Children’s mental health 'improving as they return to school'

Online learning caused social and learning setbacks for some pupils as they were kept at home during the pandemic

At The Indian International School, pupils and teachers danced to the beat of the dhol, a traditional Indian musical instrument, to welcome everyone.
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Months of online learning affected children’s social skills as well as their mental well-being, parents have said.

Now, pupils have returned to full-time in-person lessons at schools in Dubai and at many across the Emirates, and parents are seeing bigger smiles on their children's faces.

Some pupils in the Emirates missed face-to-face learning for as long as 18 months.

Parents have tried to help at home by encouraging conversations about mental health at dinner tables while schools raised awareness about cyber-bullying during online learning.

It comes as World Mental Health Day is marked on Sunday.

Rohi Ilyas, a mother of two and an entrepreneur in Dubai, said her children had studied online for 18 months because of health reasons, only returning to in-person classes on Sunday.

Her children, in grades 10 and seven at The Indian High School, returned to school after both received the Pfizer vaccine, but the long period of remote studies affected their social abilities.

“They used to be outspoken before the pandemic, but [during those 18 months] they did not want to go to social gatherings.

“Their behaviour changed completely and their social communication skills were lost.”

She said hours of sitting in front of computer screens was to blame as her children sat studying or watching TV shows or playing virtual games during breaks.

“Definitely being on the screen all the time had a mental impact.

“They were always in their rooms and we had to call them to go out, but they would not want to.

“They would switch off lights and use their iPads for hours. All of this had a very bad impact.

Now, the mother said her children were happy to return to school and she had already seen a change in their attitude.

“I am happy that they are coming back to normal.

“Now they are excited … Even though they are tired you can see their happiness,” she said.

Ms Ilyas said she made sure to chat with her children constantly and ask them about what they were learning at school.

Dinner with the family is a no-screen time and Ms Ilyas said she made sure they laughed and caught up with each other during meals.

Efforts were made by the school to support pupils with campaigns such as anti-bullying week, and teachers were on hand to offer support.

Children all over the world have been affected by the transition to online learning as they were isolated from teachers and friends for months.

One US study showed that nearly one in three teenagers' mental health had suffered from the pressures of the pandemic.

The online survey of 571 male pupils aged between 11 and 19 in Ohio revealed that 31.7 per cent had reported worsened moods, with 32.6 cent experiencing increased levels of anxiety since March 2020.

The study, “Perceived Changes in Mood and Anxiety Among Male Youth During the Covid-19 Pandemic”, was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health earlier this year.

Studying remotely took a mental toll on teenagers in the UAE, with many feeling left behind academically and socially, said Carolyn Yaffe, a psychotherapist at Camali Clinic in Dubai.

“Children are glad and happy to be back at school,” she said.

“They felt isolated studying at home.

“It was a hard for some pupils to reintegrate but the majority are glad to be back at school.”

She said schools need to ensure that counsellors are accessible while also encouraging pupils to talk about their feelings.

Ms Yaffe advised pupils who were struggling or found reintegration difficult to reach out to a teacher.

Off-screen time is key

Utkarsh Chaube is the father of a 13-year-old boy at The Indian High School. He said his son studied at home from March 2020 until April 2021, when he then returned for in-person classes twice a week.

“The reason we wanted him to return to in-person class was that we noticed that his interaction skills had gone down,” said Mr Chaube, who works in sales.

Now back in school with his classmates, Mr Chaube's son is happier.

“He needed to meet people and speak with others. He needed to be reunited with friends.

“Most of the time the children were in front of screens. My son was spending about 10-12 hours in a day in front of a screen which is not good from a development perspective.

The Indian father said children needed to be outdoors every day and be involved in activities for their mental well-being.

“We would encourage him to not watch television and to meet friends. When he went out he was more playful, and happy”, he said.

Focusing on well-being

Many schools in the Emirates provided access to counsellors and support to pupils.

Some schools, such as Brighton College Dubai's sixth form, have introduced mental health and well-being studies as part of the curriculum.

Others conducted surveys and meetings with pupils to assess how they could offer better support organised one-on-one and group sessions with counsellors.

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Updated: October 10, 2021, 3:30 AM