Reducing overwhelm for kids.

With Angela Lockwood.

Reducing overwhelm for kids.

With Angela Lockwood.


In this episode, Angela aims to bring a different perspective on how we see a child's behaviour. Often we see a child's emotional reaction or behaviour from a "good or bad" perspective. For many children, it is a build-up of sensory factors that can lead to overwhelm and ultimately a meltdown or withdrawal. Angela simplifies the concept of sensory overwhelm and what we can do as adults to keep a calm and sensory-friendly environment at home and at school.

Episode Transcription 



Overwhelm  child  feeling  kids  overwhelmed  behaviors  strategies  classroom  senses  teachers  brain  people  adults  playground  shopping center  listening  point  social  stress  life




Welcome to A Kid's Life Podcast. I'm Angela Lockwood. And for the last 20 years, I have been working in schools, supporting teachers to build inclusive classrooms. Through A Kid's Life Podcast, my goal is to help us, adults, better understand the complexities of life as a kid. My guests and I share stories, reflections, and simple strategies to support kids of all needs as they walk through life. So, whether you're looking for inspiration, direction, guidance, tips, or just a laugh, A Kid's Life Podcast is the place for you. Enjoy.


Welcome to A Kid's Life Podcast. Thank you for joining me, I'm Angela Lockwood. And this episode today is about something that is really close to my heart because it's something that I have struggled with, for quite a while myself. And that is how do we reduce overwhelm in our lives, particularly in the lives of kids? Now, it was something that through my work, working directly with children that I noticed that there were so many kids even as young as five that were exhibiting, I guess the fallout of feeling constantly overwhelmed. And it just intrigued me that, how did we get to a space where little tiny kids and kids are a little bit older, were feeling overwhelmed. And I couldn't remember feeling like this myself when I was a little one.

So, I thought I really became fascinated by what are the factors that are contributing to kids feeling like they're overwhelmed. And it intrigued me so much that I started to do some research on it. And it led to me writing a book called Switch Off - How to find calm in a noisy world. And it was through the research of this book, I'd love to say it was all for professional development, and to put my professional knowledge in place, but it actually helped me very personally as well. Now I have a very busy brain. And I knew that my busy brain at times made me feel exhausted, sometimes my busy brain resulted in me feeling extremely overwhelmed, quite stressed. And sometimes my behavior, when I was in that state of overwhelm wasn't very good to myself or to other people around me. Now, it wasn't that I lashed out, or I did anything too crazy. But I know that when I hit overwhelm, there were a few things that I would do that would lead me to either withdrawing and needing to sort of retreat into my own space. But I also knew that sometimes I became so, I would like to say, hyperactive that I wasn't able to concentrate and focus. And interestingly, when I started to do some research into overwhelm in kids, I learnt so much about myself in this as well as much as what I was learning about how kids really face overwhelm. 

Now, when we look at it when you think about overwhelm the meaning of the word is to have a strong emotional effect. So, when you think about it, when people are in a state of overwhelm, then they're going to have a very strong emotional response to that overwhelm. And through my work with kids, particularly in schools, what I was saying was that teachers were thinking that the child was either mucking up or misbehaving when what I noticed was actually a lot of the kids’ behaviors, the emotional outlets that we were saying, was a result of them being in overwhelm. It's really fascinating. Like, if you think about it, you see a child who has a meltdown. Now, when they get to that meltdown point, they don't just come up with that and just have a big meltdown. And then that's it. There's always precursor, it's there are things that lead up to why that child has a meltdown in the first place. And some of it we can see, and it's quite obvious, you know, one of those things is maybe when a child is really tired, and then they have a meltdown, we go, are they having a meltdown, because they're tired. But other times, we have no idea and it just seems like they're just had this meltdown for no apparent reason. You know, and sometimes we can think, or maybe it's for the older kids, maybe it's a bit hormonal, or maybe it's because they're stressed about something or that they've had an argument with somebody. And these things are all really valid points. But when kids hit overwhelm, they basically go into a state that they lose connection with their behavior and their thoughts. Now sometimes for kids, overwhelm, can come and go, it might be something where they hit a point of overwhelm throughout their day, they deal with it, and then they come back down to an emotional state, and then they just move on. For other kids that might be things that happen over the course of their day, and then it grows, gradually builds up over the course of the day. And then they hit this point of no return at the end of the school day. And usually, what parents report to me for sure is they pick a child up from school, the teachers are reporting that they're just little angels at school, they had this wonderful, well-behaved little student all the time in that class. And the parent says, well hang on a minute, as soon as they get in the car, they're starting to lash out, they're kicking the back of the chair, they're yelling at me, they're ripping their clothes off. And the rest of the afternoon is just chaos. And this is more common than what you think. And if you're listening to this, you might have even gone Oh, my gosh, that happens to me and my kids as well.

