Many of us are back into the swing of things at school, and with that comes so much more dysregulation! In our season premiere, we’re talking about where that dysregulation comes from and how you can try to get ahead of it (keyword: try!).
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- What dysregulated behaviors are common to see after school
- How after-school restraint collapse looks different for neurodivergent kids
- Some immediate ways to regulate the nervous system right at school pick-up
- What kinds of sensory strategies to try after school once you get home
What’s with the after-school behaviors?
Mainstream media calls it after-school restraint collapse, which applies to all kids (even neurotypical kids) and refers to the idea that they are mentally and emotionally drained from all the stuff they dealt with at school that day.
But for neurodivergent kids, on top of that, they may also have some sensory needs that have not been met throughout the day and their nervous system is just SCREAMING at you after school.
Common ways nervous system dysregulation plays out after school
You may notice behaviors like:
- General irritability and moodiness (can range from full-on meltdown to being snappy with you/sibling, whining, etc.)
- Difficulty making decisions or choices (e.g., what to play, where to sit, what they want for snack)
- Shutting down and quiet/avoiding conversation or social interaction (they might snap on you or a sibling as way of expressing this)
- Hyperactivity or clumsiness/out of control body movements
- Increased stimming behaviors
Think about how many of us experience similar behaviors after a long day of parenting or work!
Behaviors are a direct reflection of our nervous system
Here’s a quick reminder: When our nervous system is regulated, our brain and body are more in sync, more in control and are better able to handle things like transitions, unexpected changes, excitement, frustration, sensory input, you name it.
When our nervous system is dysregulated, our brain and body are less in control and less able to manage emotions or tolerate changes in the schedule or unexpected/intense/different sensory experiences.
Remember, nervous system regulation and dysregulation are cumulative, which is why I like thinking about it as a cup. You can accumulate a lot of different sensory and emotional experiences in the day that fill up your cup. And by the end of the day, it’s so full, which is why you’re more likely to see dysregulated behaviors after school versus early on in the school day.
Ideas to manage after-school dysregulation
A huge preface before I start getting into the specific strategies for after school regulation. Every child is different. Every child’s nervous system responds to sensory input and regulation strategies differently. One sensory strategy that regulates and is great for Child A may completely dysregulate and overwhelm Child B.
This is why I do the work in my Sensory Detectives Boot Camp (currently at the time of this recording, not open for enrollment but get on the waitlist >> HERE << to learn more about joining the next cohort).
So I’m going to list out some general common strategies you could test out to see if it’s something that could work for your child.
Immediate regulation strategies
(e.g. from when you pick them up and driving home. This won’t apply for those who take the bus, etc., but applies to whenever you pick your child up from school or aftercare/daycare)
- Snack/oral input: As soon as I receive my daughter from the pickup line, I hand her a snack. Sometimes she finishes her snack she didn’t finish from school, sometimes it’s a different snack. You could also give your child some mints or gum or a smoothie to suck through a straw. Oral input is very regulating to the nervous system, AND some kids truly don’t eat enough at school and actually may be hungry/have low blood sugar depending on their dietary/nutritional intake.
- Auditory input (mostly limiting it!): Allow your child to take the lead in sharing about their day. Try really hard not to come at them with the questions. You might also offer them noise reducing headphones for the drive home if there are noisier siblings in the car. You could also explore some calming music to play or go with no music at all. I find the radio music and the fast paced outros/intros to certain radio shows to be dysregulating even for me.
- Removing shoes or uncomfortable clothing: I always let my daughter remove her socks and shoes in the car, even for our 2 minute drive home. If you have a longer drive home, you could consider having a change of clothes if they wear uniforms at school or something specific that is a trigger for them.
- Quiet time: I have an entire episode detailing how to set up quiet time and how to introduce it to your child. But the point is: MOST kids benefit from this after-school “unwinding” time that can range from 20 minutes to 2 hours to reset their nervous system. Think of this time as a no-screen, independent “rest” or “play” time, usually in their own space (maybe in their room, or a pop up tent if sharing space with other kids in the same room). What your kid does in quiet time depends on so many factors. Give that other episode a listen for more examples.
