An After-School Survival Guide

I have this very distinct memory of my first year teaching kindergarten. I had a lovely little JK girl in my class. We’ll call her Sarah. Sarah was an amazing kid: independent, intelligent, friendly, and attentive. About 6 weeks into the school year, Sarah’s mom called me and, in a somewhat accusatory manner, demanded to know what was going on in my classroom. She insisted that Sarah was exhibiting major behaviours at home. She was defiant, emotional and extremely argumentative. Things she had never been before. She insisted that Sarah must have learned these behaviours at school. I was floored. Not only was that not at all what I saw at school from Sarah, we didn’t have any major behaviour issues in our class at all. Childless me was very confused after that conversation and it has never left me. How could a child be so completely different at home and at school? Where was her behaviour coming from? And why?

Fast forward 5 years when my own daughter started JK. About 6 weeks into the school year the light bulb went off. After all that time, I finally understood what Sarah’s mom meant. My own independent, intelligent, friendly and attentive daughter was an absolute beast at home. She was defiant, emotional and extremely argumentative. The only difference is I didn’t call the teachers accusingly, haha. But by their reports Ayla was a model pupil all day.

So what was happening?! Ayla and Sarah weren’t turning into terrible children. They hadn’t picked up on bad behaviours at school. They were exhausted! They’d spend all day being on their best behaviour: following instructions, being more independent than ever before, and being super stimulated in a busy classroom of close to thirty children. Once they got home they literally were incapable of regulating themselves anymore! Ayla often burst into tears as she got off the bus and the rest of the evening was spent “managing” her.

Ayla is now in grade one and over the last two school years we worked hard to find an after-school routine that didn’t require too much energy, but that was engaging enough to keep her awake until bedtime. She is not the type of child that could catch a short nap after school. This would result in not being able to fall to sleep and being even more miserable the next day!

A huge lesson we learned is that screen time is NOT a good idea for Ayla. It does hold her interest, keep her calm and doesn’t require too much energy, but for whatever reason, when that screen goes off, she is way worse than before. More emotional, more argumentative and she has a very hard time falling to sleep at bedtime. So we decided early on that TV/iPad after school was a very bad idea. Whenever I’d feel lazy or tired and think “oh what harm could a little TV do”, I’d live to regret it and vow, silently, never to turn it on again.

So, without further ado, here are the important lessons we have learned for after-school survival:

Must-dos

A lesson we learned quickly is to get any must-dos out of the way as soon as she arrives home. For Ayla this means hanging up her backpack, putting her communication folder (JK/SK) or agenda (grade one) on the table and emptying her lunch bag.

At first I felt bad making her do these things right away. I wanted to give her a break and time to rest, but this always resulted in her backpack being left in the doorway, an unpacked lunch and notes being missed. I know, I know, I could just do these things for her, but in our family we each have responsibilities and these are things Ayla can easily do for herself. Even when she doesn’t want to. Even when I have to remind her (which you will until they become habit). The way I look at it is, there are lots of things in a day that I don’t really want to do or don’t feel like doing, but they need done anyways. It’s a life skill and one that will serve her, as she gets older. Plus if it becomes habit now maybe, just maybe, it won’t be a fight as she gets older (hey, one can dream).

Make Time to Connect

I make sure I am completely distraction free as I greet Ayla from the bus. My phone is away, my mind is clear of my to-do list and I’m present in the moment. This is key in helping her transition into the house after a long day.

I set aside 10-15 minutes to connect with her. I listen if she feels like talking, but I do not bombard her about her day or really ask her anything at all. We often cuddle on the couch, read books or sit outside before coming in. Sometimes she needs more of a physical connection (cuddling, holding hands, etc.) and sometimes she wants an emotional one and cannot wait to tell me about something that happened that day. I let her lead this time, I just make sure I am 100% hers.

It sounds so simple, but it makes such an impact. Last year was really hard on her as I was on maternity leave. Her Daddy is sometimes home during the week and on those days she was the only member of the family leaving the home. She missed us and thought often about what she was missing out on at home. So by giving her my undivided attention for even just a short period of time, it is reaffirming that I missed her and she is important to me.

Snack

I’m not sure if this is universal, but Ayla comes home ravenous. She eats all of her food at school most days (and it is a lot!), but no matter what she needs a snack and pronto! On days that I am home, I usually have her snack made and ready to go for when she gets off the bus and finishes her must-dos.

This is also part of the reason she empties her lunch right away. If she didn’t have a chance to finish something, she always starts with it. Important side note: This is her choice and not a punishment. If she didn’t like something, she does not have to finish it!

So what makes a good after school snack? Protein and/or fat! A favourite of mine is veggies and hummus. She’s usually so hungry that she’s happy to munch on raw veggies and then we just leave them out and they become a side dish for our dinner.

Other options:

– pretzels/crackers and hummus;

– apple and peanut butter;

– smoothies;

– fruit and nuts;

– roasted chickpeas.

We try to have something healthy and satiating, but not so filling that she won’t eat her dinner, which is usually only an hour later.

Invitations to Play/Create

A calming, rock and water invitation
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If you follow me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/lifeoutsidethebox.ca ) or Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/living_life_outside_the_box/) you have likely seen some of the after-school invitations to play/create I have set out for Ayla.

These invitations are often process art (http://lifeoutsidethebox.ca/?s=process+art), transient art or sensory activities. They require little to no assistance and have a calming effect. I prepare them before she is home and put the required materials onto a tray. This both helps with aesthetic appeal and allows me to prep before hand and bring out as needed.

I always prepare one for Rory too, as this is definitely his grumpiest part of the day as he transitions out of napping.

I set them out on the kitchen table while they are eating snack. I usually sit down with them for the first few minutes, to connect, to make sure they have what they need. Then I use this time to start making dinner, wash lunch dishes and pack lunch for the next day.

Podcasts/Gentle Music

This is something we’ve only recently discovered and I wish we had thought of it sooner. Honestly, it is a lifesaver! While the kids are engaged with their invitation to play/create we put on a favourite podcast or some relaxing music. It helps focus them and it avoids sibling spats.

One of our current favourite podcasts is called “Big Life Kids” (https://biglifejournal.com ).  It is all about having a growth mindset and perseverance. We also love “Stories” (storiespodcast.com and there is a show they listen to on the TuneInRadio app (https://tunein.com/) called “Pants on Fire” (https://tunein.com/podcasts/Kids–Family-Podcasts/Pants-on-Fire-p1124315/).

Get Outside

Getting outside is so calming. lifeoutsidethebox.ca

We tend to eat dinner fairly early, around 5pm, which means we always have some extra time after eating. And because all our must-dos get done right away, we usually end up with a good hour, sometimes more, of free time.

Going outside is a great way to get some exercise and get through until bedtime without major meltdowns. Fall is definitely in the air and we are reminded that we want to enjoy this beautiful weather and the daylight while we still can! My children are always happier outside and quite honestly that applies to myself as well.

Taking a Bath

I know a lot of families take baths as part of their bedtime routine and sometimes we do too. But on days that Ayla comes home extra grumpy and extra tired, a bath may happen before dinner. Sometimes she just needs to be alone and a nice, warm bath is a wonderful way to bring her some peace. It’s relaxing and rejuvenating!

I hope this guide has been helpful. If you have a little one that has just started school, don’t be alarmed if they are beyond exhausted. It is a big day and a huge transition for their little bodies. Even if your child has been in daycare, there is a new level of independence expected in kindergarten, a faster pace of learning and doing and a higher teacher/child ratio so it will still be a transition. It takes some time for everyone to adjust, including you mama! So show yourself and that sweet little person some grace as you figure out your new normal.