Managing After-School Meltdowns

Sometimes I marvel at the existence of my two boys. I look at them, and both are just oozing characteristics and traits of my husband and me. And yet, at the same time, they are complete opposites in so many ways.

My younger child–everything comes so easy to him. He learned to talk, walk and read at a very young age. He breezes through homework and school assignments.

child having an after school meltdown
Is there anything more frustrating than “We don’t see this at school?”

On the other hand, Kevin takes forever to learn even the most basic skills. It takes intense, direct instruction with lots of repetition and reinforcement. His team and I often talk about how much energy it takes for Kevin to “be.”

And, since one child also has the skills to self-regulate, he can manage his stress to some degree. Kevin? Nope, he comes home every afternoon and melts. He doesn’t have meltdowns or tantrums. But, many days, he collapses in his room and takes an intense nap.

Does your child keep it together during the school day only to lose it when they get home? If so, you’re not alone. You’re also not alone if you have brought these concerns to your IEP team only to hear, “Well, we never see that here.”

As an aside, few things in life irritate me more than when a person makes a statement of feelings or concerns, and the responder tries to invalidate that statement. But let’s continue with this issue and how to fix it.

Also, in this post, I am discussing after-school meltdowns and other ways that a child tells us that they are dysregulated. However, the action steps below would be suitable for any similar scenario.

Why After-School Meltdowns Happen

You likely know the cause of this. I’m putting it here to validate you as a parent. And to help you better define it for your IEP team.

First, praise your child because they have learned some self-regulation skills. And they can exhibit those skills at school. This is a good thing.

Self-Regulation at School

Two big components of self-regulation are impulse control and emotional regulation. We do this as adults. At work, we act within society’s rules and expectations. We know the different rules of how to act at work, at home, at the grocery store, or any other place in public.

The difference between our kids and us is that this now comes naturally to us. We’ve had decades of practice.

Controlling Emotions: In the classroom, children must refrain from hitting anyone as a toddler would. As they get older, they try not to cry when hurt. They try hard to keep it together lest anyone call them a “baby.”

When I make a mistake at home, I usually curse as an emotional release. I know not to do this in the workplace.

For some of our kids, this takes a tremendous amount of what I call “cognitive horsepower.” It is phenomenal work for them to process what is going on and then react appropriately.

They lack the years of practice we have as adults and may need additional processing time or other support to make it happen.

Impulse Control: At school, students must wait in line, follow the classroom routine, sit still when they may not feel like it, and so much more. If a student is hungry, he can’t simply grab a snack whenever he chooses.

Have you ever walked behind a slow walker at a mall or fair? How frustrating is that? Right? If that happens to your child at school, they must keep walking behind that slow person and resist the impulse to walk faster and past them.

Again, for some students, this requires much more thought-processing time and cognitive horsepower than other kids.

While they are at school, our kids are in this mode all day long. They have to mind their manners. Do what is asked. Behave even though they might not know what that means or why it is expected of them.

And, many of our kids are a lone island out in the ocean. They are unable to pick up social cues from those around them. They have no one to turn to, to ask for guidance, or to look for cues and clues.

Our kids have to manage disappointments and setbacks. And they have to do it without us, their safe place to land. Maybe their sock is wet from the bus stop.

Maybe they were expecting pizza in the cafeteria only to have the morning announcements tell them of an unexpected change. Perhaps the teacher had to reprimand them. Or they did not do as well on a test or assignment as they thought.

And they have to manage all of this on their own.

Is it really a surprise that some of them completely lose it when they get home?

They arrive home at 3:00, completely out of cognitive horsepower. Their resources have been completely used up by all that controlling, regulating, sitting, managing, and missing you. They have.nothing.left. Nothing.

Meltdowns are not just for Autism

Yes, meltdowns are considered a trait or behavior pattern of autistics. Autistics are much more likely than non-autistics to have different sensory processing and other processing. Autistic Shutdowns are a bit different and described in greater detail in that article.

