It's a few days to go before schools start a new session, and I couldn't be more excited.
Not because my five-year-old twins are going back to school but because after two months of summer chaos their return to school will finally restore some sanity and order into my life and home. Of course, my relief is counterbalanced by plenty of new stress points — apart from holding down a job and running a household, I have to now deal with their resistance to get up in the morning before they settle into their school routine.
After two months of playing until dark, watching television and going to bed late at night, its time once more to set early morning alarms and get kids out the door by 7am. Though it sounds simple, every mum, even one with grown-up kids, will agree that it's a real challenge to help them go through the morning routine smoothly for the first couple of weeks without resorting to pleading, screaming and coaxing, even outright bribery.
Ease into a routine gradually
The beginning of a new school year can be extremely daunting for both children and parents, agrees Mini Menon, a teacher at Our Own English High School, Dubai, and a mother of two children, aged 18 and 11. "The primary factor for anxiety for a child is change in the routine," she says. "This is certainly a shock to the system and adds to the child's stress."
To ease the shock of waking up early in the morning and following a strict schedule at school, parents can encourage children to get into the groove at least a week before their school reopens. In fact, parents of young children should not deviate drastically from routines even during holidays, specially with regard to eating and sleeping schedules, advises Carmen Benton, a parenting educator and educational consultant at LifeWorks, a Dubai-based professional counselling firm. This helps children feel more settled and their bodies follow a rhythm of feeling hungry and tired at the same time each day, she says.
Parents should also organise kids' lunch boxes, their uniforms, backpacks and stationery well in advance to avoid the mad rush in the mornings. Procrastination only complicates matters and amounts to stress. If parents have to leave for work along with children they should wake up and get dressed first so that they can devote adequate time to kids and also help them up and out on time. For the first few days, kids — even older ones — require guidance and reminders while getting ready for school. Parents should slowly withdraw their support and let them take charge of their responsibilities.
Chitra Sharma, Principal of JSS Private School, Dubai, says that parents should never schedule a return to Dubai from their vacation a night before the session begins as children could still be dealing with jet lag and will not have enough time to get used to changed schedules.
Dealing with the unknown
As well as adjusting to routines, children often need to overcome plenty of anxieties and psychological agonies when they start school. Benton points out that for students of any age starting a new school year brings with it a lot of unknowns. "Anticipation can be more stressful than the actual event. For instance, ‘What class will I be in?' ‘Who will my teacher be?' ‘Will I be able to take the subjects I want?' These can be combined with the first day stresses such as ‘How will I know where to go on the first day?' and ‘Will I be able to find any of my friends?'," she says.
For expatriate children the added stress can be living in a globally nomadic community and knowing that some of their friends have left the UAE and they will need to make new friends.
"Many children will also have the stress of having spent the holidays functioning in their first language in the home country, which may not be the language spoken at school and they need to get back to a certain level of proficiency with the school language," Benton says.
Menon adds that most expatriate children go back to their home country for vacation where they spend time with their extended family. Coming back to the realities of urban life with only their parents for support is disappointing for them.
Push your child to talk
Life also turns seemingly miserable for tiny tots in kindergartens as they find it difficult to overcome separation anxiety and feel insecure in the company of people they have never met before.
Counsellors say that in such situations, parents have to help kids win over their anxieties. They should push children to talk about their fears and apprehensions, and duly empathise with them. Parents should offer suggestions but must encourage them to deal with their issues at school in their own ways.
"Don't attempt to minimise children's feelings just by telling them ‘Don't be so silly, it will be fine'," warns Benton. "Validate their worries by saying: ‘I can see you are really upset, nervous and worried about starting school'."
She also adds that though showing concerns is necessary, parents should resist the temptations of getting into helicopter parenting mode, a new term coined in the study of parenting, which describes a parent who hovers like a helicopter at an educational institution. "Allow your children to be as independent as possible at school. You can help in the process by sharing with the teacher anything about your child that would benefit both of them but step back to give the teacher and your child time to get to know each other," she says.
Children often take their own time to get used to the changes in their lives, but they are perfectly capable of adapting with them. Menon says that communication is key to coping. "Most often, problems loom larger when they are not discussed openly. The moment they are verbalised, their magnitude seems smaller and hence easier to tackle," she says.
