Behavior Problems At Home - But Not At School

"I have great difficulty with my 6-year-old daughter (high functioning) at home due to frequent tantrums and meltdowns, yet her teacher states that her behavior at school is quite good. Why is this – and what can I do to get the same results at home?"

First of all, just because the behavior occurs at home doesn’t necessarily mean the “cause” of the behavior lies there. Your daughter may find school very stressful, but keeps her emotions bottled-up until she gets home. Most kids with Aspergers and high-functioning autism (HFA) do not display the body language and facial expressions you would expect to see when a youngster is feeling a particular way. While your daughter may appear relatively calm at school, she may be experiencing very different emotions under the surface.

Asking an HFA youngster how she feels may not get the correct response, because most of these young people struggle to explain their emotions to someone. Some find carrying visual “stress scales” helpful for overcoming these communication problems. These scales can be either in the format of a scale from 1-5, a thermometer, or a traffic light system. The idea is that when the youngster indicates that she is at a '4' or 'amber' (before she reaches a '5' or 'red'), she needs to be helped in some way to calm down again.

Instead of adults asking your daughter how she is feeling, she can show them the appropriate number or color. Scales can turn “emotions” (which are abstract concepts that require imagination to understand fully) into concrete examples of numbers or colors. This is something that kids with an autism spectrum disorder find easier to understand. If your daughter finds it difficult to use a scale, she could use a “help card” instead. This could be a red card, or have the word ‘help’ or a meaningful symbol on it, which she could carry around. When she begins to feel stressed-out or mad, she can show it to a teacher. It is important that everyone in contact with your daughter knows what to do if they are shown a card or a stress scale.

Some of these kids may need to be redirected to a different activity, have a quick run outside, or retreat to a quieter part of the school. It can be difficult to find a quiet area, especially in a big mainstream school, but it does not need to be a big space. Some schools will have an area (e.g., the library) where your daughter can listen to her iPod (for example) in order to filter-out external noise for a few minutes while she calms down.

Teachers may be concerned that by giving your daughter a card to leave the room, she may abuse the privilege (e.g., showing it to avoid activities she doesn’t want to be in), thus disrupting her education. Strict boundaries need to be given to your daughter regarding the use of a card or stress scale (e.g., clear instructions about where your daughter gets to go – and for how long). On a positive note, effective use of the card could ultimately reduce the amount of disruption to your daughter’s education. Instead of her being kept in a permanent state of anxiety during class, she may return to the classroom much more relaxed and focused.

Some moms and dads report behavioral difficulties in their HFA kids when they first come home after school, which might be because they are releasing the stress of the school day. If your daughter does this, it might be helpful to have a period of time right after school when she can relax. You could do this by reducing the amount of social interaction your daughter has immediately after school and by providing an activity which you think may help her de-stress. This activity will depend on your daughter’s preferences. If she is relatively physical in her method of stress-release (e.g., kicking or hitting), providing a trampoline, punching bag, or letting her run around the yard may help relieve the stress. Others like to clam-down by watching television or listening to music. Some find lights especially soothing (e.g., a bubble tube or spinning light).

For some kids on the spectrum, the timetable of the school day provides enough structure and routine to help contain any anxiety and stress. They have a strong preference for routine, and this is automatically incorporated into most school environments. Your daughter may benefit from having a visual timetable for home as well (it will make the environment more predictable for her). A timetable can either be constructed showing the whole day's activities, half the day, or simply the activities that are now and next.

