How to help your shy child go back to school
How to help your shy child go back to school Image Credit: Shutterstock

We signed up my 7-year-old son for a socially distanced football camp, eager to give him some semblance of normality for the first time since schools closed in mid-March.

As we approached, though, he pulled my hand back and started crying. "I'm nervous to be around other kids," he wailed. "I just want to stay home with you." We spent that week as we have the previous 15: at home.

Pre-pandemic, my son had often been slow to warm to new situations but after a few minutes generally became the friendly, loving kid we know him to be. But months at home seem to have turned his shyness into an overwhelming struggle.

I'm not alone in being concerned about how my kid will readjust to interacting with others as school starts up again, even if, for some, that interaction is solely online for the time being.

Is online learning creating a generation of introverts?

In the UAE, parents seem to be divided when it comes to the relative risks and benefits of physical school versus distance learning.

A Back-to-school YouGov survey commissioned by Centrepoint found that just under half (49%) of parents said they felt comfortable with sending their children to school every day if classes are conducted with 100% physical attendance.

While both Dubai and Abu Dhabi schools are required to give parents the option of either classroom-based school in person or home-based learning online, Sharjah has announced that the first two weeks of the autumn term will be fully online for health and safety reasons.

But while distance learning has certainly helped curb the risk to physical health from the virus, many experts are now becoming concerned about the risks to our children’s mental and emotional health.

“Since schools closed the hustle and bustle of school life, meeting and playing with friends and extra-curricular sporting and social activities have been replaced with either no social interaction, or only very minimal or virtual communication with their friends and peers,” says Dr Rasha Bassim, a leading UAE psychiatrist specialising in anxiety disorders at the Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai.

“The danger is that many may now feel ‘unsafe’ and highly anxious when confronted with new situations and routines.”

“Socalising is a muscle”

Parents are fretting that their children are regressing, not just in academics but in social skills.

"Socialising is a muscle," said Susan Cain, author of "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking." Like so many of our muscles during lockdown, that one has been left to atrophy; for introverted and shy children in particular, exercising it regularly is critical.

The best support for shy kids is routine exposure "to social situations that are ever-so-mildly uncomfortable but that they can handle," Cain told me. But without the daily drumbeat of school, camp, play dates or even playgrounds, "it's going to feel like they're starting from scratch when they come back."

As school starts up again in whatever form, how can we support kids' social development - particularly for those who were already struggling? Here are some suggestions from experts.

- Understand the 'why' behind the behaviour

Garica Sanford is a child psychologist at the Momentous Institute, a nonprofit that provides social-emotional health services to families. She said I need to consider whether my child is simply introverted - meaning he has a preference for, and derives energy from, being alone or with a small number of people - or whether he's experiencing social anxiety, which is driven by fear or worry.

The distinction is important because some introverted kids are thriving under lockdown, and we might not want to rush them back into large groups of same-age students (even if that is an option and social distancing and other precautions are in place). That model of schooling was created in 19th-century Europe as an efficient way for teachers to deliver knowledge but is not necessarily the most effective way for all kids to learn.

Caroline Goodrich, 15, is a rising sophomore and says she loved learning from home this spring because she found all the "social stuff that comes with high school" draining. "Academics was suddenly structured in a way that was more beneficial to me and my mental health," she said. "I can attend school, which can be very stressful, from a place where I know I can be calm." She is happy that her school will be starting online this fall but anticipates that it will be difficult to build relationships with new teachers through a screen.

For quiet kids like Goodrich, we should honour their preferences, "while also preparing them for a world that feels really extroverted in nature," as Sanford put it, by continuing to put them in (safe) group situations.

However, for kids with anxiety, this can make things worse. "Sometimes as parents, we want to just go to the behaviour and think that if we just increase exposure, everything else will fall into place," Sanford said.

That's why it's so important to understand the reasons for their behaviour. Are they worried about the coronavirus? Or that their classmates won't like them, or they won't be good at football anymore?

If we help kids articulate their concerns, we can help address them - and not try to find a solution for the wrong problem. "Parents might assume that kids are worried about covid," Sanford said, "and really what they're most worried about is not going outside at break time."

- Be conscious of how you could be projecting your own biases and concerns onto your child

Kris Laroche has been educating children and coaching parents for 30 years. She called me out for complaining to her about being "stuck at home," given that some people are enjoying the solitude. "The subtlest things in our language communicate very clearly whether something is good or bad," she said, suggesting that we can create anxiety for kids around situations that they might otherwise experience as neutral or even positive.

Not that we should bury concerns or engage in false cheerleading. "What's the way in which there's still validation for both the parent and the child about the worry?" Sanford asked. "Can we tolerate their fears in a way where we're not dismissing them, but we're hearing them?"

- Provide developmentally appropriate choices to give them a sense of control

Sanford said that giving kids control can lessen their anxiety. When her 4-year-old went back to day care, she let him pick out mismatched socks and shoes.

Liz Castro let her 14-year-old son, Vicente, choose between the hybrid or fully remote options that some schools are offering. He opted for hybrid, and Castro was surprised by her son's choice, since she said both Vicente and his brother "keep their circles small," but Vicente knew he "needed some social interaction."

- Role-play and prepare through storytelling

Storytelling is one of the most powerful ways to help children process emotions and new experiences, and it is often used as a way of helping children with special needs such as autism to improve their social skills.

The KHDA has published a storybook told from the point of view of a boy called Majed as he goes through his first day back at school during the New Normal in Dubai. The illustrated book is free to download and is designed to help children anticipate and get used to the changes to their school routine.  Start reading it every day with your child to help manage their expectations, so that their confidence is not knocked by the strangeness of any aspects of school life.

- Provide ongoing 1:1 connections

Students at Repton School Abu Dhabi will be offered Chill and Chat sessions online with counsellors, say Chaishta George and Nancy Chung, Counsellor and Designated Safeguarding Lead, where students can share their experiences and feelings.

Meanwhile at Repton Dubai there will be wellbeing coaches for students who may be nervous about being back, while Horizon English School Dubai is training staff in a trauma-based approach to teaching, so that they are able to identify and help those children who may need extra attention.

If your kid isn’t getting one-on-one attention from an adult in school, parents might consider recruiting an older cousin, neighbour or friend to be an informal success coach.

- Take refuge in the uncertainty

While the many unknowns of the new term can inspire worst-case scenario planning, they are, well, unknown. "You don't know what the future will hold, and there can be a bit of refuge in that uncertainty," Laroche said. Instead of projecting my son's football camp experience onto what might happen when school reopens, I need to remember that "a lot of things could be different," Laroche said. "Your child has a really good friend in the class that they're excited to see, or it could just be hard and you'll get through it."

Indeed, until there is a vaccine that is effectively disseminated, we will continue to experience an unpredictable rollercoaster of emotions. For kids who struggle with socialisation, it is particularly important that parents maintain a strong connection with them so they feel secure enough to face the world, whatever it may bring.

"We have to be in constant dialogue," Sanford said. "This can't be a one and done."

Bader is the author of "The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil" and co-founder of The Life I Want, a storytelling project with Eva Dienel reimagining work.