Schools reopening
Schools reopening Image Credit: Shutterstock

Less than a week away from reopening, the UAE’s schools have been a hive of activity.

Since being shut down in mid-March to help limit the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak, there have been a slew of health and safety measures implemented to help minimise the risk of viral transmission on school premises.

Desks have been spaced apart, water dispensers removed, soft furnishings and classroom decorations have been minimised and sanitisation stations have been installed, all in line with a comprehensive set of guidelines issued by the educational bodies.

While there’s been stringent coverage of the changes to help protect children’s physical health on schools reopening, less has been said about the many pastoral measures that education providers have devised to help safeguard children’s mental health and emotional wellbeing.

Yet a focus on children’s emotional health is more important this year than ever, says psychologist Tanya Dharamshi, Clinical Director and Counselling Psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai:

“The pandemic will have had a significant impact on the mental health of many children.

“They thrive on structure, predictability and routine, and a need for constant reassurance as they grow. As a result, many are experiencing a range of emotions - confusion, anxiety and even anger at how the situation has developed.”

With international research suggesting that children globally are at risk of lasting psychological damage from the recent period of isolation and school disruption - including an increased risk of depression - it’s more important than ever for schools to prioritize kids’ emotional wellbeing.

After all, mental wellbeing is a requirement in order for effective learning to take place.

As Adrianna Chestnut, Principal of Bright Learners Private School says: “Until we can address the students' emotional and social needs, we cannot address their academic needs.”

“A trauma-based approach to teaching”

Asma Ahmad, School Counsellor and Wellbeing Lead at Horizon English School says that at her British curriculum primary school, training will be provided to ensure that all school staff are skilled in providing a trauma-based approach to teaching.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, traumatic events such as the pandemic can impact children in three main ways: their sense of safety, feelings of connectedness and feelings of hope. In all three areas educators are able to help, and a trauma-informed system is one which recognizes the impact of traumatic stress on a child and uses scientific evidence to maximize physical and psychological safety, and support a child’s ability to thrive.

“Parents have been sent a questionnaires to gain insight into children’s experiences during the lockdown period and their thoughts and feelings about returning to school,” explains Asma. “From this, we have developed systems like a wellbeing register that monitor children’s emotional health and will review the children who may require a deeper and long lasting recovery period as well as extra support.”

Chill Zones

Repton Abu Dhabi has implemented “Chill zones” in the school, creating a safe space for kids to wind down if they are feeling overwhelmed, while they are also offering “Chat and Chill” sessions with the school counsellors online, where children can share their experiences and feelings. “We have full-time counsellors to support students with anxiety, stress and other mental health concerns,” say counsellor Chaishta George and safeguarding lead Nancy Chung at Repton School Abu Dhabi. “Students also have an online referral system to address their concerns with the counsellor.”

Video guides

In order to ensure children are as prepared as possible for the New Normal of their school day Sara Hedger, Head of Safeguarding and Child Protection at GEMS Education, says that GEMS schools have created a host of materials to reassure pupils. “Our schools have had to be very creative in their approach, due to the COVID restrictions, so they have produced video and written guides for parents and children about what school will look like. Video calls with parent class reps, videos from the teachers to students, walkthroughs in corridors, guides on how to socially distance, good practice for handwashing, and more, have all been set in motion.

Well-being is also being reinforced through virtual one-to-one sessions between parents and teachers, says Hedger: “These sessions would normally happen in transition days in schools but these are now taking place online where parents and students can share any specifics that a new teacher would need to know about their child to help them settle in. Students are also asked questions that encourage staff to focus on a child’s strengths whilst obtaining personal information that will help the transition.”

Wellbeing walks

“At Repton Dubai, as we plan for the safe return of our school community, the wellbeing of every individual is of paramount importance,” says David Cook, Headmaster of Repton in Dubai. “Key to our planning are ways to enable students to safely interact with their peers and feel relaxed. We are planning ‘wellbeing walks’ where students can move within their zone and talk to a friend, and also wellbeing coaching for those who may be nervous about being back.”

Meditation and Mindfulness

Deep breathing has been shown to lower the heart rate and help with feelings of anxiety, and Repton Abu Dhabi says it will be making use of this with online sessions and virtual classrooms for student wellness, including Mindfulness and Breathing sessions. Repton Dubai will be taking a similar approach: “To support students’ wellbeing in lessons we are planning a combination of rejuvenation and relaxation exercises,” says Headmaster David Cook. “For example, Brain Gym activities help students to move, focus and feel energized, whereas meditation techniques, music and discussion on a different topic can help young people feel relaxed and re-focused.”

Recognition of “a sense of loss”

Dr Rose Logan, clinical psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia, says that the overarching theme that she has noticed with all of her patients since the pandemic hit is “loss” – whether that be literal loss of loved ones and jobs, or the loss of opportunities and choices.

This is something that Asma Ahmad, School Counsellor and Wellbeing Lead at Horizon English School, also predicts they will see in their students on their return to school. “We believe that all children will be affected by the pandemic in some form and will come to school with some form of ‘loss’ - whether it be loss of structure, loss of routine, loss of freedom, loss of opportunity or loss of friendship.”

In order to meet the extra needs of their children, Asma says that wellbeing will run through all aspects of school, in a campaign they are calling ‘The Five Ways to Wellbeing’. “This will be incorporated through teaching and learning, adjustments in the curriculum, staff training and focused interventions. There have been a number of changes in our daily timetable with shorter lessons and daily sessions dedicated to social and emotional learning, as well as wellness and movement breaks.”

GEMS schools will also be addressing the sense of loss that children may be feeling: “GEMS Safeguarding and Inclusion Leads have created training webinars for staff, focusing on building resilience, transition, safeguarding and dealing with bereavement,” says Sara Hedger, “which reinforces with our workforce how to embed a culture of nurture and safety with our students and how to create safe spaces to reassure students not only about their experiences so far, but also their future.”

Reassurance about regression

Children can perceive time differently to adults, and a few weeks or months out of school may seem like a much longer period of time to them, according to global child safeguarding charity Save the Children. “This means children tend to feel particularly anxious about any period of time they are out of school and the learning and socialization they are missing. They fear they will not be able to catch up and start to worry that the longer schools are closed, the more likely they are to forget what the previously learned.”

Suzanne Doyle Fowles, Assistant Head Teacher at Dubai Heights Academy, says that they are reassuring parents and children that this is not something to worry about. “Just as children may have pangs of anxiety, we are fully aware parents will be in a similar boat. We are here to help! We understand parents may have some concerns about their child’s academic progress as a result of distance learning. Rest assured that teachers will be conducting baseline assessments and will be able to focus their teaching to close any learning gaps that children may have.”