The school day is finished and kids are home. They should be happy, right? Not necessarily. I expect to hear stories about their day, what they learned, where they sat for lunch, who they were paired with for activities… Instead, backpacks are thrown down, my smile is met with a gloomy face, and my questions go unanswered.
Unfortunately, sometimes children may exhibit certain “uneven” behaviors once they arrive home from school. These can include such things as excessive anger directed toward others, temper tantrums, sulking, and general irritability. These troublesome behaviors can be baffling until you think about what may be going on for your children during the school day – the stimulation, social interactions, and highly structured environment. These pressures can be magnified at the beginning of the school year when children are also adjusting to a new teacher, a new mix of students, and new – often more challenging – schoolwork.
On top of that, parents usually teach their children to be on their best behavior all day: be polite to the teacher, be sociable with other children, mind their manners in the cafeteria, pay attention, sit still, and be quiet. Add in peer pressure, separation anxiety, fear, exhaustion (both physical and mental), hunger, and thirst and because children tend to “save up” until they arrive home certain feelings caused by events of the school day – feelings that they may not feel safe enough to air in public – an emotional melt-down may result. So what can a parent or caregiver do to understand and minimize their child’s after-school irritability?
Know Their Feelings
Children need understanding, reassurance, support, praise and empathy from you. It may be hard for them to go to school, and you might want to go easy on them, especially when they first come home. This does not mean you should allow inappropriate behavior, just that you should try to understand it. Put yourself in their shoes so you can help them to be aware of what they may be feeling. Some children need a bit of down-time to think about their day before they are ready to share the events. For these children, rather than asking for a recounting as soon as they walk in the door, you can wait until dinner or even bedtime to review the day’s highlights and lowlights.
Know Your Stuff
Being knowledgeable about child development and setting reasonable expectations are vital. It helps to arm yourself with information about where your children are developmentally, as each new age brings with it its own unique stages and issues. For example, seven-year-olds tend to be very sensitive and can break into tears and shrieks of “You don’t love me,” just because you asked them to pick up their backpack from the floor. Without this knowledge, parents can be really thrown off-guard by such strong responses to seemingly simple requests.
Know Your Child
Awareness of each child’s distinct temperament is one of the keys to unlocking the mysteries of child behavior. Reminding yourself that each child is unique is important. While the child next door may be quite easygoing and compliant, your child may be the opposite, reserved and not so flexible. For example, just knowing that some slow-to-warm children may really struggle at the beginning of the school year and may not feel comfortable in their classroom until well into the fall can be very freeing for some parents.
Setting realistic expectations allows you to be more empathetic to what your child is experiencing and enables you to help him identify his feelings and develop skills to manage the situation. In addition, being understanding of your child’s perspective (that is, having empathy) assists you in keeping your expectations in line with what your child can achieve.
Knowing you child is also helpful when it comes to homework and after school chores. While some children may need to go outside and play before settling down to do more work, others may need a big snack and some quiet time after school, while still others may want to get started on work right away in order to feel ready for the next day.
Know the School
Get to know your child’s teachers, school psychologist or counselor and principal — they can be your family’s best friends during the school year. Don’t hesitate to ask for their help. Open communication with the school can help identify difficulties early, often before they develop into real problems.
If it seems like a lot to figure out, that’s because it can be. And while it may be difficult since you have your own pent-up emotions from the events of your day, take time to tune into your children- finding even five minutes to re-connect can change the dynamics of the evening. With knowledge of your children and the school and its expectations, you will be better able to hear what your children are telling you about their lives. For all parents and children, every day is an opportunity to learn and get to know each other better.By Claire Gawinowicz and Deanna Bosley
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