- Sensory strategies that offer sensory input your child becomes regulated with. Like I said, some kids will respond differently to various inputs. I’ll give you one or two examples for each of the main sensory inputs that you can try. And if your child responds well to that input, then you can focus on coming up with more activities that offer that same input.
- Input to the muscles
Ice cream sundae activity– have the child lie on the ground and “add ice cream toppings” to your ice cream sundae by layering pillows or anything that adds gentle pressure on top and push down. Great way to connect and provide sensory input. You can also try lying with a weighted blanket while reading a book.
- Input to the hands
Hide some coins or letter beads inside putty or slime and have them pull them out to spell a word or add up to a dollar amount (something that engages the mind, visual senses and hands).
- Input (or limiting input) to the ears
You can turn on some calming music, or music with a rhythm they like to dance to. Some kids may want things to be quiet after school, and you intentionally limit sound in the first few hours home from school.
- Input to the eyes
An “I Spy” book, a pattern book, a calming jar; OR limiting visual input and lights after school: a dark enclosed space, maybe a blanket fort or in a tent reading a book.
This could be something as simple as bouncing on a yoga ball to using a sensory swing if you have that set up at home. *Try to add some structure and a purpose to the movement activities, like bouncing on a yoga ball while clapping as they spell words or practice math facts.
- Input to the mouth
If they’re having a snack, aim for a crunchy or chewy snack, or allow them to use a chewy pencil topper from ARK Therapeutic.
- Input to the muscles
Those should be more than enough for you to start exploring.
My biggest tip for you is to talk to your child about why you’re offering these activities to begin with, and really think like a detective when you’re observing their behaviors and responses to these things. Notice what days it works better on, what things tend to ramp them up even more vs. what tends to down regulate and calm their nervous system.
If you’re looking to learn more about how to observe behaviors with a nervous system and sensory lens, get on the waitlist for my Sensory Detectives Bootcamp! It opens for enrollment around the end of October for a 4-week November cohort. Head to THEOTBUTTERFLY.COM/SDBCWAITLIST
Oh, and one more thing!
Don’t forget! My book A Kids Book About Neurodiversity is now available for purchase! This would be a great gift for your child’s teacher to introduce them to neurodiversity, and you could even volunteer to read it to the class! Grab it at THEOTBUTTERFLY.COM/BOOK
Speaker 1 (00:01): The other thing to remember is that our nervous system regulation and dysregulation is cumulative, which is why I like to think of it as a cup. You can accumulate a lot of different sensory and emotional experiences in the day that can fill up your cup and by the end of the day it’s so full, which is why afterschool tends to be more common to see dysregulated behaviors versus earlier on in the school day. Welcome to the Sensory Wise Solutions podcast for parents where parents can get real actionable strategies to support kids with sensory processing disorder. I’m Laura, OT and mom To Liliana, a sensory sensitive kid who inherited my anxiety and my love for all things Disney. Consider me your new OT mom, bestie. I know my stuff, but I also know what it’s really like in the trenches of parenting a child with sensory processing disorder. Speaker 2 (00:58): Okay, mom, enough about me. Let’s start the podcast. Speaker 1 (01:04): Welcome back to the podcast everyone. I am so excited to be back. I had a very exciting, busy summer that went by way too fast. So this is the beginning of season three. Welcome if you’re new. If you are not new, welcome back. Thank you for listening to the podcast where we left off last summer. I had just published my book, a kid’s book about neurodiversity and the overwhelming support from all of you has been amazing. I have been doing some readings at my daughter’s local elementary school and I hope to be setting up future ones because that is seriously why I wrote the book and to be able to read it to kids, it’s the most fulfilling thing. So that’s what I’ve been up to. I had a book launch over summer to celebrate with some friends and family and some local OT butterfly supporters. (02:04)I went to two Taylor Swift concerts at SoFi Stadium and still probably hands down one of the best nights of my life ever. So let’s get into it. Anyway, this season we’ve got a lot of great topics. I have a lot of really cool people lined up to interview. Today is very timely. We are talking about after afterschool regulation. Really it’s afterschool dysregulation. So many of you are back in school now. We have actually been in school since July, but if you just started school now, you might be noticing that afterschool dysregulation pattern. So mainstream