The overwhelm really if I can, I'm just going to break it down for you, instead of five areas that I see overwhelm start to creep in for kids, okay, and it's things where it could be situational. So, something might have happened at school, where it was a very sort of specific situation, where it made them get to a point where they felt really overwhelmed. And a really easy one to think about is an exam, or it might be they've had an argument with another student at school, or a teacher wasn't happy with them. And they felt really uncomfortable in that space. It could also be environmental. And yeah, this environmental overwhelm is probably more common amongst all of these five, so more kids are feeling environmentally overwhelmed than in any of the other areas. And what I mean by environmental is, is you think about a noisy environment, schools are extremely chaotic, they're very noisy, there's a lot of things always happening. And for children, and not just children who have additional needs, like maybe Autism Spectrum Disorder, or they might have attention deficits.

In any of the disorders, of course, a lot of times kids can hit overwhelming. But all kids hit a point of overwhelm at some point in there in their time during the day, it just depends on how well refined their strategies are, of how to deal with it. And we will get to that. But you think about the environment if I can tell you a little story about myself. Now it's pretty commonly known, I'm not a fan of shopping, going to a supermarket is oh my gosh, like my stress zone, particularly, you know, these big shopping centers that you go to where there are hundreds of shops around, and there's clothes, shops, and homeware stores and grocery items. They are like my least favorite place to go anywhere. Now, the reason why and you know, let's say, years of looking into this as to why I find these environments so stressful, what it's led me to understand is that I actually hit my sensory overload when I am in these locations. What I mean by that you think of all your senses, you've got your sight, touch, hearing, taste, all these other different senses that we have, right? There are many. And what happens when I go into shopping centers is all of these senses feel like they're being bombarded. So, they're feeling this overwhelming flash of senses, there is for me, it's auditory, and it's visual. So, I see too many things for me to take in, I hear too many things, and all the people moving around and talking. It just really overwhelms me. And what happens as a result of that is either and some of the symptoms, I guess, are all things that I feel is I actually do get sick on my belly when I walk into a shopping center, I can feel really distracted as well. So, like one of my kids might ask me a question. And I was like, I don't know, just leave me just I won't, I won't be alone, don't just ask me that later, you know, I might give them a response like that. Or I might even make find it really hard to make a decision on what I need to buy when I'm there or what I need to do. Because the thought the thinking behind you know, this sort of sensory overload, I'm getting hit too much with too many things that are occurring in the environment, and my brain and body just don't know what to do with it. Now I'm not somebody that has been diagnosed with any type of sensory processing disorder or any type of anxiety. So, this for me is a very normal situation. And for many of you listening as well, you might have your own environment that you feel like this or your own situation where you feel like this. But for me, I know that being in a shopping center hits my sensory point of threshold, and what I mean by this, let me explain what this means.

So, when you think about it, all the senses come into, you know, all information comes through all your senses. And what happens is your brain has to decide what is important and what isn't. And for those things that aren't important, then of course, the brain just doesn't even register Don't worry, it registers it doesn't really think too much about it and it moves on. But there are other things as well where your brain goes actually do not this is really important for you to pay attention to, you should pay attention to that. And so, our brains always constantly trying to work out what's important information that's coming in, and what's not important information coming in. Now, when we're feeling sent, bombarded through our senses of this sort of sense of sensory overwhelm, what can happen is your brain or the starts to process everything. So, your brain just goes into this overdrive, or what happens as well as your brain can just withdraw, it can shut down and it can go Do you know what this is all too much for me to be listening to right now and to be taking in. So, I'm just going to shut down. And I can't think of anything else right now. And for me, I'm the second. So, when I'm in a shopping center, I go into a shopping center, what happens to my brain is it becomes really high, what I call hyper-aroused, it becomes quiet, too much information, yeah, too much information coming in. And then eventually, what happens is my brain goes, I can't cope with this anymore, so I need to withdraw. Now, withdrawal for me in a shopping center is things like I have to refer to my list. So, the list that I've got, it becomes my little safety net, and I just go to that, and I go to the shop that I need to buy the one thing in your very rarely find me wandering around a shopping center because I find that too overwhelming. And it was through my research for the book Switch Off that I came to understand that that was my behavior. That was how I needed to process all this bombardment of sensory information. You know, I always made sure that always make sure still do make sure that I've got food in my belly so that it's not sort of another level of sensory processing, I have to, I have to worry about, I'll make sure I have water with me. So, my body feels really hydrated. So again, my body or brain doesn't need to worry about that.

