Long Days at School Can Lead to Long Nights at Home

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By Christine Rushford, Coastal Counseling

The back to school rush has begun. Millions of children have returned to their daily routine of early wakeups, multiple hours of academic rigor and then a plethora of after school activities. Often over the summer, the schedule becomes more relaxed. Bedtimes become more flexible, organized activities get put on hold and there is little demand to sit and focus. This return to routine and structure in the Fall can be a difficult transition for many kids, leading to meltdowns at home.

As parents, we always hope that our children do their best and behave appropriately when out of our sights. It is not unusual for a child to get rave reviews about his behavior from teachers at school, yet the parent spends the afterschool hours battling with defiance and cranky behavior. Some parents wonder if the teacher could possibly be talking about their child or be confused about someone else! This is especially common in the first few weeks of returning to the school year schedule.

Although this home behavior can be frustrating, if we put ourselves in our children’s shoes, we can at least empathize with why it is happening. A traditional public school day in America lasts between six and a half to seven hours. Many children are getting on buses as early as 6 a.m., requiring wake ups before the sun even rises. Children are then expected to sit at their desks, eyes on teachers and ears open for classroom activities. They must also navigate the social complexities while at school. As we can all remember, that seems to get more difficult with every grade of school completed. With the amount of focus and self-control expected from a child after the long, lazy days of summer, it’s no wonder why Suzy is on the floor in a tantrum when you ask her how her day went! What’s a parent to do when they are only getting the worst from their child during the back to school transition?

The first step is to remember this is normal and you are not alone (misery does love company right?)! The next step is to implement some preventative measures to minimize emotional upheaval for your kids. This starts with regular bedtime routines. Sleep is essential for everyone, but especially our people with still developing brains. Implement a calming, structured routine that is followed every night for little ones. For the older kids who have access to technology, be sure to establish a cut-off time for electronics to ensure they are not up all night with the glow of a screen on their faces. Establish preventative measures for wake-up time too. If you know Johnny is terrible to get out of bed and you often end up sending him on the bus after a frantic morning of yelling and hunting down back packs, plan ahead. Have Johnny set out all school items by the door the night before. Wake Johnny (or set his alarm) an extra 15 minutes early if you know he is going to struggle with waking up.

When it comes to after school exhaustion, respond with empathy rather than frustration. This can be difficult as we welcome kids home only to receive an attitude. But take a deep breath and remember all that was expected of your child that day. Rather than grill your child on their day, provide a favorite healthy snack and sit back to determine what he would like to share in that moment. Just be a good listener. For younger children a snack and a physical outlet is often needed. When emotionally dysregulated, grounding our bodies through movement can be helpful. Encourage your child to run around outside with a neighbor or the family dog before sitting down to tackle homework. Allow for unstructured time where your child can decompress. When it comes to extra-curricular activities, start back slowly if possible. Speak up to coaches when planning the Fall schedule and explain that Suzy will be adjusting to school the first week and will be at soccer practice the second week of school rather than the first. Hold off on enrolling Johnny in trumpet lessons until after he has gotten the school routine down a bit. Some coaches or instructors might balk, but your child’s mental and emotional health comes before extracurriculars.

Think of your child’s personality to determine what he or she might need after school to decompress. For some, it will be running around to release energy and socialize and for other children they will need quiet and solitude to return to their regulated state of mind after school. More than likely, your child’s after school grumpiness will ease after a few weeks of returning to the Fall schedule.