media, Instagram posts, they are calling it what we refer to as after school restraint, collapse, which is thing. And this applies to all kids, even neurotypical kids. And this is really referring to the idea that they are mentally and emotionally drained from all the stuff that they had to deal with at school that day. (03:14)Listening to teachers being asked to sit still, emotional overwhelm, social overwhelm, but for neurodivergent kids. On top of that, they also have some sensory needs that have not been met through the day, and their nervous system is really just screaming at you after school. I promise. If you think of it as their nervous system screaming at you, it will help you stay a little bit more calm and have a little bit more compassion when your child is actually the one screaming at you. So I want to first talk about just this calling out of some of the common ways that nervous system dysregulation plays out after school. I’m just going to call out some of the common ones. This is not an exhaustive list, and you might have some particular quirky kids who have a different way of showing dysregulation, but particularly if you notice behaviors like general irritability and moodiness, this can range from a full on meltdown to just being snappy with you or siblings or whining. (04:18)Maybe you might also see difficulty making decisions or choices, any choices from something as small as what do you want to play with? Where do you want to sit for a snack? What do you want for snack? Those tiny insignificant choices in quotes might be too hard for their brain to make after school, and so they go back to 0.1, which was irritability and moodiness and whining about those choices. Maybe you have a kid who shuts down and is really quiet and avoids conversation or social interaction. So they might do that quietly where they literally just retreat to the room and don’t want to be bothered, or they might snap at you or the sibling as a way of expressing their need from their need of being alone and needing time to themselves. Maybe you have a kid who is completely hyperactive or clumsy and has out of control body movements after school, or you might see an increase in stemming behaviors. (05:22)I want to pause here for a second. Think of how many of those things and emotions and reactions and behaviors are relevant to us as caregivers, as adults, as parents, after a long day of parenting or working or socializing or interacting, whatever it may be. I can be pretty snappy if someone asks me a certain question or says something or breathes a certain way and it’s a day when my nervous system is already dysregulated. So we all have moments of this, but what we’re focusing on and thinking about is that a lot of our kids, a lot of our neurodivergent kids are probably experiencing a lot of these behaviors right now with back to school season as their nervous system starts to readjust being in school for the first time or maybe being back in school. So something for us to remember and keep in mind, behaviors are a direct reflection of the state of our nervous system. (06:25)When our nervous system is regulated, our brain and body are more in sync and they’re in control and are better able and capable to handle things like transitions, unexpected changes, giving directives and instructions from parents, handling, excitement, handling, frustration handling, sensory input. You name it. When our nervous system is dysregulated, our brain and body are less in control and less able to manage emotions or tolerate changes in the schedule or unexpected or intense or different sensory experiences. It all is a matter of the state of our nervous system. The other thing to remember is that our nervous system regulation and dysregulation is cumulative, which is why I like to think of it as a cup. You can accumulate a lot of different sensory and emotional experiences in the day that can fill up your cup, and by the end of the day it’s so full, which is why after school tends to be more common to see dysregulated behaviors versus earlier on in the school day. Big caveat here. If your child continues to be dysregulated at school, you might start seeing it. You might start seeing your child display dysregulated behaviors before school starts in the morning in anticipation of the dysregulation from school that tells you that their brain has created a strong association with the stress and the impact on their nervous system that the school has on their day. And this makes them have those dysregulated behaviors in the morning before school. But again, bringing us back, we’re talking more about the afterschool dysregulation. (08:15)Let’s talk about what we’re actually going to do with that and ideas to manage afterschool dysregulation. Here’s a gigantic huge preface before I even start getting into specific strategies for afterschool regulation. If you’re new here, I am a big fan of prefacing statements and you know that I don’t like to give a lot of specific strategies and tools without a disclaimer that every brain is different, and if I say