Now, I know I've got I'd probably so long about the shopping center story. But when you look at it, as adults, we all have our own situations and environments where we feel very overwhelmed for you, it might be at a concert, you know when we can go back to doing those. It might be when you're in a social situation where there are lots of people, it could be with urine in just a totally new environment, it might be some people feel very overwhelmed when they're in natural environments as well. So, I said there were five areas where people can often feel really overwhelmed. And this is the situation like I said before the environment, so what you're surrounded by, but also people can get very overwhelmed kids can get really in particularly overwhelmed through anticipation. And what I mean by this, and you know what I mean, if, if a child has an exam coming up, or they might have to do public speaking, which we all know is one of the number one stresses and fears for people. If a child has to get up to present to a class, what can cause a child to hit a point of overwhelm, is that just very thought that they're going to have to speak to their class. Now you can already feel that right that these little kids, you know, they've got something coming up. And in anticipation of that, they already are starting to feel overwhelmed, their brain is starting to feel frazzled, their body is starting to feel very uncomfortable. Sometimes it's even sickness in the belly. Sometimes it's a tickling in the back of the throat, there are many, many ways that kids can exhibit when they're hitting a point of no return. So, this anticipation of something that's coming out can be really confusing for us adults to really understand because we don't get it. You know, we can't see for that child, what they're anticipating. And, you know, why are they feeling like why are they sitting in their room for or as a teacher? It might be how can that child's not engaging? Like, why are they sitting at the back of the classroom, and I can't get them back into the group. Sometimes that anticipation can cause a really high level of overwhelm for our little kids.

The fourth area where that can cause a lot of really overwhelm for kids is of course social overwhelm. Social overwhelm is something that kids just don't experience. Adults experienced this too. But particularly for children, children are social beings You know, they're there in a social environment where every day, they're grouped with a whole heap of kids who some they might like some, they may not some they might feel really uncomfortable with others, they might just want to always be around. And this social overwhelm can really have a big ripple effect over the course of a child's day, who finds that they are having troubles dealing with sensitive overwhelm in this playground, so I see it all the time as an occupational therapist, being in the playgrounds in schools, oh, my goodness, just can cause children to tip over their point of no return. And that's where we see a lot of the behavioral outlets for kids a lot of them, I guess, the negative behavior that we see, and it can often be hard for a child to sort of transition back into the classroom because they've just had this whole time of trying to deal with all of this, you know, social overwhelm out in the playground, you know, people are pretty complex beings working out all of those different social nuances around to or does that person like me? Don't they like to be How should I be around that person, but I don't want to play that game, or how come they don't want to play my game, you know, all of these things can really create a sense of overwhelm for kids. And I often see, particularly for me, I'm out in playgrounds very often, you know, managing behaviors, or trying to support kids who were in this social overwhelm stage, that the transition back into class can sometimes be quite horrific, because they've had all of these things that they're trying to deal with in the playground, and they don't have time to transition back into a calm state when they're in the classrooms.

So, this is through my program, The Inclusive Classroom, when I'm talking to teachers, this is a really strong area that I work with them on. And it's a very common source of frustration for teachers, how do we get children to transition back from the playground into the classroom smoothly. And my first response always is the playground is a very overwhelming environment for many kids. So, what we have to do is help them transition calmly back into the classroom. 

