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How to Prevent After-School Restraint Collapse

Most parents of sensitive kids know what it’s like for their child to melt down after school after “holding it in” all day, but they may not know that it’s possible to prevent after-school restraint collapse. Or at least reduce it.

After-school restraint collapse is more common in highly sensitive kids. They often have a harder time holding it together in an environment where there’s a lot of stimulation and behavioral demands.

After-school restraint collapse is a real thing, and knowing that helps parents to better support their kids to meet their needs when they get home. However, it’s possible to take steps to prevent it or at least reduce it, and the bonus is that when you take this approach, your child will also learn emotional regulation during the process.

Here’s how you can get started.

Start by gathering more information

At the point when you start to see signs of after-school restraint collapse, that’s a signal that your child is having a hard time holding it together while they’re at school. That means that they’re having experiences that feel like “too much” for their nervous system. It doesn’t matter whether we think the triggers are big or small–it’s about what’s going on in their nervous system.

The next step is to gather more information.

  • Is it all day, or just later in the day?
  • Is it in response to a particular subject, activity? Or is it when they encounter another child?
  • Do they feel safe in the classroom and with all other students? (Safety is more than physical safety–see my recent post on what your child needs to feel safe.)
  • Do they need to move their body more?
  • Does it help to connect a bit more frequently with a regulated adult to calm their nervous system (e.g., the teacher)?
  • Are there any other associated activities or triggers that the teacher has noticed? (e.g., “It seems to usually happen when …”
  • What are some other factors you can get curious about, to gather more information about what your child is experiencing?

Having a bit more information about the triggers can help you make a plan to step in earlier.

It’ll be different for every child. Perhaps they can tolerate the stimulation in the morning, but over the course of the day, the activation in their system builds until it’s too much. If they haven’t had any support to take breaks that help their nervous system de-escalate, it continues to ramp up until they reach a point where their system is overactivated. That was part of the issue for my son when he was in grade 2 and 3.

My son’s story

My son has always needed to move his body a lot, and when he was in grade 2, sometimes near the end of the day he would be poking the child next to him on the carpet rather than listening to the teacher. He was a November baby and therefore one of the younger kids in the class, and he’s also highly sensitive. Some days he was just no longer capable of sitting still and attending to the teacher near the end of the day.

I used to say to him, “Your needs are important and I’ll always help you make sure you get your needs met. And, when you’re in the classroom, everyone’s needs are important, so we need to find a way for you to meet your needs that doesn’t interfere with other students getting their needs met as well.” 

I also spoke to the teacher regarding my son’s needs and possible solutions. We made an agreement with the teacher that he could get up and move if needed, as long as it didn’t disturb others. It was important to me that he wasn’t punished or shamed for meeting his needs.

Teaching them starts at home

Our kids can benefit from using experiences such as this one to learn self-awareness. You can help them begin to notice when they’re getting a little bit agitated or overstimulated, and then help them to come back down to baseline before they get to the point of being overstimulated or overwhelmed.

You know your child best. If I asked you right now–”what are some of the triggers that cause your child to get overstimulated and melt down, and some of the early signs?”–you can probably list them for me instantly. 

The first step is to start drawing your child’s attention to notice what they feel in their body when they start to get overstimulated. Get curious, help them notice without judgment, and then explore activities that help them calm. As you gain more understanding about your child’s triggers, and what soothes their nervous system, you can support them to start noticing their own body when they start to ramp up. It’s a practice that makes small changes, in baby steps, over time. And then as they gain some awareness about what they notice when their system is getting overstimulated, they’ll eventually be able to do this with more success at school. 

When they’re younger, they’ll need more support. At home, support means reflecting back to them what you’re noticing, helping them co-regulate with you, and helping them identify any needs they might have, and get those needs met. At school, that means speaking with the teacher, advocating for them and their needs, setting up a plan, and then checking in with both your child and the teacher regularly to see how it’s going.  

As your child gets older, they’ll be more capable of speaking up for their needs. They’ll also feel more confident doing so because they’ll have experienced you doing it on their behalf when they’re younger. And that’s also how we break the pattern of ignoring our self-care needs, and we prevent passing the habit on to our children.

PRO TIP:  When you’re supporting your child in this way, stay curious, do your best not to have expectations. Trust that they’ll learn.

At school

We know that kids need a regulated adult to help them regulate themselves**, and so they may require some support from the teacher, but it doesn’t have to take a lot of extra work for the teacher.

For instance, if your child notices when they need a break (or the teacher notices a behavior that signals your child needs a break), there might be something you could set up with a teacher whereby they could head over to a quiet corner with some headphones to take a little break or to read a book or to draw for a little bit. It’s important for you as the parent to help set that up, to ensure that the activity or break was something your child finds calming.

While your child’s teacher may not initially want to buy into this if they believe it’s extra work, you may be able to negotiate something with them once they understand that they will actually have an easier time managing the whole classroom when children are encouraged to pay attention to their needs. When kids start to have enough self-awareness about when they need to have a little break or when they need some calming, they can speak up to get their needs met. 

Another beautiful outcome arises when you use this approach with kids 👉🏻 They learn to extend that support to other children.

I’ve seen this in action. When kids have experienced being on the receiving end of having their needs met by you or the teacher–they extend that empathy to their classmates when they see them struggling. 

It’s heartwarming to watch your child comfort another child in the same way they’ve been comforted by you.

Creating a new generation of empathetic humans who are better at self-care

The reason I love this approach so much is that it supports our kids to not only learn self-awareness, but to become aware of what they and their body and nervous system needs early in life, so that they can learn about regulation and self-care from an early age. It doesn’t mean they won’t need our help. Kids still need to co-regulate with us.

However many parents, when they were children, learned that they had to override their needs both from the way they were parented and from being in school. As adults, these parents (myself included) have had to go through the slow process of re-learning to recognize their needs and speak up for themselves. For many parents–at the beginning of this process, it’s hard to even notice what your needs are, never mind taking steps to actually meet your needs. The habit of overriding or not even noticing your own needs can take a lot of time and effort to change.

Learning early in life not only to recognize your needs, but that your needs are important, and that they matter, and that the adults in your life will honor those needs and support you in getting the met, would be a huge step forward in creating emotional stability and resilience in our children that they will carry forward into their adult years.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, I fully agree that when our kids experience after-school restraint collapse, we should do all the things to support their return to regulation–feed them if they’re hungry, provide quiet or down-time, reduce questions or demands–whatever they need to calm and find a “reset”. And our sensitive kids will likely experience after-school restraint collapse sometimes, no matter how much we try to prevent it. Life isn’t “perfect”, and riding the ups and downs can help create resilience if they have support.

However, I believe we can do a lot to prevent it. The baby steps we take in helping our kids learn awareness of their body and nervous system state, along with asking for what they need at school rather than overriding their feelings, offers us a huge opportunity to support our kids’ with self-awareness and emotional well-being that will last throughout their lives.  

**Footnote: That’s called co-regulation–kids need to co-regulate with a regulated adult, hundreds of times, as they’re learning to regulate themselves. We know this from current neuroscience and the polyvagal theory (Dr. Stephen Porges). You can learn more about how to help your kids regulate in this online course.

Image Credit: Mary Taylor, Pexels

More articles on similar topics:

Raise a Resilient Child: When your sensitive child is anxious, easily discouraged, or unmotivated

Have I Caused My Child’s Anxiety? Steps to Healing and Repair

You Feel Guilty After Yelling at Your Child: Here’s why you can let go of shame