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Why 3pm is such a tricky time for your 5-year-old

School can be stressful and exhausting for young children. Here’s what you can expect at the end of the day, along with some tips for supporting your child. By Kate Barber.

Starting school is a big change in the lives of young children and their whānau. The days when they can squish playdough and play in the sandpit to their heart’s content, then take a nap, are behind them. Replaced by school days that fizz with rules and instructions, new cognitive tasks and social dynamics.

Neuroscience educator Nathan Wallis says, what makes school so tiring and stressful for young children is its “emphasis on a cognitive curriculum”, like learning letter sounds and numbers. Around the age of seven, children’s frontal cortex moves into centre-stage development, making it ready to learn cognitive skills, he says. “Focusing on these skills before their brains are ready puts young children under stress and can be detrimental to how they feel about school and about themselves as learners, which is what really matters,” says Nathan. 

My three children enjoy school for the most part. My five-year-old is getting used to the new structure to her weeks and rates her teacher up there with Santa Claus. I don’t mean to be negative about school, but simply to shine a light on how massive this change is for young children. And how, at 3pm, it’s normal for them to struggle to hold it all together.

What you can expect at 3pm

Your child will be hungry and thirsty. They may have had trouble opening their lunchbox or dropped their sandwiches on the ground. They may have simply forgotten to eat in favour of playing.

They may not know they’re hungry. “Hanger” is very real. When blood sugar levels are low, cortisol and adrenaline levels can rise, making children feel angry and edgy.

They may feel hot and bothered. Hot summer days at school are especially challenging for youngsters who might forget to take their jerseys off.

Their brains and bodies will be exhausted. They will have had a day of controlling their feet and hands, managing their things, remembering to put up their hands, trying to wrap their brains around tricky new skills, interacting with new people, wiping their bottoms and remembering to wash their hands….  

As Nathan says, we all behave the worst when we are with the people we feel safest around and trust the most. That’s why, at the end of the day, you’re likely to feel the full force of your child’s feelings.  

How to support your young child after school

BE PRESENT

Nathan says the first 30 minutes is a really important transition time. “Be incredibly tolerant and give them your attention, rather than multitasking,” he says.

That doesn’t mean bombarding them with questions. Harriet has a five- and a six-year-old and says that the drive home can be really challenging. She takes a “no questions from me in the first 20 minutes” approach, during which time she makes sure they have something to eat.

FOOD. Sometimes if they’re going to be too tired around dinner time, a more substantial after-school snack is the way to go. If you are out and about, a snack box in the car is essential.

WATER. Angelina’s motto is “just add water” after school. Whether it’s a smoothie with a straw, playing in the sprinkler, water play in a bath, water helps!

TV or MUSIC. My five-year-old asks to “watch the fish on the TV”, which is what they play at our medical centre…. It works a treat. Nathan says there’s nothing wrong with a little TV after school.

OUTDOOR PLAY. Depending on their energy levels, it might be a good idea to go to a park and let off steam. Or perhaps your child would benefit from something tactile, like playdough, to help them relax and re-set.

ROUTINES. Routines are your friend, but it’s also important to read the situation and change it up if need be. Postpone the playdate, bring the dinner-bath-bedtime routine forward, give them snacks on the couch in front of the TV. Whatever works. Angela says that their family adjusted their evening routine when their child started school. “We did a 6pm bedtime which meant that by 4.30pm she’d be having dinner and then a bath.”

Joan has twin five-year-olds and twin eleven-year-olds, plus three other children, and says that their after-school routine involves getting the jobs done, like emptying the lunchboxes and putting bags away, before the kids “eat us out of food!” and have an hour or so of downtime, usually watching TV. “Basically, I wing it every day”, says Joan!

Read our 5 tips for your child’s first day at school >>

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