As schools in the UAE reopened to in-class learning, authorities say a focus on children’s mental health is particularly important in these unprecedented times. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Abu Dhabi: In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been much emphasis on physical health and immunity. However, as economies were locked down and people complied with quarantine regulations the world over, the threats to mental health slowly became more and more apparent. With most people confined to their homes, and ideally following restrictions on social interactions, it took a toll on children’s psychology and social skills.

As schools in the UAE reopened to in-class learning, authorities say a focus on children’s mental health is particularly important in these unprecedented times. At a recent press briefing, Omar Al Hammadi, spokesperson for the UAE Government news briefings on the COVID-19 pandemic, urged parents to spend time with their children.

Effects of the pandemic

Omar Al Hammadi

“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused psychological and social effects worldwide, creating a new psychological situation for individuals in society due to the rules of social distancing and home isolation. We have to spend time with our children and talk to them honestly about the pandemic in order to listen to their concerns and address them appropriately,” Al Hammadi said.

Anticipating these challenges, educational authorities had instructed schools to ensure that counsellors were at hand after schools reopened to support students. For instance, the Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge (Adek) had made it mandatory for schools to draw up a staff and student wellbeing plan.

“Staff and students may be returning to school having experienced effects related to confinement, social isolation, loss and bereavement, amongst many other things. Schools may want to consider hiring additional counsellors to support the school community (not only students, but also teachers and staff) with post-confinement, as well as identify age and context-appropriate resources to cope with mental health issues,” the education regulator had outlined in its initial reopening guidelines to private schools in the emirate.

What students say

Talia Ayoub, a 13-year-old student in Abu Dhabi, pointed out that having to stay home without much to do had also increased the amount of time children spent on social media. Saying that she kept up with other people’s lives, she said it promoted a major sense of FOMO — Fear Of Missing Out.

“I believe FOMO is like a bug that doesn’t stop shadowing us and the feeling just increases when we are bored. [There was also a time] when I wanted to see numerous people, but then I reached a point where I didn’t want to see anyone. Was that normal?,” she said.

Social sessions

Schools have taken these guidelines seriously, developing their own programmes to support schoolchildren. For instance, at the Pearl Academy in Abu Dhabi, a number of virtual social groups were introduced to students, allowing children to connect online and socialise in an informal setting.

Maryke Venter

“For the children who have opted for 100 per cent distance learning, the need for social groups has increased. Many children do not have a choice [to return to in-class learning] as they have a medical condition that forces them to stay home during the pandemic, but this is really difficult for those who are desperate to attend school. To address this, we [introduced] social groups,” said Maryke Venter, counsellor at the British curriculum school.

The social sessions are facilitated by the school counsellor, who guides the discussion. “But ultimately, it gives the children an opportunity to voice their opinions, questions and ideas,” Venter said. Some of the groups even combine children learning from home and others attending school.

“Social group sessions include the facilitation of many different skills, including communication, conflict management and relationship building,” the counsellor added.

Counselling support

The school has also been keeping a close eye on children and how they are coping with the return to school. “Whenever a child is having difficulty with some serious feelings like anxiety, we have a conversation with the parents. They sign a consent form for counselling support and an introductory session is scheduled. The counselling sessions also include a range of coping skills and techniques that the child may use when feeling anxious,” Venter said.

Sara Hedger

Sara Hedger, head of safeguarding and child protection at GEMS Education, the UAE’s biggest private education provider, said children have been reporting a number of concerns. “The negatives are well-documented across the world with isolation, lack of social interaction, increase in screen time and decrease in physical activity, and the ultimate effect that all of this has on mental health,” she said.

‘Reaching out’

She added that schools can be instrumental in pointing out children’s issues to parents. “Sometimes, especially with mental health concerns, it can be hard to know what to do for the best, and that is where reaching out to schools can be helpful. Where there are concerns about a child or young person and school and parents are working in partnership to support them, we can help the student get the right support at the right time. The stigma [about mental health support] is slowly reducing and if you look at social media, you can see huge numbers of supportive posts about mental health,” Hedger said.

Creative solutions

A number of other creative solutions have also been adopted, in addition to the focus on counselling. At Repton Abu Dhabi, children attending classes in school can unwind in ‘Chill Zones’ if they feel overwhelmed. Other schools are also beginning to introduce socially distanced sports after a month of in-class schooling.