something that tends to work for my child, this might be something that completely stresses out your child or might not be doable for your family or for you. So just keep that in mind. I like to give you a few ideas so you can start thinking in that frame, in that lens, but you might need to workshop those ideas and come up with something that suits your child’s brain and body and your family dynamic better. (09:09)But this is exactly why I do what I do in the Sensory Detectives Bootcamp. Currently at the time of this recording and the time that this episode comes out, we are not open for enrollment, but the wait list for the November cohort is open. So you can just go to the ot butterfly.com/sd BBC waitlist. There will be a link of that below the show. SS D B C stands for Sensory Detectives Bootcamp, so S D B C waitlist to learn more about joining the next cohort where I will actually be able to teach you how to think like I do so that you can come up with the best tools to support your child after school or any other time of your week. So again, I’m about to start to list some general common strategies and examples that you could test out to see if it’s something that would work particularly for your child. (09:59)So let’s start with the immediate regulation strategies. As soon as your kid gets into your car or as soon as you pick them up from their classroom or daycare and you’re driving home, this is particular to people who drive home. This won’t apply for kids or families who take the bus or maybe walk home. So think of yourself picking up your child from school, from daycare, from a babysitter’s house and that drive home, whether it’s a one minute drive, two minute, 20 minute, 30 minute an hour, think of using some of these immediate strategies to help regulate their nervous system and let their nervous system feel safe in your presence. So the first tip is giving them an immediate snack or oral input. As soon as my daughter holds my hand from the pickup line, I am already handing her one of her snacks. We have a three minute drive home, but I have driven her home enough times without a snack to notice that it makes a big difference. (11:02)Sometimes she’ll eat the snack that she didn’t finish from school. Sometimes it’s a different snack, but it’s always a preferred snack, a safe snack. Obviously choking hazards apply, so do that at your own discretion in terms of giving them a snack when they’re in the car. But this is serving a multipurpose, right? Of course, the biggest one is maybe your child is hungry or has low blood sugar depending on their dietary, nutritional intake. A lot of kids don’t eat enough at school. One, they don’t get enough time. Two, some of them are just so excited to play with their friends and move around. They’re not noticing their cues for hunger, especially if they’re neurodivergent. So I always give her a snack and she’s always hungrier than I expect, and I used to worry that it would spoil her dinner, but it doesn’t work that way. (11:49)She’s just starving from after school. The second purpose that it serves is oral input to your mouth and your jaw as you’re chewing, provides proprioceptive, calming input to the nervous system. So if you can give them something chewy or crunchy or maybe a thick smoothie to sip through a straw, some gum, a mint, if not snacks, those things can help provide some calming regulating input immediately after you get them from the classroom to maybe get ahead of the dysregulation that lies that’s waiting for you on the other side. Okay, the second immediate sensory strategy you can do upon picking your child up from daycare or from school is dealing with auditory input, mostly limiting auditory input, but again, it’s different per child. So I would allow your child specifically to take the lead and sharing about their day. So hold off, try really hard not to just attack them with questions. (12:52)How was your day? What did you do? What did you like? Who did you play with? Who did you sit next to? How was your math test? How was this? I know it’s really, really hard because as a parent who is very curious about my child’s day and everything she does, it’s hard to hold those questions in. So learn to let your child lead the conversation. Sit in silence on the drive home. If you have to limit the music that you play, if your child gets dysregulated from music, you might offer your child noise reducing headphones that are available in the car on the drive home, maybe if there’s noisier siblings in the car, or you have another caregiver with you and you have to have a conversation and that’s dysregulating your child. So think of ways to mitigate auditory input on your drive home. You could explore putting some calming music on to play or go with no music at all. I personally find radio music and the fast paced outros and intros to certain radio shows and the way that the DJs talk and the mashups of songs, sometimes that can actually be dysregulating even for me. So if I do put music on, it’s usually a playlist or a calming one, but it’s mostly no music