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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 January 2021

New to the UAE? How schools are working to ease pupils into the classroom on their first day

Peer mentoring and 'friendship benches' are used to make younger and teenagers pupils feel welcome this Sunday

Neil Matthews, Principal of Gems Wellington Academy in Al Khail, Dubai. Leslie Pableo / The National
Neil Matthews, Principal of Gems Wellington Academy in Al Khail, Dubai. Leslie Pableo / The National

For thousands of young children, the dreaded first day back at school is tough enough even with the familiar comforts of home.

But for those who have travelled thousands of miles to a new school in a new country, getting to grips with the change can sometimes feel overwhelming.

This weekend, teachers and child psychologists in the UAE outlined some of the more practical steps parents can take to ease any potential anxiety on Sunday.

They said good communication with children was key; with play dates and other social activities a great way of making a new environment feel less alien.

“I’ve seen so many teenagers saying they’re finding it difficult as they’ve just moved to UAE,” said Dr Haneen Jarrar, a child psychologist at Camali Clinic in Dubai.

“We see a lot of this because Dubai is such a transient city. We have so many children arriving and leaving here all the time.

“The UAE is often very different from what they’re used to in terms of climate, culture, school, and language.

“And we get a lot of children who feel anxious, which can turn into depression. So it’s important for parents to know what the signs are and to spot them early.”

Across the Emirates this Sunday, more than half a million children will begin the new school term.

In Dubai, some 280,000 pupils from 182 nationalities will be dropped off at the school gates of close to 200 schools, while in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Al Dhafra, a further 241,000 children will make their way to class.

Dr Jarrar said the most important factor for parents to consider was to talk to their children about their new life abroad as openly as possible.

Showing them pictures of their new school and home ahead of time could help, she suggested, as well giving them favourite old toys or other familiar objects to take with them on their first day.

“If a new child is joining a school some have a buddy system or a weekly session with a counsellor,” Dr Jarrar said.

“In a buddy system, you pair the child with another pupil so that they can show them around. If this child is bullied the buddy can inform the school.

"Every school should do this because it’s a transitional time and it’s important the child feels welcome and secure.”


Read more on our Back to School series:

UAE parents angry at rising cost of 'poor quality' school uniforms

Make the back-to-school blues a thing of the past by following some simple rules

'Back to School' scheme will allow parents to be with children on first day of term


Dr Jarrar went on to argue that schools need to take a proactive approach when welcoming international pupils.

She welcomed ideas such as friendship benches where children who are feeling anxious can go to find help, advice, or just someone to play with.

Alice, a mother-of two originally from Toronto, described the difficulties her family faced during their recent move from Hawaii last week.

Her daughters, aged nine and 11, are due to start term at a school in Dubai on Sunday.

“Every child is different about starting a new school,” said Alice, who did not want to give her full name.

“My older daughter is very excited but my younger one hates the idea of having to make new friends.

“It would help if I could connect with a family that already has children in school, but there is no information about this.”

Alice said she and her husband had rented a house close to the school as part of their plan to help their children adapt to the change.

She also contacted school authorities about after-school programmes, but was told no information was available until after term started.

“That shows me that they are not prepared,” she said. She said that a week of afternoon activities before the start of term-time would help pupils acclimatise and meet their classmates.

“My younger daughter is entering fifth grade and the best thing for her is to know I am around when she starts,” she said.

“My elder daughter will be going to seventh grade and she keeps telling me 'change is good mum!'

“They have one day for the new children to meet but that’s not enough."

Brendon Fulton, principal at Dubai British School, said families making their first international move abroad could find adapting to their new home hard.

He said his school had developed a peer mentorship programme, where new pupils were looked after existing groups of friends. Each pupil also has an initial one-on-one session with the school counsellor, he added.

“For school children the prospect of making new friends can be really daunting,” he said.

Meanwhile at Gems Wellington Academy in Al Khail, Dubai, more than 150 new pupils are expected to start next week. The school has over 1000 pupils from 80 different countries.

Neil Matthews, Principal of Gems Wellington Academy in Al Khail, Dubai. Leslie Pableo / The National
Neil Matthews, Principal of Gems Wellington Academy in Al Khail, Dubai. Leslie Pableo / The National

Neil Matthews, principal of Gems Wellington in Dubai, said he believed a frank dialogue between parents and school was critical to detecting anxiety in children early.

He said pupils were often overwhelmed by the size of a new school and that the unfamiliarity of language barriers could also prove distressing.

“We’re used to children joining from different parts of the world,” he said. “Knowing the pupils and understanding when and why they’re anxious is important,”

"Language barriers may also affect them. Pupils have to get used to a new culture and also may have to study new subjects.

“If your child is anxious when they come home, speak with the school. Little worries, if picked up on time, won’t grow into bigger worries.”

Updated: September 1, 2018 03:57 PM

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