This week in England we are heading back to school. When my oldest started school last year I really struggled with the stress of the post school pick up slump.
I would arrive at school to collect Jacob and they presented me with a wild, ratty, and RAVENOUS child! He loved school, but he also found it overwhelming, exhausting and challenging.
It took me a while to find some habits to negotiate this stressful period between school and bedtime. So, here are my top tips!
Low stress school run
1 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 stressful. He was really hungry and really tired and he needed something there and then!
2 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 school run stress reduction 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!) These games were distracting just long enough to get home.
Take a sling
But also, for me, take a sling or pushchair. I had one or two kids to get home on the school run depending on the day. I took a sling, because some days the distraction wasn’t enough. They were overwhelmed, exhausted. 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. 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 gives you more options!
After the school run
3 Sort the 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 is thrown into a new environment all day, they’re often really distracted from their basic needs. There’s also not wanting to poo in an unfamiliar toilet; worrying they’ll miss something; or feeling unsure when they can go. Not to mention forgetting to drink all day except at lunchtime. These are really common issues and they cause a lot of stress! Sorting these can really bring ‘tempers’ down a notch.
If you have a ratty child after school, suggest they go to the loo whilst you get some sandwiches and fruit ready. Or, if you’re organised, you could make snacks before the school run. We found a snack the size of a small meal was best.
Yes, they might eat less dinner. We just factor that in when cooking dinner. With these basic needs met their flashpoint for a meltdown is likely to rise a bit. See the stress levels drop a bit. This may be a good time for you to have a snack, drink and wee too, just saying!
4 Decompression time
They need some time to let go of all the expectations and rules of school. They need to release their school stress without anyone placing expectations on them. 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 worked. Either with cuddles on the sofa, or he’d often make a blanket fort. This gave him time to zone out after a day of running around and interacting with dozens of people. An older child who has to sit still and concentrate all day 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.
5 Meal planning
School evenings were more stressful when I wasn’t sure what to cook, or I’d planned something that took a lot of prep when I had exhausted kids. I created my magic meal plan. This took account of what days I had childcare, what days I was working, and how hungry my kids tended to be.
Nursery fed my kids often and they came home not very hungry. Jacob had 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. I batch made sauce and froze it in portion sized tubs. These had very little prep time, were easy and low stress to 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. I’d cook a three day portion of meals in one go. That way they were ready to eat that day, the following day, and one portion in the freezer for another week. Then one day per week I would defrost a batch cooked meal from 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 after school stress.
6 Provide opportunities to talk
It’s 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 it prompted them to remember their lunch. Tell them who you talked to; whether you went to the shops; maybe you had a big meeting. Hearing us talk about our day normalises talking about our day. It take the pressure off. Being interrogated about school is stressful, make sure its a conversation!
We have a blog all about how to support reconnection and encourage children to talk about their day.
7 Carefully consider after school activities
Does your child any energy and ability to cope left after school? Are activities at school or elsewhere? Are they straight after school, or are they after dinner? We can manage an activity after dinner. They get some decompression time and to eat. There would be a lot more stress if something that meant rushing them straight from school to another activity. Sometimes kids need less time doing and more time just being.
8 Burning off energy
That exhausted heap of child who sat still on the sofa after school has magically re-energised. Great! Often after dinner can be when they get their second wind. For us after dinner is a great time to do some final wild time; a 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.
9 Bedtime and morning prep
I found there was less stress all round if their school uniform was downstairs so they could get dressed after breakfast. It was easier than sending them back upstairs. I also found having pyjamas ready when going up to bed, to avoid the drama of tired children choosing which pyjamas to wear helped keep bedtime calm. If they pick their pyjamas then picking them before going in the bath, or even picking them in the morning and putting them ready, could keep the last stretch of the evening calmer.
10 Make your expectations reasonable
Above all things, remember they are very young, and they have very low levels of emotional self-regulation. They have been sociable and interacting all day. School is a stressful environment; it is designed to stimulate. They are learning and processing constantly. Coping all day is exhausting, and you are their safe place. They feel overwhelmed. When they get back to you they often really let go of all their big feelings they have been holding in all day. This is know as after school restraint collapse. Read our After school restrain collapse survival guide for more help.
Be ready to deal with some really big feelings. The calmer you can stay, the more understanding you can be. Their angry or miserable “tantrums” and meltdowns are evidence that they are struggling with their feelings. They 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. That is the cause of a lot of stress with school aged children. That is what you are seeing when you feel like they sent a little monster handed home at the end of the school day.
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