Starting School and Extreme Tiredness
When my 3 (nearly 4) year old son started school, the anticipation for him was huge. I had never seen him so excited about, and look forward to, anything else as much has he had this.
We live in France and so he started school, or ("big school" as we call it!) in the school year he turned 4. In France it is usually called Maternelle. At my son's school, it is called Kindergarten. They are not sitting at tables and having lessons. They still learn through play. However, it is much more structured, there is a timetable, a syllabus is followed, and they are expected to follow instructions and start to develop their independence. It's a fairly big school as well, certainly compared to what he has been used to, so that environmental element can be overwhelming too.
He started school in January, part way through the school year, because of our house move. He began doing full time and full days from the start. This is 8.30am to 4pm for 4 days a week, and one half day. His previous experience of childcare had been 2 full days a week, so this is quite a big jump.
Many friends in the UK and in France warned me about how tired my son would be when he started school. These are friends whose children started school at age 4-5 in the UK, or age 3-4 here in France. No matter the age, it seems that this step-change is big. And of course it depends on the particular child as well. Some find it harder than others.
This even has a name: "after-school restraint collapse". A friend sent me this useful article about it. Here is an extract, which with hindsight has particularly resonated:
"The symptoms of after-school restraint collapse are likely familiar to parents of young children: “When they come home from school they will regress emotionally,” says Brooks. “They will act younger than their age and whine, cry, throw tantrums, act needy, moody and generally have a meltdown. They will look and behave as if they are exhausted".”
Fortunately, the boy was so excited to go to school that he has run into the classroom with hardly a backwards glance. Mornings have been no stress. The afternoons and evenings however, a different tale.
I was prepared. Or I thought I was...
When I collected him, my son ran out of the classroom and met me with a big cuddle. From his excited stories, and the feedback from his teacher, he had enjoyed a wonderful first day. We are lucky, he settled well straight away.
As soon as we left the school building he refused to hold my hand, causing a bit of a scene as we entered the busy car park and when I insisted (bit embarrassing for me, I'm new too!). Carrying my handbag, and holding my younger daughter's hand as well, made this all rather tricky. (Note to self, use pockets not handbag!). We got to the car and he was trying to run around it as I buckled in my daughter. Refusing to take off his coat. Refusing to hold his bag. Insisting his coat zip was broken, "Mum my teacher said I need a new coat. You're wrong. You don't know anything". All delivered in an angry, whinging voice.
Direction, or an opposing view, from myself was met with a variety of responses that oscillated between wails, tears and anger.
Naively, I tried asking him about his day. Every question was like trying to converse with a stereotypical teenager, as if I was being thoroughly unreasonable to ask!
He was like this all the way home, and literally until he went to bed (...eventually - he was overtired). He hardly ate any tea either, which is VERY unlike him.
If I got frustrated with him, it just made it worse. It was exhausting for us both. And frankly a bit of a shame, as I had been looking forward to hearing about his day and spending time with him.
Day two, and I attempted to be wiser. I implemented the bribe of a sweetie for once they were in the car IF they held my hand in the car park. Bribery being the very cornerstone of my parenting... or should I say "positive behavioural reinforcement"! Stickers may work for the teachers, but alas they just don't seem to cut it for me anymore. This was remarkably effective (albeit not 100%). I also put on a audio story for the journey (I highly recommend the Topsy and Tim collection!), rather than trying to chat. This helped keep the atmosphere calm and relaxing. They were both quiet. Over tea, he told me a bit about his day. Result! Although I do not think his friends are called "Binky, Bonky and Boo"...
After day one, I had learnt to manage my expectations about how he would be behaving.
On Wednesday afternoon there is no school here in France. When I collected my son he had a complete planking melt down by his coat peg because he wanted to have lunch at the Canteen at school NOT with me.. He finally believed me that everyone was going home and agreed, reluctantly, to come home with me too. Trying to have a few words of nice conversation with other school mums, seemingly having an uneventful school pick up, was basically impossible.
Rather than trying to do something this afternoon, we had a big home made pizza lunch (full tummies), and had a snuggling-under-blankets movie afternoon. I think he really needed this to recharge. He wasn't overtired whingy and went to bed relaxed and happy. Phew!
Days Four & Five
Curiously, as the week went on, he seemed to get less tired. I don't know how much of a difference the Wednesday recharge made. It was as if he was getting into his stride with what was expected of him though, and therefore relaxing a bit more. It wasn't all quite so new.
By Friday evening, he was pretty much all chatter and happiness when he was released from the classroom at 4pm. I use this word "released" quite specifically. At home time, it is as if he has been a coiled spring all day - all that trying to behave well, and listen, and concentrate - such that when the school day is over, there is a big burst of excited energy to see me. At the beginning of the week this was overwhelming and he didn't know how to deal with how he felt. By Friday he was overflowing with energy and, literally, ran around in circles for about 10 minutes whilst I tried to put his coat on and speak to his teacher.
So for most of week one, the "after-school restraint collapse" was real. Looking back to that quotation above, we had a classic case. I had to think, be calm and patient, give lots of hugs, and do everything I could not to overwhelm him. Prompt bedtimes/early nights were KEY. After the first night, I discovered the way to do this was to aim for an earlier bedtime. Starting the wind down earlier than usual, such that the normal level of messing about was also therefore brought forward and sleep came sooner.
At the time of writing this, we are at the end of week two. It has been much much easier this week but there have still been moments with meltdowns.
Overall I would say that my son has been less emotional, due to tiredness, after school and has been listening better (not perfectly, but he is 4 (nearly) so i'm realistic!). He is definitely understanding more of what is expected from him from the teachers, and from me.
Sweeties are still being used - don't judge me. But we have got some "raisin sweeties" now in the car too, and so sugar intake is reduced a little! We got a kitten this week, and he has been excited to come home from school to play with him.
His friends are still called "Binky, Bonky and Boo" though...!
I'm really proud of my big boy starting big school. It's a big step for all of us.
If you are reading this and navigating the start of school with a little one, or are about to, I hope you find our experience to be helpful. If you have walked this path before me and have any tips or tricks that worked for you - i'd love to hear them. I don't expect I'm totally out of the woods yet!
Update a year on:
Returning to school for the second year proved to be just as tiring for my son, in the first few weeks particularly, as it was in his first year. My daughter has also started school this year too, with very similar experiences.
After School Restraint Collapse, it would seem, is a recurring phase. But we are all that little bit older and wiser this time around, and we know that with time, everyone will settle into the new routines (me included!)
p.s. I do have a top tip! Despite the children having a fruit and/or vegetable snack at their school not long before the end of the school day, they are still ravenous when I arrive. I started taking a snack for them every day and it made a MASSIVE difference to their ability to hold themselves together. Ok, not like model children, but we could at least have a conversation without tears or planking!
Also, try starting the conversation about their day by asking closed questions - Did you play with Bill at lunch time? Did you do any painting today? What did you have for lunch? (this is always my opening enquiry, but my kids like to talk about food!) - to warm them up to the idea of chatting.