This is both an increasing and disturbing trend among students: School Refusal. Your child may not have meltdowns after school, but every morning it’s a battle to get them to school. Before you know it, you’re receiving truancy notices in the mail. Maybe you’ve seen articles on social media addressing this issue.

Thankfully it is getting more attention from educational professionals and researchers. It may also be referred to as school exhaustion, academic fatigue, or burnout.

Other Signs and Symptoms of Distress

The after-school meltdown is the easiest symptom to recognize. But, if your child works extra hard to keep it together during the day, you may see these other signs and symptoms of distress.

  • Regression in skills
  • Increased bus behaviors: afternoon because they’re mentally spent, in the morning due to anxiety about going to school.
  • Anti-social behaviors include retreating, hibernating, and the inability to deal with people, which would be different from normal for them.
  • Increase in other behaviors already being addressed
  • School refusal
  • School anxiety

Adults do this too. Think about it. Did you ever have a job that you just hated? For whatever reason, it just totally sucked the life out of you. You had nothing left, no reserves, no cognitive horsepower when you left that job. Empty.

What did you do? You probably quit. That’s what school refusal is–kids quitting jobs that they cannot do for one.more.day.

Ok, I know this occurs. You know this occurs. So how do you get your IEP team on board?

How to Get your IEP Team to Act

If you’re getting the “We never see this behavior at school” from your IEP team, here are some things to try.

  1. IEP Data Collection: Document every day. Keep a Dollar Tree planner in your kitchen, and when your child can answer questions, ask them. What happened today? What made them happy today? What made them sad or angry? What went well? What did they do? This will help establish behavior patterns for what is working and what is an antecedent to the meltdowns.
  2. Submit IEP Parent Concerns: You can do this as part of the annual IEP meeting or request a special meeting to discuss this issue. Define and document the team’s patterns–what seems to be working (non-meltdown days) and what seems to be a frequent trigger.
  3. Be Solution Oriented: Brainstorm and come up with solutions. Consider opting out of high-stakes testing if that is a trigger. Sensory or calm down periods throughout the day to regroup. Engage your child in this and ask them what they think might help. Ask for specific IEP accommodations and interventions.
  4. Meet, and ask for the PWN: Lay it all out there. Everything you’re seeing and your proposed solutions. Ask for a PWN as a follow-up.
  5. Tell them to “Show me the data!” If you are stonewalled and met with “school doesn’t affect what happens at home,” ask for that in writing. Tell them that you’ve been researching this issue (and provide it) and would like to see their evidence to the contrary.

Read these next 4 paragraphs several times.

Remember, this condition is driven by the hard work they put in masking their struggles during the school day. To use Ross Greene’s (below) terminology: The demands on your child exceed their skill set, even with support. Which, in turn, depletes their cognitive horsepower.

In other words, their IEP is insufficient, inappropriate, or not being followed. If the workload were appropriate or had the appropriate support, meltdowns would not occur at any time during or after the school day.

Sure, all kids have a bad day occasionally. But it should not be a normal expectation that it takes our kids so much effort to get through the day that they have nothing left to give at 3:00.

The concept that “what happens at school and home are separate” is an outdated, antiquated notion, and some IEP teams will take more convincing than others. This is why I gave you other terms to research to help build your argument.


Remember, Kids do well when they can!

Accept the Compliment: You are the Safe Space.

As Dr. Phil always says, “For kids, the home should be their soft place to land.” At least take some comfort in knowing that your child feels comfortable and able to be their true self with you. It also totally sucks to see your child in such distress.

I know it’s hard. I live this too–I often have to cancel afternoon or evening plans because my child cannot handle it. Truly, I understand this and the disappointment and frustration.

After all, it’s not the child who is the source of the frustration; it’s an inadequate IEP.

Good Luck, and you can post in our chat group if you have more questions.

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