This week in England we are heading back to school and term time childcare and preschools kick back in too. For many children the break has been even longer than usual with the pandemic related closures.
When my oldest started school I really struggled with the post school pick up slump. I would arrive at school to collect Jacob and a wild, ratty, and RAVENOUS child was presented back to me! He loved school, but he also found it overwhelming, exhausting and challenging.
It took me a while to get into some habits to help this tense period between pick up and bedtime go as smoothly as possible. So, here are my top tips!
The School Run
- Take a little snack to school- take something to the actual pick up! I found apple, cheese and crackers, cut up in a tub worked well, a cereal bar, bear rolls, a tub of mixed dried fruit, something to eat on the walk home. When I didn’t do this the actual walk home was really challenging. He was really hungry and really tired and he needed something there and then!
- Troubleshoot the journey home- for people on foot actually getting your little one home can be challenging. Hungry, tired kids who need a poo are a notoriously tempestuous bunch. So, my strategies:
- Play a game. “Explorers”- take a different route through housing estates etc, “Monsters” you are a monster, chase them, they are monsters, they chase you. “Walk like a…”- yup, that’s right, i walked like a dinosaur, prowled like a lion, slithered like a snake (not on the floor, I’m not that dedicated!) Distracting just long enough to get home.
- But also, for me, take a sling or pushchair. I had one or two kids to get home on the school run depending on preschool days for Reu. I took a sling, because some days the distraction wasn’t enough. They were overwhelmed, exhausted and they needed comfort and connection, and I needed to get home. Whether it was sunny, snowing or torrentially raining – I don’t drive – we had to walk, and there’s only so much I can do to meet their needs on a pavement! A sling helped us all get home without them having a meltdown and me losing my temper! If you have a baby or young child, having a sling, and/or pushchair and possibly a buggy board you have more options!
After The School Run
- Basic needs – food, drink, toilet: When you are hangry, or actually really need a poo, you are probably not your best self. When your child has been thrown into a new environment all day, they are often really distracted from their basic needs, not wanting to poo in an unfamiliar toilet or being worried they’ll miss something or unsure when they can go. Forgetting to drink all day except at lunchtime. These are really common issues. If you have a ratty child after school, suggest they go to the loo when you get in whilst you get some sandwiches and fruit ready, or if you’re organised/have time make them in the morning or before you set off to get them. We found a snack the size of a small meal was best. Yes, they might eat less dinner, but you can factor that in when cooking if they start regularly eating less than expected. With these basic needs met their flashpoint for a meltdown is likely to rise a bit.
- Decompression time– they need some time to let go of all the expectations and rules of school, to release the tension and not have expectations placed on them or be asked to do a lot. What this looks like will depend on the child and their age. For a preschooler this might be all about connection, they may just want cuddles. A sling can be really great for this if you need to be getting dinner ready and they are in floods of tears whenever you stop hugging them. For Jacob having around an hour of TV, or tablet time either with cuddles on the sofa, or he’d often make a blanket fort gave him time to zone out after a day of running around and interacting with dozens of people. An older child who is expected to sit still and concentrate may need to spend this time running off some energy at the park or in the garden. Work out what they need and build it into the pattern of the day.
- Meal planning– evenings were more stressful when I wasn’t sure what I was cooking, or it took a lot of prep when I had exhausted kids. I created my magic meal plan which took account of what days I had childcare, what days I was working, and how hungry my kids tended to be. Nursery feed my kids often and they come home not very hungry, Jacob has a big snack after school. On days when they were both at school or nursery dinner would be really simple: beans on toast, pasta with pesto or homemade veg sauce that I batch made and froze in portion sized tubs, fishfingers and veg etc. Very little prep time, really easy to grab and get on the table even with tired little ones. On other days I would aim to batch cook and use our instant pot or slow cooker to prepare a three days of meals in one go, so that they were ready to eat that day, the following day, and freeze one portion for another week. Knowing that I didn’t need to do a lot of cooking in the final stretch to dinner time really helped reduce the stress.
- Give opportunities to talk– its notoriously hard to get a child to tell you about their day. You ask them what they’ve done and there are 3 common answers “nothing”, “everything”, “I can’t remember.” If you ask me about my day, I’ll probably say, “yeah it was fine” regardless of what happened. Model talking about your day, tell them what you had for lunch, they may well then tell you what they had, or you can then ask because at least they’re likely to have thought about their lunch. Tell them who you talked to, whether you went to the shops, or had a business meeting. Hearing us talk about our day normalises talking about our day and takes the pressure off. Nobody likes to feel interrogated.
- Carefully consider after school activities– does your child have the energy and ability to cope left after school? Are activities straight after school, or are they after dinner? We can manage an activity after dinner, they get some decompression time and to eat, but would struggle more with something that meant rushing them straight from school to another activity. Sometimes less doing and a bit more time for just being is what is needed.
- Burning off energy– that exhausted heap of child that actually sat still on the sofa after school is now magically re-energised. Great! Often after dinner can be when they get their second wind and is a great time to do some last wild time, scooter ride, play football etc, with you before bed. If your child did that straight after school, this might be the snuggle on the sofa together time instead.
- Bedtime and morning prep– I found getting their uniform downstairs so they could get dressed after breakfast without having to get them back upstairs made things much less stressful in the mornings. I also found having pyjamas ready when going up to bed, to avoid the drama of which pyjamas to wear with very tired children helped keep bedtime calm. If they pick their pyjamas then picking them before going in the bath, even picking them in the morning and putting them ready, also kept the last stretch of the evening calmer.
- Make your expectations reasonable: Above all things, remember they are very young, they have very low levels of emotional regulation. They have been sociable and interacting, learning and challenged, in an environment that is designed to stimulate all day. They are exhausted with coping and you are their safe place, they are overwhelmed, and when they get back to you they often really let go of all their big feelings they have been holding in all day. Be ready to deal with some really big feelings, probably mostly at bedtime when they really start to relax and let their guard down. The calmer you can stay, the more understanding you can be that their angry or miserable outbursts “tantrums” and meltdowns are showing you they are struggling with their feelings, and are not actually directed at you. You are who they trust to love them, despite how bad they feel at that time. The better you can help them navigate how they feel the better they will become at understanding their feelings, and using words to express them. The better able they will become at understanding their needs and how to cope with those feelings. One of the biggest learning curves of school is not learning to read, it isn’t anything that happens at school, it is the emotional processing of everything that they do when they come back to you, and THAT, a lot of the time is what you are seeing when you feel like you have had a little monster handed back to you at the end of the school day.
Looking for more support? Our ToddlerCalm workshops might be what you are looking for!