Meltdowns After School - Strategies to Help 

by Jessica Hill, COTA/L September 27, 2022

Meltdowns After School - Strategies to Help

The school year has begun. Your child wakes up early, spends most of the day in class with their peers - listening and sitting, learning and writing, socially engaging, keeping their cool - and then comes home.

Cue - meltdown.

Why does your child have a total meltdown as soon as they get home from school? Why can’t they engage and tell you about their day? Why can’t they seem to focus and follow instructions for tasks around the house? Why are they so grumpy and moody?

After-school restraint collapse

Have you heard of this term before? After-school restraint collapse is everything just described above - when your child has been at school all day and they come home, they completely meltdown (throughout this article, ‘after-school restraint collapse’ and ‘after school meltdown’ will be used interchangeably). They struggle emotionally. They can’t seem to keep it all together, because they just spent the entire day keeping it all together. This is seen more often in young children, but older children can experience it as well!

Think about how you feel after a long, stressful day at work. You come home and simply want to relax and unwind. You’re exhausted. You need some quiet time away from people. You need something to eat and drink. Maybe you even need to get some extra movement in - a nice walk outside - because you’ve been sitting at a desk all day. Or maybe you need to listen to some calming, classical music because you’ve been talking to people all day.

The same goes for your child. School is busy. There is a LOT of sensory input that your child has to filter through throughout the day:

  • Visually navigating the school; visually navigating the playground; completing a variety of visual school-related tasks (reading, writing, etc.)
  • Filtering out the noise in the classroom (fans, talking, pencil sharpener, etc.); filtering out the noise in the gym and/or playground and lunchroom (that’s a LOT of noise!); following auditory directions from their teacher (auditory input)
  • Tolerating clothing and peers touching them (tactile input)
  • Moving safely through their environment (vestibular and proprioceptive input)
  • Eating lunch (gustatory and olfactory input; interoception)
  • Identifying and managing emotions and basic needs - using the bathroom, drinking enough water, etc. (interoception)

For all children, it is a lot of work to manage all of that sensory input. For a child who struggles to process sensory input (perhaps a child with Sensory Processing Disorder), it will be even more difficult! Which means the meltdown after school may be even more intense!

overwhelmed child

Keep in mind - after-school restraint collapse is different than a tantrum. While a tantrum is an attention seeking behavior or a behavior due to not getting what the child wants, after-school restraint collapse is not within the child’s control. During a tantrum, the child is in control and can change their actions based on the attention they receive from the tantrum. During an after school meltdown, the child does not have full control over their behavior and their emotions. Therefore, the strategies for a tantrum and the strategies for an after school meltdown should be different!

Let’s dive into some ideas and strategies for you to try if your child is struggling after school!

Sensory diets

First and foremost, you need to know your child’s sensory needs. Are they a sensory seeker or a sensory avoider? Or are they somewhere in the middle? If you’re unsure, check out this free resource from Sensational Brain - it’s a sensory checklist that you can use to identify your child’s sensory preferences and get a better idea of what types of sensory activities they seek out and can benefit from.

Once you know your child’s sensory preferences / needs, you can create a personalized sensory diet. A sensory diet is a series of personalized sensory activities and strategies that is used during certain times of the day to help the child feel calm and focused. Sensory diets are a great tool to incorporate into the after school routine to help your child decompress after a long school day.

The after school sensory diet should start with a sensory activity that your child enjoys. If they enjoy jumping and crashing, incorporate it. If you know and understand your child’s sensory needs, you will know what to include into the sensory diet!

The after school sensory diet should also include sensory activities that help your child feel calm and regulated. This might be playing outside, reading a book, or even eating a snack.

Sensory Diet

Every sensory diet is different and unique to the child it’s designed for. Sensory diets will also change over time as the child’s sensory needs change. Be willing to experiment, try new ideas, modify to fit your child’s mood, and stay consistent. Additionally, teach your child how to identify their sensory needs and sensory diet strategies - this will help improve overall independence and help your child learn how to advocate for themselves!

