Many parents will be familiar with those days where you pick your child up from school, the teacher says they’ve been ‘fine’ all day, but as soon as you step over the doorstep of your home, or even on the journey, your child seems to just lose it.

It might look like crying, anger, whining, defiance, stubborn silence, or a full-blown meltdown, but the chances are that what your child is experiencing is something known as ‘after-school restraint collapse’.

Navigating the school day takes effort from every child. Hours spent sitting still, listening carefully, learning new things, managing relationships, remembering equipment, following instructions – it all takes mental, physical and emotional work. By the end of the day it’s no wonder children are sometimes exhausted and it’s when they get home, where they feel safe to let their emotions out, that the stresses and strains of the day can erupt.

While after-school restraint collapse can affect any child, for children with additional needs, sensory difficulties, anxiety and other challenges, it can become acute. Tiredness, hunger and illness can also exacerbate the problem and with all the protective measures introduced to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the mental load for children at school will be even greater this year.

Here are some ways that you can support your child if after-school restraint collapse is affecting your family:

  • No matter how your day has gone, or how your child’s day has gone, greet your child with a hug and a smile.
  • Address your child’s basic needs, such as tiredness and hunger. Being prepared with a healthy snack and a drink might help, especially if it is something your child can be chewing, crunching or sucking on the journey home.
  • Avoid bombarding your child with questions about their day. They may feel overwhelmed and need time and space to settle, so save the conversations about school until later.
  • While some children need a quiet, still space to re-group, others may benefit from physical activity. Try walking, scooting or cycling home from school or rhythmic activities like swinging or bouncing on a trampoline.
  • If you travel by car, try playing some music or an audiobook on your journey to create a calm space.
  • Leave homework until later if you can – after several hours at school, your child will likely need a break before starting on more work.
  • Make sure your child knows that you are ‘holding them in mind’ while they are at school – place little notes in their lunchbox, let them take a transition object from home, or draw a little kiss on their arm and another in the corresponding place on your arm.
  • Try to maintain a predictable routine around home time. This may mean speaking to your child’s school about how they can make the last few moments of the school day predictable and calming. Your child might benefit from being picked up a few minutes early, or at a different exit from the school so that they can avoid the sensory stimulation of so many children transitioning at once. If your child has a ‘key person’ they may be able to support the transition.
  • Finally, make sure you are taking care of yourself. If after-school restraint collapse has been a feature in your home for a long time, it is likely that you feel your own anxiety and tension levels rising as home time approaches. Remember that after-work restraint collapse is also real, so make sure you are doing what it takes to look after yourself before you welcome your child home.