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School Tantrums

We have all been there and even said or heard the phrase, “They’re just ready for school” – but just because children might be ready for something new, something ‘more’ or different, developmentally that doesn’t always mean entering into the school system.

Some children love school straight away, others take time, some love it at first only to realise it’s not temporary and then begin to struggle. Why is that? It’s not developmentally expected for a child of 4 years old to love school and to understand why we need to look more at the science of brain development; when we understand that we can respond in a way that doesn’t place unrealistic expectations on them.

My summer born child started school and she screamed, thrashed around, ran away and even had to be restrained on the teachers lap in the corner of the classroom as I left. That was beyond tough, my instincts were telling me it was the wrong thing to do but I ignored those instincts and walked away. Just a matter of days before that first day she was 3 years old, another year at preschool would have made such a difference.

Since that day I have seen many children leave the comfort of a community, child-led, preschool setting and enter school a year too soon. I have seen children return for another year of preschool and the difference in them is amazing. The only distinguishing factor between them and what they receive is their month of birth.

I could talk more about this, I could talk a LOT about it. I could talk about the secondary school teachers I’ve spoken to that have told me that looking at the month of birth on a pupil’s record tells them that the advantage of older children in the year remains. That makes perfect sense to me when we are withholding a whole year of some children’s education and then expecting the same results.

’Does it really make a difference when a child starts school? It does. Children born in late summer – in July and August – will find themselves learning in the classroom alongside children who can be 11 or even 12 months older than them. The older children will be more physically capable; they will be able to concentrate better, and their language skills will be more developed – an advantage that is then reinforced by praise and improved self-esteem. Children born in the summer also tend to perform worse academically than those born in the autumn. The differences are at their most pronounced soon after children start school, but the gap remains up to GCSEs and beyond.’

It’s not natural for young children to spend extended periods of time away from their primary care-givers, especially in an environment that can be formal, structured, adult-led and with many rules to obey.

Let’s be clear, tantrums that happen during this time are not ‘naughty’ or ‘manipulative’. Tantrums happen when a child feels like they have no other way to express how their body feels at that moment in time.

Children haven’t developed enough to know that each feeling in their body has a named emotion ascribed to it and they struggle to make sense of why they are feeling that way – it is their bodies way of saying, ‘Nope, I can’t do this right now!’.

We should not be ignoring or distracting from tantrums but embracing and welcoming them into our homes as a healthy release of emotion. We must stop trying to deter children from experiencing big and difficult feelings, they need opportunities to experience and process them; only then can they grow up to do the same.

We don’t have to ‘fix’ anything we just have to be effective facilitators, showing we are there for them through the tough stuff and responding in a way that demonstrates it’s normal to have difficult emotions, that they are safe. Our own attitude at the time of the tantrum says a lot to a child.

This is not soft parenting mumbo jumbo this is scientific evidence-based information (thank you MRI scanning).

When a child starts school they are entering a new environment, experiencing new routines, forming new relationships and trying to self-regulate their behaviour all whilst feeling physical sensations that these emotions create. Put yourself in their shoes, think to your first day of a new job. Scary? We feel the nerves and fear but have the experience, vocabulary and knowledge to be able to reason with ourselves; we also have years of experience of being able to implement effective strategies to deal with it. We also have fully developed brains.

Children haven’t any of this. They haven’t even finished building their brains; specifically the frontal lobe. This is responsible for impulse control, judgement, reasoning and emotional regulation and it doesn’t stop developing until early adulthood. Schools a lot to deal with.

How do children cope when they are stressed?

They play. Play is SO important for children’s development and well-being yet school becomes less about play and more about concentrating, listening, learning and sitting still (not skills that come easily to children before the age of 7), with limited time to play to counter balance.

In Finland children start school at the age of 7 and they outperform us in the league tables. A UN report has named Finland the happiest country to live and when you look at their approach to education it makes sense as to why that is.

What can we do as parents?

Meet your child where they are, accept their tantrums and understand that how they are feeling is to be expected.

“You’re upset because I have to leave” rather than “come on”, “you’ll be OK”, “you like school”, “be brave”.

You can’t fix their feelings, but you can empathise with them. You can be careful not to add any guilt for feeling the way they do; it’s the last thing they need on top of everything else they are experiencing. They want to know you understand. They want to know they are safe.

I write about tantrums a lot and how understanding the ‘why’ helps us to see a child who is saying, “I don’t feel safe” instead of “I’m angry”. It helps us to remain focused on the long-term outcome for the child and not the short-term solution.

Meet the child where they are and not where you or the school system expects them to be.

Have lots of child led activities at home after school and at the weekends. They have had NO CHOICE about whether they are at school or not, they haven’t been able to get up and leave if they have felt uncomfortable or scared, allow them that time at home.

Play with them, phones away, your attention on them completely; don’t ask them lots of questions during this time, just be there without agenda. Even if you can only manage 10 minutes a day (I talk a lot about the ‘Power of 10’ at my workshops) make it count and give them what they aren’t getting at school at home.

Give them what you would need in that situation. Love, connection and empathy.

Bridge the Gap for them.


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