My son behaves at school but melts down at home — I found out why

My husband and I joke (half-heartedly) that our son came out screaming and never stopped. Right after his birth, I sensed something was “off.” His inconsolable crying, feeding issues and trouble falling and staying asleep were my clues. He also had gross motor delays and trouble self-regulating.

When he was 6 months old, he was evaluated by a pediatric occupational therapist who flagged him with sensory processing issues. I had so many questions. What does this mean? Will he have trouble in school or with friends? Will he be... OK? She did her best to answer, but I couldn’t quite grasp what we were dealing with.

Enter toddlerhood. The therapist’s warning that my son might have more frequent and intense meltdowns took on a whole new meaning. Intense and frequent? Try explosive and constant!

Thanks to occupational therapy, my son’s meltdowns became less frequent as he got older. But they were still intense. So, in preparation for his transition into kindergarten, I braced myself. “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst” became my motto. I mentally prepared for him to struggle in school, and I prepped his teacher on the behaviors she might see, like crying, shutting down and refusing to join in with classroom activities.

Surprisingly, the first week of school went great. No tears, no meltdowns. My son seemed genuinely excited about kindergarten. His teacher described him as “a dream.”

“He’s cooperative, follows directions and listens. He’s social and has no trouble joining in,” she told me, “I wish I had 20 of him!”

“See,” my husband teased, “you were worried for nothing.” Feeling relieved, I smiled in agreement.

Midway through the second week, however, something changed. My son seemed fine when I greeted him at his classroom for pick-up. Then, as soon as we got in the car to go home, he asked for a snack. When I told him I didn’t have one, he began screaming and kicking the back of my seat.

“I’m hungry! I want a snack right now!”

This continued all the way home. Then when we got home, he zeroed in on his little brother as the target of his aggression, pushing him and grabbing a toy out of his hands. Suddenly, afterschool meltdowns became our new normal on most days. Yet his teacher told me that he was still well-behaved at school.

The extreme difference between his behavior at school and his behavior at home had me questioning myself. If he’s a model student at school, why can’t he hold it together at home? What am I doing wrong? Does he need more “discipline”?

When I experience parenting doubt, the first person I turn to is our trusted therapist. Having worked with children and families for over 30 years, she’s a wealth of knowledge when it comes to tricky behaviors. When I filled her in on my son’s afterschool meltdowns, she instantly put my parenting doubts to rest.

Here’s what I learned: My son is trying to hold it together all day at school. In fact, our therapist explained, he’s working exceptionally hard to do so. He’s processing so much during the school day — a new environment, new routines, new social and academic skills. Turns out it’s completely normal for him to do well at school, only to fall apart once he’s back in his familiar and safe home environment.

This explanation made perfect sense to me. No, my son doesn’t need more “discipline.” What he needs are more strategies and tools to help soothe his agitated nervous system.

I began trying out different sensory strategies. The winners? Having a crunchy snack on hand after pick-up, keeping a sensory bin in the car for the ride home, and having a calming tactile activity ready for after-school play. We also keep plenty of pillows in our playroom for pillow fights (a safe way to get energy out).

While I can’t say that these strategies have put an end to my son’s afterschool meltdowns, they have lessened them. Now when he falls apart, I remind myself that his afterschool meltdowns are a release from the day. He’s doing the best he can. When the dust settles after a meltdown, I give him a squeeze and tell him how much I love him.

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Download a one-page fact sheet on sensory processing issues that you can give teachers, friends, and family. And hear from a mom who finally gets what it’s like to have sensory issues.


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