours of sleep each night to feel well rested the next day. Provide your daughter with a calming bedtime routine to ensure she is comfortable and content before falling asleep.

School days are often filled with a lot of pressure and little time to release pent up energy leading some children to experience stress and frustrations at home after dismissal. Try implementing some of the strategies I offered above to support your daughter better. I’m confident these suggestions will allow you to make school-day afternoons and evenings more enjoyable for her and your entire family.

Allison Crumpler is a speech-language pathologist and the director of clinical compliance for Raleigh Therapy Services, Inc., a multidisciplinary pediatric therapy practice in North Raleigh. (919-791-3582)

Image Credit: Dryfhout

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