Learn more about sensory diets in this blog article. Also check out The Zones of Regulation for ideas on how to teach your child about their sensory needs.

Sensory diet activities for after school

The first sensory activity you want your child to participate in is an activity that meets their sensory needs; while also making sure that their basic needs are met - water and a snack! If your child is a sensory seeker, provide jumping and running and crashing activities. If your child is more of a sensory avoider, provide more calming activities that they prefer, such as reading or listening to soft music.

Here’s a quick list of some sensory diet activities you can try with your child:

  • Get outside to run, jump, or climb
  • Somersaults
  • Log rolling
  • Animal walks
  • Listen to music
  • Play a metronome game - clap on the beat of the metronome
  • Make a calm down bottle with water, oil, and glitter
  • Diffuse essential oils
  • Make an essential oil scrunchy-bracelet for your child to wear
  • A crunchy snack
  • A chewy snack
  • Blow up a balloon and play balloon volleyball
  • Messy play - sensory bin, shaving cream, etc.

Consistent morning and afternoon routines

Let’s take a look at the morning routine - is it chaotic and rushed? Or is it calm and fun? Is it a little bit of both? Ultimately, providing your child with a calm, fun morning routine will help them start their school day on the right track. This increases the chances that they will not only have a productive day at school, but also that they will feel more at ease after school.

Additionally take a look at the afternoon, after school routine. Is it busy and rushed? Or is it calm and relaxing? If your child is melting down after school, attempt to provide a calm, relaxing afternoon routine. Use natural lighting in the house versus artificial lighting. Attempt to get outside in nature versus getting on the screen. Diffuse some calming essential oils. Play soft calming music. Eat a satisfying snack.

While not every morning or afternoon will always be calm, happy, and relaxed, you can have a goal to achieve those types of mornings and afternoons MOST of the time in order to help your child start and end their day on a calm note. If you’re in need of a simple visual schedule to help with your child’s routine, check out our FREEBIES page!

Calm down/cozy corner

Have you heard of this before? A calm down corner; a cozy corner; or a sensory corner. They all refer to the same thing - a space that is designed to be calm, comforting, and sensory friendly for the child to relax in. A cozy corner is the perfect place for your child to decompress and “get away” from the craziness of the school day. In fact, it may be the ideal place for your child to be in immediately after getting home!

Some ideas to use for your calm-down/cozy sensory corner:

  • Have your child help build it! It’s for them, so they should participate if possible!
  • Use a space that is off to the side, in a corner, or a quiet space in the house.
  • Use a pop up tent or some type of covering to decrease the visual stimuli.
  • Add calming sensory tools that your child enjoys using, such as weighted itemsand noise canceling headphones (those are just two examples!).
  • Add calming visual input such as a lava lamp (if safe), a calm down bottle, or twinkle lights.
  • Add fidgets - fidgets for hands and fidgets for mouths!
  • Add preferred activities such as books, puzzles, or other non-screen related activities.

Once the calm down corner is created, create a plan with your child on when and how to use it. Discuss the benefits of the corner: it’s a good place to relax, decompress if you’re stressed, and to take a break. Incorporate it into the daily after school routine. Plan on how long your child will spend in the corner. Place boundaries so that the corner does not get used to “get away” from activities - instead, it should be a tool that your child uses to help feel calm and decompress when stressed, so that they can then return to daily activities.

Food and drink

Take a look at the food and drinks your child is consuming throughout the day. Oftentimes if your child is not eating enough during the day, or if they are dehydrated, it can contribute to meltdowns after school. Their basic needs have not been met, causing them to have difficulty with emotional regulation. The term “hangry” comes to mind!

Child eating breakfast

Having an after school snack can make a world of difference! What types of foods does your child enjoy? Crunchy foods, resistive foods, foods with lots of flavor - all great options due to the sensory components and the proprioceptive input they provide (proprioception is calming - learn more about this hidden sense in this blog article)!

