As the end of the school year quickly approaches, we begin to see the inevitable burnout. So often, it is thought that this only applies to our teachers, behaviour therapists, and support staff, when in fact our children feel it as well. This is especially true for children who learn in different ways. For example, children who have difficulty attending, have to work hard to maintain their focus in addition to the work itself. Burnout in children is so prominent both at school and at home, and will present itself in a variety of ways. You may notice your child is more tired and irritable, you may notice an increase in stereotypy or problem behaviour, or you may just notice that overall they are easily upset and not responding in the same ways they usually do. As with any other change in behaviour, it is important to notice these changes and adjust your own behaviour to help support them through this tricky time of year.
Burnout is defined as a state of mental, physical, or emotional exhaustion. Anyone can experience burnout - adults can experience burnout at work or home, athletes can experience burnout in sports, and students can experience academic burnout, just to name a few. But as I said, students who think and learn differently are more susceptible to academic burnout for several reasons. These factors include academic, social, and emotional factors that make it more likely for their bodies and brains to feel exhausted. Academically, our students often have to work harder than their peers to achieve the same results, in addition to any extra support they may receive on top of their already strenuous day (i.e., speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, etc.). Emotionally, our students are constantly working hard, sometimes in addition to the anxiety that accompanies their school day (whether this anxiety is about the work itself, failure, or just being in a social environment). And socially, our students have great relationships with those who support them, but they often have to work hard to initiate and maintain meaningful friendships. Add these factors together, for a duration of the 10 month school year, and it is not surprising that our students begin to feel the mental, physical, and emotional effects of burnout as the school year comes to an end.
Being aware of this, and having preventative measures in place is of course the best way to help your child. Encouraging consistent body and brain breaks, healthy eating and sleep habits, and mindfulness are a few of the strategies that can help to prevent burnout. As our students learn these things while at school through the AIM and Connect curriculum, these strategies are already taught and embedded into their days. It is important for families to continue to encourage these strategies at home as well. But regardless of the many preventative measures you have in place, burnout can still happen. By being aware of the signs and responding in a supportive way, you can help your child from feeling overwhelmed and shutting down. Common signs of burnout in children to watch for include:
⁃ Changes to emotional regulation - your child may seem easily upset or frustrated by things they typically do not have difficulty with.
⁃ Loss of motivation or interest - your child may not feel motivated to engage in everyday tasks, this can include school work, extra curricular activities, or situations within your family routine. They may have difficulty concentrating and engage in more procrastination for these everyday situations. Research indicates that burnout leads to changes in cognition, including impairments in memory and executive functioning.
⁃ Avoidance - your child may want to avoid situations that they previously enjoyed, such as school or social outings.
⁃ Increase in anxiety - you may notice an increase in anxiety, which can present itself differently among children. This may include an increase in stereotypy, negative statements, physical illness, fatigue, or fight/flight responses (aggression/shutting down).
⁃ Changes to sleep - your child may experience changes to their sleep patterns, whether that be more fatigue or having difficult falling asleep.
Recognizing these changes to behaviour will allow you to support your child through it, using the many strategies of ABA and ACT that they are already familiar with. This is a time of year to decrease expectations, provide additional support, and focus on spending quality time together. When a child is feeling the effects of burnout, this is not an ideal time to introduce new expectations without also providing extra support. Examples of support you can provide include:
⁃ Maintaining daily routines
⁃ Increasing access to breaks
⁃ Incorporate easier tasks and interests - when working through a non preferred activity with your child, try to incorporate their interests and easier tasks. Incorporating their interests will make the task more meaningful, while incorporating easier tasks will make the more difficult ones easier to tolerate.
⁃ Setting expectations, but providing more support when needed or decreasing those expectations - For example, when your child has come home after a busy school day and is noticeably tired or irritable, when completing their home schedule, perhaps they can choose the order, or they can select 3 activities instead of 5 for that day. This is also a time to increase reinforcement for those desired behaviours!
⁃ Schedule in down time - this may look different for each family, it may include setting up a quiet area, free time, or structured time with the family (such as a game or movie night). Add this down time to a visual schedule so that your child knows what to expect!
⁃ Increase visual supports - increase visual supports such as schedules, choice boards, timers, emotion wheels, and written expectations. This will help your child in knowing what to expect, in identifying what they are feeling and what they need, while decreasing the effort needed to do so.
⁃ Set goals - goal setting is an important component of ACT and something our students are familiar with. Help your child to recognize how they are feeling, and set values based goals together to help mitigate those feelings. For example, if your child values learning but is feeling exhausted, their goals may include asking for breaks when needed to engage in mindfulness or sensory breaks.
It is important to notify your child’s support team of behaviour changes you notice as well, as this will allow you to work together to help mitigate this time of year in a way that is consistent and meaningful to your child. It is also important, to demonstrate compassion both to your child and yourself! While the key to managing burnout effectively includes the support and coping strategies mentioned above, research also shows that relationships with caregivers serve as a protective factor in avoiding the negative effects of burnout in children. Take a step back when needed, and engage in self care. This will allow you to be the best version of yourself, overcoming burnout for yourself and your child, and returning to a positive mindset!