Now the fifth area is cognitive overwhelm. And what I mean by cognitive overwhelm is for, for many kids, the amount of thinking they have to do in a day can be exhausting, they get to school, maybe 8:30, they're there until three or so whatever the time is, they're thinking all day, you know, they're constantly thinking, not just through thinking about what they're being taught, but they're always thinking, like I said, about what sort Should I socially do here, or they might be thinking about a whole range of different skills that they're learning throughout the school, particularly for the little kids in the first couple of years of primary school. And this cognitive overwhelm, sometimes kids can get to a point at the end of the day where their brain is just tired. Now, I don't know about you. But for me, I feel like this sometimes when I'm working. I know my peak focus time is first thing in the morning. And you know, come two o'clock onwards, I am not at my best by focus is often super distracted, I'm getting tired. And you know, we all reach and go and do you know, behaviors that don't serve as well like trying to have a chocolate or for some people, they might have that mid-afternoon coffee, just to Pep them up. And so, when we look at our own behaviors with overwhelm, I really encourage you to think about what do I do when I'm feeling overwhelmed? What are the behaviors I do now, you know, what I'm like, I really need us adults to think about our behaviors and how they're so similar to what we are wanting from kids? But kids don't yet have those strategies, or those appropriate skills on board to know what's right for them to do in those moments when they've hit their point of no return. So, when children are hitting overwhelming, whatever state so when their brain is feeling like it just can't take any more in and their bodies can't take any more in either. What often will say is the negative behavior afterward because remember what I said that overwhelm is really about something having a strong emotional effect on you. So, what we often say is this sense of overwhelm for kids are in a state of overwhelm. And then just after when they've hit their, what I call their point of no return. So, when they just can't take any more, that's when we sort of say this ripple effect of negative behavior.

And in a classroom situation, it might be that the child actually leaves the room they've just had enough so they withdraw themselves, they walk out of the class, because they either need to quiet the noise, or the learning is getting too hard for them. And their way of coping with it is actually just getting out of there. And for adults, sometimes we do that at work as well. If things are just getting too much, we just give ourselves a little break. And we say this a lot too. It might be through a toilet break, it might be getting up and going and getting a drink it might be going and getting a coffee. It might be you know, just going outside to get some fresh air. But what a lot of kids don't have is the ability to do that. So, it might be a child is in the middle of a math lesson. They're feeling like they’re in point of no return. They're starting to sense within their body that their hearts racing or that their minds getting quite full. They're getting distracted. They got butterflies in their tummy. And they might go up to the teacher and say, do you mind if I go and get a drink? Please? Or you know, Miss, can I go to the toilet? Now for some schools, they'll say, Yep, that's fine. And they'll notice that that child might be hitting their point of no return. But for many schools, it might be no, you know that we go to the toilet and break times. That's when we go to recess and lunch is when we go to the toilet, so you need to stay. And then often what will happen is that child because they haven't been given that opportunity to press pause on their overwhelm, then they'll go and do something behaviourally, that's not okay. And this might look like going and sitting under a desk, it might be spinning on a chair in a go and sitting on the teacher's chair and spinning around, which I've seen many times, it might be going up and annoying one of the other classmates and you know, poking them, it might be scrunching up a piece of paper and throwing it or it might just be a refusal to do any more work. Now, often when I'm in classrooms, I'll see these behaviors. And I always ask what has led up to that point? Very rarely do I go, Okay, what now? What behavioral interventions Do we need to put in place that this child doesn't do this again because if we do that, it's not really getting to the point where we're understanding what led to that behavior in the first place, there is always a lead up to when something happens. So, when children are hidden, this overwhelming, were saying those behaviors sort of on the other end of it, it's first of all about asking ourselves, okay, where could they be feeling overwhelmed right now? Is it something situational? Are they anticipating that they're about to do a speech, so they're getting nervous about it, and I know there's a, there's a slight touch around anxiety here? But it's not what I'm speaking about, it's actually this physiological sense of overwhelm this feeling that my brain is to fall, I'm getting super distracted, I'm getting butterflies on the belly. And sometimes it can just be nervousness, but I'm talking about something where children are feeling like they're about to get out of control.

And for teachers, what do you do? You know, you've got a whole classroom of kids that are all could be all hitting points of overwhelm at different times. And this is definitely one of the areas that I work on in The Inclusive Classroom online program with teachers is how do you recognize these signs with children? And what are some of the prevention versus cure strategies you can put in the classroom that can, I guess, prevent kids from having these meltdowns, if you want to put it that way, or these behavioral outbursts or withdrawal in the first place, and it can be done, it definitely can be done. Now, when we're talking about overwhelm, just think about when a child is in that state of overwhelm, it's really important as us as adults, to start to teach them some strategies that they can use. Because it's like, you know, we all know what the right thing to do is if we're feeling stressed, but how many of us actually do the right thing, you know, I know I have once or twice come home, feeling a little stress gone straight to the fridge and gone, I would love a wine right now. You know, my body doesn't need it. But what I'm saying is I want to give myself an opportunity just to press pause on that overwhelm with the day. You know, for some people, you know, we all have so many. For me, sometimes I'll go for a walk or I'll go for a jog or I'll go for a swim, I'll do the really great positive things as well, I'll journal which is one of my favorites is writing down at the end of the night, why I could have felt that way. But let's face it, not all of them are super positive. Sometimes I do really awful things like I might yell when I shouldn't, or I'll go and have that glass or two of wine or you know, however many to help me with that overwhelm. Sometimes I will go and just lay flat on my bed going, ah, and just feeling that frustration and that overwhelm. Sometimes it might be having a bath, there are a whole lot of strategies we use as an adult to deal with that overwhelm.