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•    Anonymous said… And routine..... And as Angela says, giving a few days notice of things happening, like dental or drs appointments, or visits to family etc
•    Anonymous said… At school barriers are put up. All This takes mental energy and it just runs out by the time you get home. Imagine you are an actor on stage in a 18th century play. Only the play is 8 hours long. Once you're done, you'll be exhausted. One way to take care of it is a stimming regiment after school. Hot bath or hot tub at a gym, heavy blanket nap, meditation, yoga, sports. Video games are okay for at most an hour. Then it's okay to be at home. You know how some men go to the man cave after getting home from work? Or some people hit the bar or gym after work before getting home. Same concept can be applied here. Rest and recharge before being part of the household
•    Anonymous said… Figuring out causes of meltdowns can take time and detective work. Not advised during the actual meltdown - when she's calm, she may be able to give her some clues, and when you're calm, you can think it through easier. Think about 2 categories of "causes" (there may be multiple, not just one): Triggers (what sets them off) & Consequences (what reinforces/keeps them happening). A very short list of possible triggers: exhaustion from holding it together at school, change in environment, change in amount of structure, interactions with siblings, sensory overload (can be really subtle), homework (performance/anxiety) issues, too much information coming in at once, not being able to communicate her needs, picking up tension in another person or the environment, not getting her way (since home is often less structured than school this happens more frequently). Possible Consequences that reinforce the meltdowns: increased sensory or emotional overload from reactions of others, increased desired attention, escape from things she doesn't like or want to do or cause her distress. There's a book by Jed Baker called "No More Meltdowns" that you might find useful.
•    Anonymous said… I always hear that my son is well behaved at school...or even with other people. At home though, or with just me and his dad, my son lets loose.
•    Anonymous said… I feel like my kid spent all day at school trying to be good and figuring out how to accommodate his challenges and how to get by in a neuro-typical world, that he was DONE when he got home. All that overstimulation is emotionally draining, I'm sure. He's 13 now and doesn't have melt-downs. He's able to control his anger and emotions a little better.
•    Anonymous said… It's because home is a safe space where they can let off steam. They have spent all day concentrating and remembering the rules and are totally stressed out. As bad as it is, I always found my son loved a bath to unwind; a snack and if possible, no homework. As he became better able to manage himself, to relax himself, then the homework began to be done. It's still difficult at times, once he's absorbed in something woe betide anyone who interrupts him, even if it is for him to have dinner, or to go to sleep....
•    Anonymous said… I've read that because they try so hard to deal with school, their brains are on overdrive and anxiety high, when they come home they just relax, let it go and meltdown.
•    Anonymous said… Learn the techniques that the school applies while she is there and apply the same ones at home.
•    Anonymous said… My Aspie daughter did horribly in school. It was incredibly stressful for her and have been homeschooling her for years. She is 14 now and we only havery melt downs every now and again. They are not school related as they used to be, I feel blessed to be able to homeschool her but feel bad that she may be missing the social interactions it provides. Her best friend lives in Nova Scotia and they talk online till 4am sometimes. The melt down have eased up so much with age too though. I don't feel like I'm losing my mind anymore. LOL.
•    Anonymous said… My son had this issue .... routine and attention. My son likes to know in advance what and when and how. It relieves anxiety and an irrational fear of the unknown that can lead to meltdowns. It takes extra time to stop and explain things ... little things ... like first we are going to the store and this is what we are going to buy etc. Then we will stop for pizza etc. Even though I am making the decisions he feels in control because in his mind he knows what to expect. Then if things do not go as planned it is good to have practiced a "response" such as a breathing exercise or counting to 10 or whatever ur child likes so that in an instance where there is a loss of control they have a way to get it back.
•    Anonymous said… Same problem so after school pick up we went to the park or for a swim to unwind. We put up pictures of home routine on the wall. But it gets better. Letting off steam from school stress is normal. They do it at home because it's a safe place to let it out.
•    Anonymous said… Same situation with my daughter. As she matured it got better.
•    Anonymous said… Set routine in school and in school some dont like the lime light as such so stay quiet out of fear of being heard(social aspect of it all) home where safe and familiar they let there a change in the home a noise that sets the child off suprisingly even a ticking tock can drive them mad as there senses are heightend...?? Few ideas but who knows really...keep calm keep smiling and loving x
•    Anonymous said… Thank you! I never understood till now frown emoticon
•    Anonymous said… We use a trampoline to calm sensors we find it the best. However sometimes he won't go on it. We have a few other things he can choose from. We have this problem too. It makes me super happy to read it does get much easier. Thank you.
•    Anonymous said… Yes I had the same experience. I'm happy that my son can manage at school as well as what he does. It means in the future he will be able to cope with a job. At home we need to recognise when his brain is frazzled and back off and lower our expectations. As he got older he could handle more. It's tough sometimes and it is stressful and chaotic at home sometimes. Best wishes to you
•    Anonymous said… Yes this is exactly like my son. Home is safe so he can let go of all the stress and tension he holds onto during the day at school. This can happen the second we walk in the door at home, but has often happened in the school car park, or even in the school grounds at school pick up. We try to help him to release some of this built up anxiety by stomping to the car, deep breathing and using his sensory toys. It's not easy and there is no quick fix!

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