It is critical to develop a sense of trust in children so that they can approach their parents with any issues they face in their lives, no matter how small or big they are. For instance, if a child is bullied at school, he won't confide to his mother if he doesn't feel emotionally attached to her. Parents should work with their children, discuss matters in details and manage their emotions intelligently for the psychological health of the family.
Help recall old bonds
To relieve adjustment-related anxieties, parents, specially of small children, should consider setting up play dates to give their wards an opportunity to hang out with class mates before school reopens.
"Talk about school to your child, drop by the school a day before during an evening drive, visit the school's website and watch school programme CDs to help younger children recall old bonds," suggests JSS School's Sharma. Parents can take children out for school uniform and stationery shopping to make them feel that returning to school is a fun experience.
Holiday assignments also add to the stress levels of children as most of them take it easy during vacations. "You can try to get your kids to finish their assignments in small doses over a period of time, rather than all at once," suggests Menon. It saves the mad rush at the last minute to complete the assignments when the school starts.
The first couple of weeks at school are not only challenging for families but equally stressful for teachers, as it's not easy to deal with a class of emotionally unsettled tots. Benton, who has also worked as a teacher for about 20 years, points out that besides creating a positive learning environment, teachers have to work hard to get to know each of the children in their classes and also help them settle into their new classes and form strong friendships.
The first month is also an important period for initial assessments, when teachers find out how much students have retained during the holiday and what level they are up to with their school work.
So get yourself geared for the school season — plan ahead for a smooth transition from a life in a holiday mode to a hyper-active one and you won't be sorry.
Things to remember
• Readjust your family’s eating and sleeping schedules at least a week before the school session begins and align them with your child’s school timings.
• Draw up a route for getting to school. The first day of school is not the time to figure out how long it takes to reach or the nearest bus stop for the school bus pick up.
• Think in advance how you intend to go through the mornings of school days. Your breakfast menu should only comprise food that children can eat easily and quickly.
• Plan ahead for your kids’ lunch boxes. You can create a menu plan for the week and hang it in the kitchen.
• Anticipate your child’s wardrobe needs before going for shopping for garments and accessories. Shop early and take advantage of back-to-school bargains.
• If your child’s school offers a stationery package then you’re in luck as you can save lots of time and the strains of mall trawling. If it doesn’t then call the school up or check the school website for a list of required supplies. You may need to pick up books, notebooks, backpacks, binders and planners/organisers, in addition to pencils, crayons, glue and scissors.
• While choosing the backpack, consider comfort and size over looks and trends. Dr Charles Jones of the California Chiropractic & Sports Medicine Center at Dubai Healthcare City says that children are at risk of permanent spinal damage because of incorrectly packed and fitted school backpacks. “Make sure the backpack is not wider than the child’s chest and has broad, padded shoulder straps,” he says.
• Set up a homework time at least a week before school starts so that the child can complete his assignments with ease.
• Always make sure that your child gets his recommended immunisations. Schedule a health, eye and dental check-up with his paediatrician before he returns to school.
• If your child gets too anxious about her new school, take her for a school tour to help her find her classroom, the restrooms and the cafeteria. You can also arrange for a meeting with her class teacher.
Health in a box
As new sessions begin, every parent worries about what to pack for their little ones and rightly so — what they eat today will determine their health for tomorrow.
With a little bit of planning and some practical tips, you can pack food for your children that is nutritious and delicious, while being visually appealing to them.
Always ensure that there is colour in the child's lunch box. "Opening it up to be confronted with bland colours can be disappointing," says Sarah Queen, a nutritionist and the director of Nutrition Matters Arabia.
"When packing a lunch box, always include foods from five groups — carbohydrate, protein, dairy, fruits and vegetables and drinks — to help your child eat a balanced meal," says Queen. Adjust portion size depending on the age and sex of the child. A toddler may eat half a slice of bread and a teenage boy may eat four slices as he needs more calories than a girl of the same age. "Aim for a variety to provide multiple vitamins and minerals, and also to prevent boredom. Don't over pack the lunch box as too much food can be off-putting," Queen advises.
If your child constantly demands crisps, fancy biscuits and chocolates, make a compromise with him, suggests Queen. "Provide pretzels or breadsticks instead of crisps; plain biscuits, malt loaf, fruit cake, fruit scones and healthier, reduced sugar and fat cakes instead of filled biscuits, cakes and bars rich in sugar and fat and chocolate."