I couldn’t remember a time when I’d last been this nervous. Maybe for my university finals? A big job interview?

 It was full-on anxiety; sweaty palms, racing heart, a nauseating knot twisting in my stomach. Nothing I’d done in recent years had got me anywhere near this fretful, and it wasn’t something I was about to do that was causing it now. No – it was something my two-year-old son was about to do. Namely, a school assessment to ascertain whether or not he’d be accepted into the next year’s FS1 intake.

I’d heard all the horror stories, swapped in hushed tones between similarly anxious parents in the playground:

“So-and-so elite non-profit school rejected my friend’s child for describing the image on a flashcard as a fish rather than a whale”;

“My neighbour’s son was rejected because he drank milk from a bottle;”

“Our friend’s little girl was rejected because she hit the teacher assessing her…”

The rumours about this mysterious process abounded, and – when children don’t tend to start school until at least four or five in most other countries – it all felt very unfamiliar.

 I looked at my son’s toddler hands and apple cheeks, his choo choo train t-shirt and silky soft hair and my heart twinged with guilt at sending him off into the big bad world so young.

OK, I wasn’t exactly putting him to work as a chimney sweep, but there’s something rather heartbreaking about putting our pre-schoolers through a formal assessment where they can either succeed or fail, isn’t there?

“With most schools in Dubai, there’s a trend for mandatory assessments for children as young as Pre-K/FS1 before they join a school,” says admissions manager of Jumeira Baccalaureate School, Hibah Halwani

“Parents often wonder why assessments are so important, especially at such a young age. But it is essential for parents to remember that assessments are, in many cases, not done to determine whether a student will be accepted or not to a school, but instead carried out to evaluate the student's readiness for school as well as helping the school to identify any learning needs they may have,” continues Halwani.

“We find that the assessment process helps to prepare everyone (student, family and the school) for a smoother transition and to help offer any required learning support resources whether at school or at home.”

Nothing to worry about

As it turned out, the assessment wasn’t anything to be worried about. While different schools will have different methods, the general format is that the children are dropped in a classroom with a small group of other children, and the teachers simply observe how they play.

If your child is still wearing nappies, or drinking from a bottle, or wants mummy or daddy to be in the classroom with them, that’s fine, says Joanne Jewell, a parenting educator and the founder of MindfulParentingUAE.net, who has worked as a child counsellor in schools for many years:

“It’s sad that parents feel so much pressure for their child to be ready to be so independent at often a very young age. We can give them opportunities to learn and teach them these skills but all children learn at a different age and in different ways so please don’t be worried if your child is at a different stage to others. Teachers and Assistants are well aware that children are all different and additional pressure placed on a child can make the situation more difficult and cause unnecessary anxiety in them.”

It’s the same at Jumeira Baccalaureate School too, says Halwani:

“Our early years team and admissions manager simply watch the children playing in a dedicated classroom and look at how they concentrate and interact with other children.

“We observe their gross motor skills and look to see if they are matching animals and colours – although it’s really not a problem if they aren’t yet as we know a lot of children are so young when they come to us – often as little as two.

“We try to encourage children to be in the room by themselves, although it’s really not an issue if they need Mum or Dad to join them.

“The most important thing is that children are fully toilet trained by the time they join us – although again, we do understand that many children attend assessments many months before they start school and we know that a lot can change in that time!”

 You may also like: ‘Dubai dad: Is my child too young for school?’

How to prepare your child for their pre-school assessment

If, like me, you are getting butterflies over sending your child to their assessment, Joanne Jewell, has some advice:

“In these situations it’s often the parents who are anxious and the children will take their lead from mum and dad.  Remember: it’s perfectly normal to have a huge mixture of emotions about your child starting school - especially if he/she is your eldest and this is your first experience.

“Be empathetic and acknowledge any feelings they may have - they will also be having mixed feelings and will rely on you helping them manage these - whether it’s excitement or worry about leaving you.  When they talk about their feelings it’s an opportunity for you to recognise them and help with them, it doesn’t mean they won’t be OK on the day!”

There are some things you can do to help prepare your child for their assessment day, says Hibah Halwani of Jumeira Baccalaureate School, although it should just be gentle encouragement rather than intensive coaching. She shares her pointers:

1 . Do some research about the school that you want your child to be admitted into. Collect as much information as possible and visit the school before the assessment. At JBS, we recommend that the student visit the school with the parents as it will give your child a sense of familiarity.

  1. During assessment most children are reluctant to express their views in front of strangers. Encourage your child to talk by doing simple things at home, such as having conversations at the dinner table with family members. However, we do completely understand that it’s normal for children to be shy!
  2. It is very important to make learning fun and interactive! This can start at home by helping them observe signs, their colors and letters, the number plates of cars, certain words written on books, newspapers or the displays at Dubai’s many malls.
  3. Teach your kid to greet others! Good morning and maybe shake hands, children who use “sorry” and “thank you” create a really good impression.
  4. Don’t stress! Children can get worried and can feel if you are nervous! Encourage them to get a good night’s sleep and have a healthy snack before the assessment.
  5. Brief them about the assessment day, talk to your child about the school and the process they are about to go through. As mentioned before, taking your child to the school before the assessment, showing them the campus, and allowing them to interact with people in school will them get comfortable and feel like they are in a known setting
  6. Spread happiness! Make them laugh so that they will be relaxed.  Children between the ages of 2 to 4 years perform well in happy surroundings and it brings out their best both academically and otherwise.
  7. Chill! Stay positive and make this admission preparation fun for both you and your little one!

You may also like: ‘Nursery nerves: How to prepare your child to start pre-school’

What do most schools require in terms of documentation? What do parents need to register their children?

The following documents are needed for proof of the students’ age and date of birth as well as for registration with the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) which is the governing body of education in Dubai. The documents that are usually required from parents are the following:

•             Passport copies for both the child and their parents

•             A copy of the child’s immunization record

•             A copy of the child’s Birth Certificate

•             Any educational/psychological reports (if applicable – especially if the child has attended nursery previously)

•             A copy of both the child’s and the parents’ Residence Visa

•             Copy of both the child’s and the parents’ Emirates ID when available

•             2 passport size original photographs of the child

•             Application Fee

If the residence visas and emirates IDs are still under process, this should not prevent a student from undergoing an assessment. We only need copies of their ID and visa once completed.    

Read more: ‘8 ways to prepare your child for starting school’

The KHDA age-grade requirements

It’s not compulsory to send your child to school until grade one/ year two, when they are six years old, the academic year runs from September to June, except for Indian, Pakistani and Japanese curriculum schools which runs from April to March. According the KHDA (the governing body for schools in Dubai), there is an accepted age range for each school grade/year and your chosen school should be able to give you information about this. Your child’s age is calculated as his/her age on the 31st of July for Indian, Pakistani and Japanese curriculum schools, or 31st December for other curricula. This has recently changed, since the age used to be calculated as his/her age at the time of starting school (ie in September for most curricula).

Here is an age-grade table to help you understand where your child is likely to fit in.