After a long period of time at home during lockdown and many families choosing to stay in the UAE this summer, either due to budget restrictions or travel complexities, ensuring children are eased back into the regime of school in September is vital, say experts. From social skills to behaviour, mental health issues to discipline, there is much to readjust in the lives of the little ones, many of whom have already become accustomed to a life at home with the family.

Dr Diksha Laungani, an educational psychologist in Dubai, shares her views on how best to prepare for September.

1. Be Patient

Don’t get fazed by some difficulties that your child may experience in generalising recently learned skills at home into the classroom, such as self-care (toileting, feeding independently, etc.), academic concepts (letters or numbers), or even some changes in mood. As children re-acquaint with new routines and structures and develop a sense of belonging at school, they will be able to catch-up quickly. Focus on what they can do well, rather than highlighting the gaps in their learning at the beginning.

2. Pay Attention

It is possible that children may feel a little overwhelmed at the prospect of going back to school, or even during the first few days or weeks of attending. Keep an eye out for changes in mood or physical symptoms that appear the night before school, in the mornings or after school. Some children may experience the impact of difficult emotions in their body, through unexplained and frequent headaches or tummy aches. Recognising them as worry signs and addressing the fears in a comforting yet firm manner is your best bet.

3. For Those Starting A New School

Invest in extra time for transition talk if your child is entering a new school, has a Special Educational Need or Disability (SEND) or encountering many back-to-school worries. For new schools, browse for pictures of the school online, or on their official social media account (some schools have one). It will help you and your child visualise what the new environment may look like. A fun activity would be to chalk out what the new ‘socially-distanced’ classroom could look like, using art or toys at home.

Social stories, developed by Carol Gray, which include a short visual and/or written description of a social situation, event or activity, are evidence-based tools which could help make the abstract process of returning to school a little more concrete for some children, including those with SEND or anxiety.

4. Find Your Tribe

Apart from preparation, another key factor which positively influences any transition is having strong relationships and support networks. Do reach out to other parents that you know of and their children. Knowing that others out there are coping with similar worries will help you and your child feel more contained. Speak to your child about the people that they are most looking forward to re-connecting with at school as they will form a secure base for your child.

5. Ask For Help

Consult a specialist or mental health professional if back-to-school worries significantly influence your/your child’s physical or mental wellbeing.

6. Stay Positive

Lastly, don’t anticipate the worst – children are resilient beings and often surprise us with their capacity to adjust in the face of uncertainty.

Dr. Laila Mahmoud, Specialist Psychiatrist at Medcare Hospital Sharjah, says a temporary regression may be experienced in some children as they protect themselves from the anxiety and change. Regression can be in the form of behavioural changes like baby talk, bed wetting, tantrums, academic regression, or isolation and withdrawal. She suggests:

7. Talk It Out

Sit and talk to your child. Ask questions about how they feel, listen carefully, and give them child words and phrases to express their feelings if they struggle to express like are you sad, are you afraid, are you angry, are you mad. Show them that you understand how they feel.

8. Address The Behaviour

Identifying the underlying unmet need in the child usually corrects the regressive behaviour. Ignore the undesirable behaviour - yes ignore the bedwetting, ignore the episodes of anger. Focus on the root of the problem. Be emotional and caring, show them how much they are loved and cared for and safe. Stress on the role of family, using simple words like ‘we are together, we are safe’. Understand that regression is a transient state of short duration, and doesn’t deserve to cause permanent damage in your child’s personality. 

Sarah Rasmi from Thrive in Dubai, says there are things to look out for but practical ways to both prepare, and manage the issues.

9. Routine

Routines provide structure and stability during times of uncertainty as we’ve been experiencing and will continue to experience for a while. Before the school year starts, we want to get off to a good start by incorporating elements of the routine such as going to bed, waking up and providing some level of structure, with flexibility through the day. At Thrive we have routine cards like brushing the teeth, taking a bath, as well as art and craft time, play time etc. What can be nice for younger kids is giving them some autonomy to set and create their routine so it’s not the same every day but at the same time is something predictable. People can already use now in the lead up to the reopening of schools.

10. Teach Children Self Help Strategies

Have a stock of strategies including breathing techniques and make sure the children know of a safe go-to person at the school before they return.