Do you teach kids? Do you have them after school? Do they drive you crazy sometimes? Whether you tutor privately, teach group classes at an academy, or lead English club after school, you are bound to run into after-school exhaustion.
The kids are bored, bouncing off the walls, badly behaved, or some combination of the three and you’re at your wit’s end. Have no fear! I have lived it too! Welcome to my guide to beating after-school exhaustion with the little darlings.
Why do kids act like this?
The after-school whining and meltdowns aren’t caused by poor teaching or a bad lesson. “After school restraint collapse,” coined by Andrea Nari, a Canadian psychologist and parenting educator, is a real term psychologists use to describe when kids get cranky, whiny, rowdy, and even aggressive after school. It’s most common in kids under 12 who, due to their age, are less able to regulate their own emotions.
Basically, kids spend all morning at school constantly bombarded with stimulation (which is a good thing! They need it!). This stimulation comes from the material and skills they’re learning, social interactions with peers and adults, their own emotions, and physical stimulation like exercise, lunch, and interactions with their environment.
Once school ends, they release the tension that’s been building all day. It isn’t inherently bad or negative tension, just the sum of all their interactions and activities during the school day.
Different kids react differently to this release, some become whiny, others cranky and moody, but either way they’re all feeling the same things, and the solutions I’m providing below apply to all of them.
What can I do?
Physical activity first!
Always start with some sort of physical activity so the kids can blow off steam and get out of that sitting-at-my-desk scholastic headspace. There are a million different ways to do this, but here are a few of my favorites:
This one is great as a group or solo activity. Start your lesson by doing some basic stretches, yoga, tai chi, or even some martial arts moves together. If your students are into these types of sports, take turns having them lead the group or teach you their moves.
Personal trainer role-play
You can also turn the idea of physical activity together into a culminating task by doing a personal trainer role-play. You and your students create exercise routines for each other then perform them. It’s great for teaching motion verbs, commands, numbers, and sequencers and can be easily tailored to your students’ level (e.g. Jump 3 times, then spin twice! Do 6 jumping jacks).
I draft a 30-second routine first (written, then delivered orally). The routine is repeated 2-3 times. The kids are always happy to bounce around, and it exercises receptive skills at the same time!
Then I let them choose a workout song for me (almost always Eye of the Tiger 😂) and draft their very own routine for me! Give them a clipboard and a cap, and you won’t even have to ask them to write it down.
The teacher has to follow through though! Give it your all and make your coach proud. This can be modified for groups by having them write them for each other after an all-class demo.
Simon Says Sing and Dance!
For younger kids, I like to do mirroring games like Simon Says, songs, and dances.
Simon Says is a pretty classic activity, but if you need the rules check them out here.
For songs, you can teach them a song with gestures and movements then start with each class with it to build a routine. Make sure your gestures are big enough. This activity should be done standing and should use the whole body, not just hands.
For dances, you can teach them dance moves or have them create their own–either way, the dance is set to English music. Right now, Fortnite dances are really popular and kids love to do their favorites.
The key here is to give them enough structure so they don’t completely lose it and turn that after-school exhaustion into giddy hype. Set time limits and rules (e.g. Do a dance move on one foot for 15 seconds or do a completely silent dance move for 10 seconds.)
Physical review games
These games should be quick and done first to review material previously covered. My go-to’s are board race trivia and charades. Just remember that the main goal of this activity is to defeat after-school exhaustion and give kids the chance to release some pent-up energy. Don’t focus so much on accuracy and correction, and expect to review the material again later in the class.
What is “anti-school”?
Leave school at school. Your after-school English classes are not school. Your students do not want them to be school. School and your after-school program can look suspiciously similar, so it’s your job to differentiate the two and make your classes the “anti-school”.
Play to your strengths
Play to your strengths as a non-school with smaller class sizes and possibly a native speaker to do activities that kids can’t or don’t often get in regular school. The physical games above are great examples of fun activities that kids often don’t do often at school.
Other activities include speaking and chatting with friends and using realia. If you’re a native speaker, someone from another country/culture, or even a person who’s just younger than the average school teacher, engage your students with popular music, TV, movies, and cultural phenomena they wouldn’t see at their 8 a.m. – 3 p.m. gig.
Say no to worksheets
Leave the most “schooly of the school” behind. That means no worksheets, no summer vacation essays, no copy books, no homework. Your students consider those things boring, since they’ve already been doing them for 7 hours by the time they see you and you won’t have time for them anyway if you’re doing all the other activities listed above that play to your strengths as a non-school.
Once you’ve transformed your physical space and your lesson plan into an anti-school, there’s one thing left. You! It’s time to shift that relationship authoritarianism to guided choice.
Build from the students up
You’ll always be the leader of the classroom, but instead of mandating from the top down, work from the ground up with your students. Cater your lessons to their interests and make them as fun and novel as you can.
Praise often and reward judiciously
You very likely will eventually work with kids who are doing poorly in school and need extra help and reinforcement. Students that have a negative experience in the traditional classroom carry that into your after-school lessons. Often, these children lack confidence in themselves and their abilities. Your job is to build their confidence back up through praise and small successes.
For the child with low self-esteem, you should celebrate what they do well, identify areas for improvement, then give them targeted tasks to improve in those areas without explicitly telling them they have trouble with anything.
You’re the teacher and you’re also an adult. You have to do the work of thinking critically about what this child needs to achieve their goals and then facilitate it.
What about the boring stuff I have to do?
There will definitely be times where you have to do things the school way, i.e. when part of your job is to help them specifically with school homework, essays, and projects, as well as exam prep for older students.
Honesty is the best policy
When these instances come, be honest with your students and explain why you’re doing this activity—a written practice exam, oral practice on a “boring” assigned topic, or whatever it is— and sympathize with them.
I personally believe ESL education in most traditional schools is unfair and places too much emphasis (and marking) on reading and writing. Tell your kids that. Say, “I know it’s not fair, but you and I can’t change this, so our job is to work together so you can get the highest mark you can for your exam next week.”
The choice is (partly) theirs
Be flexible and give them as much choice when you can. Let them choose when in the lesson they want to tackle the dreaded assignment (within reason) or if they want to work in groups or individually. Show them new ways of approaching tasks and new methods that they may not have the opportunity to practice with their regular teacher at school. And give them the fun stuff whenever you can.
If you do that consistently, they will believe you when you say “If I could do it differently, I would,” and then they will trust you when you say “But this is how we have to do it now.”
Motivation and rewards
And finally, don’t forget some good old-fashioned motivation and rewards. If you’ve got to work on writing homework, have a ball game or music video afterwards. Use that and every other trick in the book (besides negative reinforcement) to motivate them. You’re their coach and their support. Make it a team effort, and they’ll give you more of their effort.
That being said, don’t accept shoddy work in order to move on quickly. Require your student to actively engage and give it their best effort before moving onto something fun. Depending on how they are being parented at home, they might whine and complain the first time or two, but kids learn fast.
If you communicate and enforce consistent and fair expectations, they will catch on and prove to you, their parents, and themselves just how well they can do.
I hope this article has helped you bust after-school boredom and exhaustion. This article was inspired by a question from my sister, who is also a tutor.
If you have questions about teaching kids, tutoring one-on-one, or anything else, please comment on the article or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading and happy teaching!