So, I see it's our responsibility as adults to teach our little people, what are the appropriate strategies you can use when you are feeling overwhelmed. Now, it doesn't mean that they're always going to use the right one, it doesn't mean that they're always going to be you know, opting for the positive one that they need to use. Okay, sometimes they will use it, and other times they won't. But if they don't know the strategies in the first place, then what they're going to do is just make it up. Just gonna go well, I'm feeling overwhelmed right now. The only thing I know how to do Get out of this classroom, I want quiet. So, I'm leaving, you know, for other kids that might be I really don't know what to do right now I have no other fallback. So, I'm just gonna yell and scream that Mom, you know, I'm going to tell her how angry I am. And I'm going to have a big meltdown because that's all I know how to do. So as adults, when kids are feeling in that state of overwhelm, teaching them strategies, age-appropriate strategies, of course, age-appropriate strategies are super important, will allow them to start to build a toolkit or build a little repertoire of skills that they know that they can fall back on when they're feeling like things are getting too much. And it's also when we're in this space about knowing what are the preferences for my child, now, if you're a parent listening to this, then you know your child, you're sort of queued into a lot of things that they do, they might go into their bedroom, and close the door, and just have some quiet time. Sometimes they might just flop on the lounge and watch the watch TV, they might lash out.

But if you're a teacher listening to this, knowing what strategies you can put in place for these kids can just be so powerful, not just for the child that's having difficulties. But for all the students in the class, you know, I'll work with schools around setting up quiet spaces in their classrooms so that any child that needs downtime, now any child that's feeling overwhelmed, can go and use that quiet space whenever they feel like they need it. And I do I love it, I call it a pressing pause moment, where they just get to go quiet, and the noise that's either happening inside their head, inside their environment, within their body, within the people around them. If they could press pause on all of that noise, what it will do is it'll allow them not to hit their point of no return so quickly. It'll allow them to have little breathing moments throughout their day, where if they're feeling overwhelmed, it can take them back to a space of feeling calm, they might start to go through the day, they'll start to feel a little bit more overwhelmed. Again, they have a strategy to help them press pause, they come back down, and they find quiet. And over the course of the day, giving them these opportunities to come back down and press pause, find some calm will mean that these kids are not operating on this sort of hyper level of operation that they're not in a state of constant overwhelm. What they're doing is that they're learning to build skills, they're learning to build strategies that will take them through their entire life. So that when they're adults, and also feeling this overwhelm, that the strategies that they use in their behaviors that they're adopting, are things that serve them well. They're not things that cause more stress, you know, they're not things that negative behaviors, what they are, they're really positive things that serve their mental well-being and their physical well-being in this social well-being in a really positive way.

So, reducing overwhelm for kids, I think as adults, we all experience overwhelm, it's, it is important for us all to realize that kids, really little kids, kids throughout primary school, even high school are feeling a constant sense of overwhelm, and how well they can deal with this will really have a strong impact on their experience of school, their experience of being a child. And imagine having kids that have, you know, grow up into these adults that are using really positive, really positive, self-calming strategies that allow them to deal with the stress, and sometimes the extreme overwhelm of life. So, if anything resonated for you today, please leave a comment, you know, contact me through any of my socials, because I'd love to hear what strategies you might be using with your kids that you know, are working really well, for your teachers. I would love to know what are the things that you have implemented in your classroom that have worked, you know, not just for one or two children, but for all kids in the class because I know that there are many teachers out there doing great work in this space in trying to reduce overwhelm for kids.


So, thanks so much for joining me on this episode today. And you know where to follow me on all of the socials and where all podcasts are recorded and played. And I love this topic so much. If you think somebody would benefit from listening to this, please share it with them. Because what we're doing is we're helping kids really minimize the stress and the overwhelm that they're facing in their lives. And you know, hopefully, as adults, you guys have also listened to and got something out of this episode. Thanks for joining me, I'm Angela Lockwood. Thank you for listening to A Kid's Life Podcast. To stay up to date with all-new episodes, please subscribe to Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts. If you want to know more about The Inclusive Classroom or any of the other programs I provide, please go to And until next time. Slow down, have fun, and enjoy.