How to Handle After School Meltdowns
Hooray! It’s back-to-school time! Many parents look forward to this all summer long, while others absolutely dread it. Changing your child’s schedule abruptly at the beginning of a new school year can cause lots of chaos and big emotions. Children on the autism spectrum typically feel this stress much more intensely, which can lead to after school meltdowns. If your kiddo struggles with this, check out these great ideas to reduce the overwhelm!
Why do after school meltdowns occur?
How is it even possible? Your child was a perfect angel all day; their teacher said so! Now they are sobbing uncontrollably and throwing things. What happened?! How can your kid have such a great day at school, then come home and completely fall apart?
So many moms struggle with this. They begin to wonder if they are a horrible parent, if the teacher is lying, or if their child despises them. The drastic change in behavior is difficult to wrap your mind around.
Believe it or not, after school meltdowns are pretty normal, especially for autistic children. Home is their safe place. They know they can get away with more at home. No, they aren’t necessarily trying to manipulate, mistreat, or use you – they just know they can be themselves without fear of unknown punishment. They don’t have to try to bottle up all of their overwhelming emotions, stress, and sensory overload any longer, so they explode.
It may even seem that the “better” their day was at school, the worse their behavior is once they get home. My boys were briefly in a special education program at a local public school, and I witnessed this.
My eldest struggled the most. His teacher and the special ed director would both tell me what a wonderful day he had as they brought him to the car for pick up. Before we would pull away, he would begin to unravel. He would start screaming and tearing at his shirt, trying to rip it off through his 5-point harness. His shoes would get launched across the van. Once at home, it was typically a heart-wrenching rage fest until he fell asleep.
His younger brother didn’t struggle nearly as much after school, but that was because he did a lot of struggling while still there. His teachers would relay periods of crying and refusal to complete tasks or join in circle time.
Some children are able to conform during school, while others lack the ability to gain enough self control to do so. My youngest is the latter. If your child is exploding after school, and having good behavior during class, they are likely trying their best to conform. Unfortunately, hours of unnatural behaviors and inability to stim or take sensory breaks can lead to major after school meltdowns.
How to reduce after school meltdowns
What are we supposed to do then? Just let them explode on us each day? While it is necessary for our kiddos to have a safe place, and to be able to release their bottled up emotions, we also need to teach them healthy ways to do it. That is obviously more of a challenge with special needs children. Here are some great ways to help reduce the after school meltdowns.
1) Morning sensory routine
Having a morning sensory routine is a great place to start. Our kids need sensory input throughout the day, and they are likely not going to get it at school. Wake up a bit earlier and encourage your child to do 15-20 minutes of therapeutic exercise. You can help your child if they are unable to follow a routine by them self, or give them a visual aid to increase their independence.
These sensory integration exercises require assistance, but have super results:
- Ball squashes (roll an exercise ball up and down your child, as they lay on the floor or a mat)
- Joint compressions
- Deep squeezes (slowly squeeze and release up and down your child’s arms and legs)
- Body rolls (wrap a blanket around your child and roll them from one side of the bed or floor to the other)
Here are some independent exercises:
- Body sock stretches
- Sensory bin
- Free stimming
- Calm down bin
- Sensory room (15-20 minutes of calm and quiet in a sensory room can help regulate kids who struggle with sensory overload at school)
- Heavy work (my boys like the heavy work activity pictured below, lol!)
Choose an activity based on your child’s specific needs. Sensory seekers will need activities like heavy work and physical exercise, or deep pressure. Those with sensory sensitivities will likely need to stim more, or use a sensory room before school starts. If you don’t already have one, you can easily set up a closet, small room, or even a tent as a cheap sensory room!
2) After school regulation
The after school meltdowns can also be reduced by being strategic in the way you handle your child’s first few minutes away from class. Make sure your child has sensory items available immediately following school. If you transport your child, have a travel sensory kit or their favorite sensory items readily available when they get to the car. If they ride the bus, be sure to pack some sensory items in their book bag that they can use during the ride home.
Another big issue with kids on the spectrum is hunger. Interoception skills are often lacking, which can interfere with your child’s ability to notice and interpret body signals. Most schools do not allow children to snack outside designated times, which can leave your kiddo starving by afternoon. Have a drink and snack available in their book bag or car seat as well. (And don’t try to be super healthy either – make sure it’s something that they will readily eat!)
Once they are home, encourage sensory input again. Offer a sensory bin, direct them to the sensory room, perform deep pressure therapy, or give them ideas for proprioceptive activities to do on their own.
3) Help them feel comfortable
Most parents have an internal instinct to ask their kids about their school day the second they get home. If your kiddo enjoys this, don’t bother stopping. But if you’re reading this, my guess is that your child doesn’t want to answer questions after school, because they are stressed.
Asking questions can trigger anxiety in kids, even if they don’t normally struggle with anxiety. They just pent up their emotions and sensory overload (or underload) for hours, and they are ready to bust at the seems. This is not a good time to ask questions.
Trust me, I’m a mom too. I get it. You want to know what happened, how they were treated, if they were happy, what made them upset, who they talked to, blah blah blah. And you should want to know all those things! But save the questions for another time. Right now, just let your kiddo relax and unwind from their school day.
Let your child know you’re happy to see them. Don’t act concerned or seem anxious about what occurred during school. Try to be comfortable yourself, so you don’t feed into your child’s emotions. Offer them a drink and snack, and some sensory items; and turn on their favorite song, or tell them something good that happened that day. Keep it light. Just create an environment that will make your child feel as comfortable as possible while they transition from school to home. This will help ease the after school meltdowns.
4) Check their IEP
If you have tried these suggestions and still feel like your child is not improving, talk with the powers at be about changing their IEP. You can request sensory breaks, special exceptions, and therapeutic aids to be written into the IEP in order to help your child during the school day. Every district is different, but you can always ask questions. If you struggle during IEP meetings, feel free to bring someone along for support. A therapist is a great option, if they will agree.
Stop the after school meltdowns
Incorporating sensory integration activities before and after school are great ways to reduce the chaos once they are home. Try these suggestions, and be consistent with it, and see how it changes your kiddo’s after school demeanor.
What have you done to help your child regulate after school? What has worked? I always love to hear what works for others, as we all know that our children respond to different methods! Leave a comment below and let me know what you’ve tried!
And while you’re at it, check out these other great posts (with freebies!) from my friends about other back-to-school topics!