Managing After School Overwhelm

Lisa MillardBeacon Community Services, Beacon Education Services, Beacon Family Services, Beacon Training Services, Family Relationships, News

We know that many parents dread the time after school.  After a busy day, picking up your child and then having to cope with their tiredness and overwhelm can be hard to manage. Certified Theraplay®​ Practitioner and Lead Theraplay®​ Outreach worker for Bath and North Somerset LA, Catherine Eveness, shares her thoughts on after school overwhelm and offers her support to parents with some useful tips.  

Our senses are working all the time taking in movement, touch, sight, sound, taste and smell.  We use these senses to detect and make sense of an experience, deciding whether we like it or not. If any of our senses are over or under responsive then this becomes more challenging. Let us show you.

When I peel an orange I like the feel of it. I find the colour pleasing and I adore the fresh, citrusy smell. It all makes me want to pop a piece in my mouth and taste it. If I didn’t like the smell, the feel or the colour, I wouldn’t want to put it in my mouth and taste it. If I really hated the experience, the sight of anything orange may end up reminding me of this sensation. 

During the school day all of a child’s senses are in use. For the over responsive child, this will mean being moved, touched and bumped which can be really uncomfortable if you don’t enjoy touch. With all the different sounds and smells of a busy classroom, and the school, there is a huge amount of information to process.

Managing our responses to sensation can be tricky, particularly for children. Those who are sensitive to touch can describe it as even painful for them while those responsive to movement can feel seasick and nauseous if they have to move about quickly. Bright lights can make some children need to squint and lots of noise can be confusing. 

Those who are under responsive may not get enough input to discriminate they may need to move, fiddle or seek out more input to make sense of their worlds. You may have noticed when your child is unable to sit still, is chewing something or gets quickly frustrated if something they have been playing with gets knocked. These may be signs that your child is trying to process information they are receiving through their senses.

Children’s whose senses are over stimulated or who are not getting the kind of input they need are going to feel overwhelmed and confused. It’s likely they are going to put up their defences to make themselves feel safe. By the end of the school day they can be over aroused. This is where the meltdowns come from. 

This can be perplexing for teachers, as well as parents. The child has seemed absolutely fine all day.  It doesn’t seem comprehensible that after school they are so explosive and the parents are desperately upset. Some children mask the way they are feeling and their responses to the sensory stimuli at school. This is not uncommon and it can also help to explain the difference between their behaviours at school and their behaviours at home. There is a great article by The Autistic Advocate that explains this. You can read it here

The key to supporting your children is to help them get them back in sync with their senses by reducing the demands. At Beacon Family Services, we recommend a low demand approach where LESS IS MORE. Parents own sensory responses to stimuli are often very valuable in detecting that their child is in need. It’s important to take some time for yourself before collecting your child as this will help you be ready to co-regulate. 

Below are some of Catherine Eveness’ Top Tips for managing after school overwhelm:

  1. Less after school activity and more rest and repair – This one goes without saying. After a busy and stimulating day, children need some down time. Giving them space to decompress, without expectation helps to cope with their day.
  2. Trust that your child knows what they needChildren will seek out what they need to. Providing movement and food choices and watching how they respond is helpful but be sure to let them lead on what type of activity they’d like to do. For some children who have been over stimulated throughout the day, fast movement may be unhelpful and can lead to aggression as it activates fight and flight patterns. In contrast, activities which include fast movements are helpful for under stimulated children. We recommend a range of tailored activities in our Cards To Help You Connect resources to introduce regulating movement. Activities like blowing bubbles, hanging and climbing on a climbing frame, crawling through tunnels, using a punchbag, trampoline, swing or exercise ball are all great for helping children release energy and regulate at the end of a day.
  3. Offer snacks that support regulation – To help children feel calm, offer crunchy and/or chewy foods which increase input. To invigorate, or up regulate, choose citrus fruits or cold drinks. Creamy and sweet foods like banana, yoghurt and milky drinks help soothe while sucking on a drink through a straw or bottle can also be very regulating. Note that thicker drinks and/or smaller straws offer more resistance and offer more regulation. Salty and sweet spicy foods can be very calming while hot spices can help with cutting out other sensations.
  4. Allow time alone, we all need to unwind – Some children may need time wearing ear defenders or listening to music on headphones. Others may need some screen time and may watch something repetitively. Parents often feel they should offer family meals but actually, after a day at school, this may be too much. Removing this pressure can help.
  5. Create a den or safe space for child – Den-making has lots of sensory benefits but just having a safe space is really important to help children rest and repair.  A den space can also give uninterrupted time from siblings. Help them make a sign for their room/ den space and add beanbags, cushions, blankets and quiet activities which help calm. Settling a child to sleep at end of the day this safe space becomes important and low level lighting or black out blinds, strip coloured led lights with colour changing option for child to choose can all assist with creating this kind of space. Think about whether, and which, music sounds are helpful.

Helping your child to find their own ‘Just Right State’ after school will help them to feel safe and settled. Take time to watch and pay attention to the activities or foods they naturally gravitate towards. This will help you to better understand what sort of activity or snack they need for their current state.  You can find out more about the Just Right State programme here.

For more information and advice on supporting your child’s sensory needs or to find out more about the next Just Right State programme being run by Beacon Family Services, contact her via email at catherine@beaconservices.org.uk

Catherine Eveness, is a certified Theraplay®​ Practitioner, Lead Theraplay Outreach worker for Bath and North Somerset LA, and Founder of Theraplay®​ South West. She works in partnership with Beacon Family Services to deliver the Just Right State Programme.