It's finally time for the kids to slip into freshly ironed uniforms and for you to fill those new lunch boxes with healthy snacks. Children across the UAE are heading back to school today, and for everyone involved – students, teachers and parents alike – there is both relief and regret over the return to routine.
The back-to-school season teems with the possibility of new challenges, friends and experiences. This, though exciting, still comes with its fair share of anxiety, especially for those uncomfortable with change. Here are tips from teachers and psychologists to help make the transition as smooth as possible for students of every age.
Sleep is paramount
Teachers and psychologist are unanimous in their number one piece of advice: ease children back into a routine that allows for a good night’s sleep.
“Kids have such a different schedule during the summer, and the biggest challenge at the start of the school year is getting them back into the routine of things,” says Sara Curbelo, an American mother of two, and a Grade 5 English teacher. “Halfway through the day, you see everyone begin to fade because they’re just so exhausted,” she says.
For little ones, not enough sleep can lead to plenty of tears as a result of being over-tired and not being able to cope with that, explains Erin Wall, a Canadian who teaches Grade 6 at the Victoria International School of Sharjah. “I have even had students fall asleep sitting up during story time,” she says.
Older students are as much in need of a good night’s sleep as youngsters, and seven to eight hours a night, says Wall, is “the minimum that middle school and high school students should be getting. Students who don’t get enough sleep are lethargic and struggle to remain focused.”
Mari Louise van Zyl, a teacher who is currently teaching Year 1 at Gems Metropole in Dubai, says parents fear the unknown. “Things like: will the teacher be good? Will the teacher like my child? Will my child have friends in their class? Will my child be okay when I drop them off? Will they cope with the demands of a new year level?”
Curbelo concurs, adding that parents seem worried about end-of-term exams and how their children will perform on tests from day one. All this worry ends up creating anxious learners and students who feel like they are under a lot of pressure.
What parents don’t always realise, says Dr Sarah Rasmi, a licenced psychologist and the director of Thrive Well-Bring Centre in Dubai, is that their children pick up on their parents’ feelings. “If you’re feeling stressed, worried or anxious as a parent, that will infiltrate into the family environment and dynamics, and potentially make children feel stressed, worried and anxious as well,” says Dr Rasmi, who advises parents to find coping strategies, and engage in meditation and breathing exercises.
“If you start to do things for yourself to cope, kids are like sponges and will learn from that healthy behaviour,” she says.
Play up the positives
If you’re new to the country, talk to your children about how rich the experience will be of meeting people from different nationalities, says Sangita Vittal, a French teacher who works at the Collegiate American School in Dubai.
Play up the new, she advises. “We are a family of linguists, so the fact that my kids are going to learn Arabic was made a big deal of by my husband and I,” she says. “This got the kids excited and eager to talk about everything new they will be experiencing, pumping up their confidence levels.”
Malak Kamel, a psychologist and counsellor at the Thrive Well-Being Centre, says parents can foster excitement in children about the UAE’s diversity, and children should be reminded that they bring their own individuality and uniqueness to a new school.
“Have your child identify five things that are special or unique about them – count one on each finger of your dominant hand (right or left),” says Kamel, as a tip for parents. “As well, visit the school before the school-year begins to rehearse the drop-off, spend time on the playground with your child, or have your little one practice walking around the school.”
Allow kids to be bored
Before parents rush off to sign children up to every activity under the sun, try to remember that over-scheduling kids can end up being a recipe for disaster.
“It’s understandable; people want to enrich their children and give them the opportunity to cultivate interests and skills so they sign them up for a lot of activities,” admits Dr Rasmi. “But children need their downtime. They need unstructured time from when they are young until forever. It’s what allows them to learn time management skills. Parents think they are doing the best for their kids when they have them in an activity every day of the week but when every minute of your life is accounted for, you don’t get the chance to experience boredom, which can get you creative and thinking out of the box.”
Talk, talk, talk. Listen, listen, listen
This is no surprising revelation, but its importance can’t be stressed enough. Scottish teacher Noreen McGuckin says parents should always be ready to talk to children about any worries and provide reassurance. “Even tell children: ‘Speak to your teacher, your friends, an adult you trust, parents at home – just talk,’” she says. If their anxiety stems around them starting a new school, remind them they are not alone. “The biggest thing about the transient nature of life here is that they will always have someone new starting with them; there will always be other children in the same boat,” she says.
Dr Rasmi says one of the best times to talk to children is in the car, where there are no distractions, and where conversations are less confrontational because you’re either side-by-side or speaking to kids in the back seat.
“Give them the space to share their concerns and try not to downplay, even if it comes from a place of trying to wish their worries away,” she says. “Share stories of your own experiences and how you’ve overcome them. It comes down to talking, listening, role playing, sharing, perspective taking, empathising, being there.”
Be comfortable with silence, she adds, because when you give children the space, they will end up sharing their concerns. “Validate where these concerns are coming from, and remember, kids often like to hear stories about when we were young and when we were in school, and some of the struggles that we faced.”
For the little ones, say goodbye
Van Zyl advises parents to toughen up when dropping off little ones. “If your child gets upset at drop-off time, do not linger,” she says. “Say goodbye, reassure them you will collect them later, and go. I can guarantee that five minutes later they will be enjoying their time in the classroom. I have seen this year after year.”
Dr Rasmi insists that saying goodbye to children, even if it upsets them further, is imperative. Follow it up with reassurances that you will be back later. Otherwise, children will see you as the “disappearing parent” and become more clingy and suffer separation anxiety. “At pick up, talk about what your child did today that was really fun and engage in that activity for a few minutes with them, so you leave school on a positive note,” she says.