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By Leah Martin, MA, NCC

If the beginning of the school year has you feeling stressed or overwhelmed, you are not alone. The transition back-to-school can be difficult for both parents and children alike. Knowing what to expect can help reduce anxiety as the school year approaches and can help you learn tricks for making the back-to-school transition as smooth as it can be.

For younger children, the transition back to school often comes with what has been deemed the “after-school restraint collapse.” This is the phenomenon that causes your “pleasure to have in class” to be a nightmare to have at the dinner table. For many young children, staying in their seat, keeping their hands to themselves, and waiting to be called on takes about all of the impulse control they have for the day. A small inconvenience that they may have shrugged off at 10am can trigger an emotional meltdown at 5pm. For young children, restraining their impulses all day in order to behave appropriately at school leaves them exhausted by the time they get home. Once they are finally back in a space that is safe and familiar, they spend less energy trying to monitor their behavior and, as a result, they are more prone to angry outbursts and emotional meltdowns.

As difficult as it may to navigate the emotional meltdowns that take place after school, they can actually be a sign that your child feels safe and secure in your presence. They feel safe enough to fall apart after a day of trying to keep it together. Try not to take your child’s silence or increased irritability after school personally. Give your child space to calm down or decompress if they are becoming overwhelmed or dysregulated. Once they have grown calmer, get down on their level and offer help regulating. This may mean giving them a hug, watching a silly video with them, or taking deep breaths together. Remind your child that you can help them when their emotions feel too big to handle and encourage them to use their words to express how they are feeling.

Here are a few tips for helping children of any age navigate the transition back to school:

Keep the ride home fun and relaxed! – When your child is away at school all day, it is normal to want to know what they were up to. Who did they eat lunch with? What did they learn? What was their favorite part of the day?  All these questions can provide great connection points with your child, but they may feel like too much to respond to immediately following a long school day. If you are noticing that your child is more easily agitated after school, keep the ride (or walk) home from school fun and relaxed! Let them play their favorite songs on the radio, simply narrate what you see, or play a silly game. Save some of the questions for once your child has gotten some space to themselves.

Provide water, snacks, and a calm place – Dehydration and hunger only act as fuel for emotional outbursts. Providing your child with water and a healthy snack after school can help replenish the energy that they spent over the course of the school day. Offering a quiet space in which a child can spend a few minutes unwinding can be very helpful after a long day at school. Children need time to relax just like grown-ups do!

Routine, routine, routine! – Children thrive on consistency and predictability. Try to help your child stick to a regular routine as much as possible. For some children, it may be helpful for them to have their daily/weekly schedule written down somewhere where they can see it. For younger children, pictures can be used to help children know what tasks they need to complete each morning or what activities are taking place on certain evenings. Having a consistent bedtime and wake up time can be a major help in navigating the transition back to school. Getting your child used to going to bed at their “school bedtime” a week or so before school starts can make the transition even smoother. 

While some additional stress is to be expected as children adjust to a new school schedule, it is important to keep an eye out for signs that your child might need additional help in navigating their emotions or managing their behavior. Changes in appetite, difficultly sleeping, frequent complaints of physical ailments, and a lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities can be signs that your child may benefit from seeing a therapist. 


Seto, C. (2018, September 10) Today’s Parent:

After school restraint collapse is a real thing – here’s how to deal with it:  https://www.todaysparent.com/kids/school-age/after-school-restraint-collapse-is-a-real-thing-heres-how-to-deal-with-it/.