Additionally, be sure your child is hydrated! This can be done with water - but make it more motivating by using fun cups or water bottles and fun, twisty straws! Try adding frozen fruit to the water. Smoothies are also a great option for hydration and nutrition!

Less talking

When you pick your child up from school, or when they return home from school, do you immediately engage them in conversation? Do you immediately ask them about their day? If so, you’re not alone! This is very common - as parents, we’re curious about our child’s day and want to know as many details as possible! But sometimes, your child might need a quiet moment after school.

Instead of immediately launching into your questions about their day, allow your child some quiet time. Let them lead the conversation - wait for them to talk and then follow their lead. If they don’t want to talk right away, wait until later in the evening. Dinner time might be ideal to engage in conversation about how the day went.

This doesn’t mean don’t say anything to your child after school! It just means try to ask fewer questions, and listen more. Some ideas of things you can say that might not be overwhelming to your child immediately after school:

  • Hi! I’m so happy to see you!
  • Welcome home!
  • I’m so happy you’re home! What do you need right now?

Get out in nature

One study from 2021 reported health benefits of physical activity while out in nature. What exactly does this mean?

Getting out in nature means being in open air, away from artificial lights and sounds, and walking on the ground - ideally barefoot! It means listening to the sounds of the wind, the birds, and the trees. It means smelling the grass and the flowers. It means visually taking in the different colors in nature.

If possible, go out in nature with your child after school. This can be a back or front yard - taking your shoes off and walking barefoot in the grass. This can be at a local park - walking, running, and climbing. This can be down at the river or a lake - walking barefoot in the sand and the water. Simply being outside, connected to the ground, can be regulating. Even if it’s just for 10 minutes after school!

Co-regulation and mindfulness

Co-regulation refers to our ability, as parents, to help our children feel more calm when they are struggling. If we can be calm and provide a safe space for our children, they are more likely to feel calm. This is, of course, easier said than done!

Mindfulness refers to our ability to be aware of our emotions, bodily sensations, and to be present in the moment. In order to co-regulate with our children, we must be mindful of our own feelings and actions.

Because your child watches what you do and learns from what they see, they are very likely to imitate what you do and say. If you yell when you are frustrated, they will yell when they are frustrated. The first step will be to identify your own actions - what do you do when you’re upset? Do you use calming strategies that your child can observe and learn from? Do you talk openly about your calming strategies?

When your child is having a meltdown, it’s important for you to stay calm and attempt to help co-regulate. Again, easier said than done! However, it is possible! Identify what YOU can do when your child is having a meltdown - can you get down on their level and provide eye contact while you take deep breaths? Can you help provide them with some deep pressure while taking deep breaths? Can you calmly lead them to their calm down corner and sit calmly with them?

Because every child’s meltdown is different, every parent’s co-regulation and mindfulness techniques will be different!

Empathy and validation

Ultimately, it’s helpful to provide empathy and validation to your child’s emotions. What they are feeling is real. Understanding why they are melting down is the first step to empathy. Then you can provide validation - “I see that you’re upset; it’s been a really long day!”

Keep in mind that your child wants to do well, and will do well when they can! After empathy and validation, you can provide the tools and the skills necessary to help your child prevent after school meltdowns - using the ideas listed in this article or finding other strategies that work for your child!

Check out our video on 5 Simple After School Strategies To Help with Meltdowns and Transitions 

Jessica Hill, COTA/L
Jessica Hill, COTA/L

Jessica Hill, COTA/L is Harkla's in-house Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA). She has been working with children for over 6 years in outpatient settings. Jessica specializes in creating easy-to-digest, actionable content that families can use to help their child's progress at home. Jessica is the in-house expert, content creator, and one of the podcast hosts at Harkla! To learn more about Jessica, visit the Harkla About Us Page. Make sure to listen to her weekly podcast, All Things Sensory by Harkla for actionable, fun advice on child development.


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