on the ride home air condition on, and I’m quiet and I let my daughter initiate the conversation. (14:12)The last tip to manage some sensory input right when you get your child is letting them remove shoes or any uncomfortable clothing that they’ve been wearing in the day. So I always let my daughter remove her socks and she was in the car even for the two minute drive home. My daughter has some sensory sensitivities, so clothing in general can be a little bit irritating to her skin. She deals with it fine at school, but think of how many times you get home and you remove, take your watch off, or you unbutton your shirt or you change out of your jeans into your regular house clothes and it’s like, it’s just so freeing. And if we can give that sensation to our kids as soon as they get into the car, it might be helpful. So you could consider having even a change of clothes if you have a longer drive home, especially if they wear uniforms at school or they’re a kid who gets really sweaty, it doesn’t feel comfortable to be in those dirty clothes that you’ve been wearing all day long. (15:11)So consider allowing them to change or remove certain parts of their clothing for the drive home. Alright, so now we’re going to shift and now talk about strategies that you can do as soon as you get home or what you should be aiming to do as you get home. Big caveat, I’m going to call out here again, is that I know some of you go straight to extracurricular activities. Some of you have a lot of things to do after school appointments. This doesn’t talk about that nuance. I’m thinking about the days you go directly home, what you could be offering your child to help them get in a nervous system regulation point so that they can continue with the rest of the day. Right? So first tip is implementing some sort of daily quiet time, rest time, recharge time, whatever you want to call it. (16:04)I have an entire episode on quiet time. If you go to the ot butterfly.com/ 36, I help you talk about how to set up quiet time, how to introduce your child to it. But the point is, most kids benefit from this afterschool unwinding time that can range anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours to really reset their nervous system. Think of this time as a no screen independent rest or play time, usually in their own space, so maybe in their room or a pop-up tent if you have multiple kids sharing a space, what your kid does in quiet time really depends on a lot of factors. So definitely listen to that episode. I’ll talk about some different things you can include in quiet time, but this is a time for their brain and body to rest from school. It should not be a lot of really structured play, and it should not be a lot of overstimulating play. (17:07)Let’s talk about some sensory strategies that you might try that offer sensory input that regulates your child, like I said, a million times before. And we’ll again, some kids respond differently. I will give you just a couple of quick examples and link them to a certain sensory system. And if you notice that your child responds well to that, you can come up with more that trigger, that same sensory system. And again, this is something that I help you explore in depth in the Sensory Detectives Bootcamp. So sign up for the wait list if this information is intriguing you, but you want more. Okay, so first thing to try is giving them input to the muscles. This is proprioceptive input to your muscles and tendons and joints, which is inherently regulating to most, if not all nervous systems. You just need to find the right activity that regulates them. (18:00)So one cool one that also offers a way to connect with your child after school. If you have a child who misses you a lot and has separation anxiety and really craves that one-on-one attention with you, this is a great one to do. I call it the ice cream sundae activity. So the child is lying on the ground like the rug or a carpet, and you are adding ice cream toppings to your child by layering on pillows or stuffed animals, anything you can put on top of their body to create pressure on their back. And so you could do silly things and you’ll say like, I’m adding sprinkles. I’m adding strawberries, I’m adding anchovies. Oh, you don’t like anchovies? Let me take that out. Then you add another pillow. Here’s some cheese, here’s some whipped cream. And you might push down on their back as you’re adding more and more pillows to them. (18:49)It’s a really fun way to connect with them again, but it also provides proprioceptive input to their muscles. You could also try laying having them lay with a weighted blanket while they read a book or look at a book or maybe listen to calming music. Those are great things to try. Another thing to try is tactile input or input to the hands or any part of your skin. But if we’re focusing on hands here, you could hide some coins or letter beads inside some putty or slime and have them pull out beads to expel a certain word or maybe pull out some coins to add up to a certain dollar amount. Maybe if they’re