Training is essential when it comes to safety among first-time pupils, says Simon Jodrell, principal at Dubai British School in Emirates Hills. This should begin at home in the days leading up to school, and will then be impressed upon children by all members of staff.
“From working with kids so they can open their own bags and identify their own bottles, to teaching them the practicalities of using a bathroom and the importance of washing their hands, there is plenty parents can do to prepare their children for the first year at school in the midst of a pandemic,” says Jodrell.
The school then steps in to develop those skills, in a bid to “help rather than direct, and ensure the children are training themselves”.
As for how you can explain the pandemic to a three or four-year-old, Jodrell says: “It should be done in a fun and child-friendly way using stories and props, such that it’s applicable to them and their lifestyle.
“So a conversation about personal hygiene and washing their hands when going to the loo or having a snack is more necessary than a detailed one about, say, masks [which pupils under 6 are not mandated to wear]. Their experiences are their experiences.”
An unusual year
Parents would also do well to remember that although they may be new to the idea of sending their youngsters to school in a rather unusual year, the schools have been familiar with and enforced safety measures for about 18 months.
“If you have concerns, reach out and talk to the teachers and let them explain the procedures in place. Ask any and all of the questions you need to reassure you, and so you can feel confident to then explain it to your spouse and children,” says Jodrell.
Carrie Hoza, principal at Dubai British School in Jumeirah Park Foundation, expounds on the importance of emotional regulation – pandemic or no pandemic – for first-time schoolgoers and their parents. “The biggest focus for parents should be about building emotional intelligence. For example, kids should know that it’s OK to cry or be nervous on the first day of school. They are leaving their mum and dad, and going to a new teacher.
“So instead of saying to your child ‘stop crying and go on in’, rather say: ‘I understand that you’re upset, and mummy’s upset, too, but I know you’re going to have the most wonderful day. I trust your teacher and this school, and I know you’re going to love it.’
“At the same time, you’re not doing your child any favours by staying longer than you need to. You’re actually building separation anxiety rather than reducing it.”
Hoza says it’s important to build up to the first day of school rather than going in unprepared. “Have conversations with your child not just at the door of the classroom, but beforehand and acknowledge all your feelings and theirs.”
An effective way to ease the first-day blues is to drive by the school and build positive reinforcement around it by saying: that’s your new school, yay, that’s so exciting.
“The flip side for parents is that schools will be sending a lot of communication over the next few days. Take the time out to read these no matter how busy you are, so you are aware of the situation with Covid-19 regulations, who the class teacher is going to be and so on, and you'll feel more confident on the first day of term.”
Building a routine in the days leading up to school is crucial, too, especially for new students. In addition to getting bedtime and morning routines in place, Hoza recommends a simple hack for first-time pupils.
“Children will be facing a new school, new teacher, new classmates and new uniform, but there are some elements you can introduce beforehand. As an example, children can walk into a classroom with a school bag, lunch box and water bottle they are already familiar with, not something pretty you picked out last minute from the shop; this helps with emotional regulation as well,” says Hoza.
“They’ve been eating lunch off a plate all summer. However, if you present a packed lunch box in the days leading up to the first day of school, when they open it in class, they will know this is from my home and instinctively feel that mummy or daddy have made this for me and that they are here with me.”