Your 7-year-old’s teacher pulls you aside during pickup to say your child was exceptionally good in class today. So why does she slam the car door and throw a full-blown meltdown when she steps into the house?
What parents describe as kids “falling apart” after school is actually something called “after-school restraint collapse,” says child development expert and former early childhood classroom consultant Christina Mirtes, who’s also an assistant professor at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti.
“It can be described as children who have been in an environment holding it all together all day, performing at capacity – they’re on their best behavior, like you or I am at work,” Mirtes says. “They’re tasked with holding in emotions, but when they get home, they may feel more comfortable to let their guard down and decompress.”
What kids do to “decompress” after a long day can look very different than what an adult might do. Parents can step in to guide those after-school behaviors and start to help build a child’s ability to regulate their emotions.
What’s going on
The after-school meltdowns for kids in grades 2-3 are “absolutely common,” Mirtes says. “Many classrooms today are asking a lot from our young children, expecting children to sit for long periods of time or be attentive to a particular task, in ways that may not be developmentally appropriate.”
She adds, “Children need movement throughout the day – even within lessons there should be movement as part of the day, strategically and intentionally placed. But that doesn’t happen in every school.”
When kids are tasked with holding in their energy and emotions all day, it’s much more likely that they’ll explode when they get home – talking back, throwing things or refusing to follow instructions.
“We should think about how children’s behavior stems from emotions,” she says. “Very young children don’t come home and say, ‘I had a hard day at school, can we talk?’ They might just behave a certain way that’s uncomfortable for parents.”
Managing the ‘collapse’
“The first thing to do is validate their emotions,” Mirtes says. “Say, ‘It looks like you’re having a hard time, you look upset, are you feeling tired?’ Those are ways you can help connect children’s behaviors with their emotions.”
She cautions parents against pushing their children to talk to them about their day right after getting home from school, since “asking ‘How is your day?’ is a big question after an eight-hour span of time.”
She says the next thing to do is to give them an opportunity to decompress.
“Give them time and space to have some down time,” she says. Consider that kids can also get hungry or “hangry” after school, she adds – a healthy snack might be in order to stave after-school-meltdowns.
Mirtes discourages caregivers from allowing screen time during this after-school downtime, since screen time is a stimulus.
“Another stressor is being overbooked – being shuttled from school to extracurriculars, like dance or soccer,” she says. “Limit the number of extracurriculars to one or two per week, perhaps. Focus on one thing versus shuttling children around all day long.”
Finally, Mirtes says, establish and stick to a predictable routine.
“Maybe after school you come home and have a snack, then some chill time, then after a while do homework,” she says. “We can develop self-regulation through play and social time with other children, so encourage them to go outside and play with other children, too.”
Does it ever end?
Mirtes says “falling apart” after a long day never really ends, but a child’s emotional regulation typically changes as they get older, so the expression of those emotions changes, too.
“I don’t know if it ever really goes away,” she says, but “the way it manifests might change. As children get older, they’re more likely to be connected to their emotions and behaviors. They’re able to talk more about their emotions and experiences.
“We all have bad days,” she adds, “and children are no exception.”