practicing counting coins or counting money, something that really is structured and engages the mind and visual senses and the hands, that’s a great one to do in a calming corner or just as an afterschool reset activity. (19:46)You could also do input to the ear. So auditory input. This includes calming music or music with a certain rhythm that they like to dance to dancing and movement might be regulating for them. Some kids may want more quiet after school, kind of like I talked about in the car. And so maybe instead of adding sound, you might intentionally limit sound in the first hour of getting home. So maybe the whole house has a quiet time, no tv, no music, and they might just need some quiet to unwind. But think about auditory input and how your child responds to that. That’ll give you a clue of whether you need to add something after school or if they’re more of a limit to the auditory input kind of kid. Let’s talk about visual input, input to the eyes. Things like an I Spy book, a book where you identify patterns. (20:44)A book full of mazes, a calming jar with a bunch of lettered beads or numbered beads are great things to visually look at and focus on that might be calming to them. Or again, maybe you need to limit visual input. And maybe you have a kid who likes darkness and after school maybe they have some room time with their lights off and maybe they have a light projector or just a nightlight that they look at a book with a flashlight. Maybe you make a blanket fort with them. My daughter loves using the Walmart swing, that hammock, and then we put a blanket on top of it, so she’s kind of inside in her own little hammock fort. And sometimes she’ll play with dolls in there. Sometimes she’ll just talk to herself. Sometimes she’ll read a book. Let’s also talk about then movement. Movement could be something as simple as bouncing on a yoga ball, or it could be using a sensory swing if you have that set up at home. (21:43)But here’s a big tip for movement, especially if you have a kid who’s a movement seeker, try to add some structure. So a start and stop, a purpose and a goal to the movement activities, like maybe while they’re bouncing on the yoga ball, they clap as they’re practicing spelling words or practicing math facts. If you go to episode 10, I have more information on sensory seekers. By the way, I don’t know if you all can hear that there is a car alarm going outside my window. Hopefully that’s not too distracting. Maybe you can’t hear it, but I can. Okay, so the last thing I will talk about is input to the mouth oral input. So if they’re having a snack, maybe they’re continuing their snack from the car, maybe this is the first time they’re having a snack, like I said earlier, aim for a crunchy or chewy snack. (22:33)Or maybe while they’re doing homework, you could allow them to use a chewy pencil topper from Arc Therapeutic. It’s kind of like a rubber tube that sticks to the top of a pen or a pencil so that they don’t chew on their pen or pencil. Instead, they chew on this. You could also look into getting them a chewy necklace. Again, I’m a big fan of gum and mints for oral input. It is regulating to the nervous system. Alright, so I think that that is more than enough for you to start exploring or else I’ll be talking about this all day long. But my biggest tip for you before you start this all is to really talk to your child about why you’re even offering these activities to begin with. And really, really think like a detective when you’re observing their behaviors and responses to these things. (23:18)So notice which days these sensory strategies work better on notice which days they need more input on. Notice what things tend to ramp them up versus what tends to calm them down. But if you are looking to learn more about behaviors, how to observe it, how to pick out some signs of dysregulation, how to use a sensory lens. Again, the Sensory Detectives Bootcamp is for you. It’s for parents, educators, teachers who want to learn more about that. We will have the next cohort starting in November, get on the wait firstname.lastname@example.org slash s DBC waitlist. The link will be below this. And one more thing since I talked about it at the beginning, but this would be a perfect time to get it, is my book, a kid’s book about neurodiversity. It’s available to purchase. This would be a really cool gift for your child’s teacher as a way to introduce them to the idea of neurodiversity. And I also encourage you, you could even volunteer to read it out loud to the class so that their classmates, your child’s classmates can understand how different brains work and become a more inclusive classroom for neurodivergent learners. You can get the email@example.com slash book. Alright, that’s it for today. Thanks for being here. I’ll see you next week. (24:37)If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider rating it and leaving a review, which helps other parents find me as well. Want to learn more from me. I share tons more over on Instagram at the OT Butterfly. See you next time.