As UAE kids prepare to return to the classroom, experts offer tips to tackle the back-to-school journey

There's a lot more to it than new stationery and uniforms

By Asha Iyer Kumar

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Published: Thu 24 Aug 2023, 7:33 PM

Last updated: Fri 25 Aug 2023, 9:40 AM

Back in the place where I come from, the end of summer is marked by the pitter-patter of rain. Here, in the desert skyscape, it is the Suhail star that signals the tapering of summer rigours. To me, as a child back then, there were only two things that made summers cool — luscious mangoes and a long break from school.

That part of the canvas hasn’t changed with time and place, but what has changed is the way we now perceive the exercise of our children going back to school after summer. It is no longer a quiet closing of doors on a laid-back period and stepping into an academic setting. It has now acquired grander aspects, chiefly fuelled by marketing shindigs and a buying frenzy — uniforms, stationery, books and a host of other paraphernalia that complements school life today.

Sarah Cann with son, Arlo
Sarah Cann with son, Arlo

But beneath the carnival atmosphere that we see in shopping centres in the days leading up to school reopening, there is a vault of emotions that is not frequently opened up for scrutiny. Schools, acutely aware of their students’ apprehensions, gear up for positive instructional mode; parents become battle ready for another year of tests and study tantrums, and children oscillate between enthusiasm and jitters, many unsure of what schooling itself means to them.

Going back to school after a long break, which we have normalised like the change of a calendar sheet, is anything but a regular annual ritual. There is a lot more to it than new stationery, uniforms and an academic upgrade.

Separation, change of routine and academic concerns

As frivolous as it might sound, the biggest challenge that children face during the transition is having to shift from freewheeling during summer to settling into schedules after that. A natural resistance to alter holiday habits, which gave them the freedom to do anything at any time is at the heart of the stress that they seemingly experience as the reopening day gets closer.

“Older children are not anxious per se but they loath to switch to a fixed routine and to have to leave behind their gadgets which they have been addicted to in the holidays. About 65 per cent of students I speak to exhibit desperation for gaming and gadgets. Also, it is not the amount of academic work that overwhelms them in the initial days, but the idea of having to return to a structured way of study,” says Shaista Ansari, school counsellor and designated safeguarding lead, Emirates International School, Jumeirah, Dubai.

“Separation anxiety is more common among younger children than the older ones and the school implements effective reorientation programmes to address their anxiety including a unique ‘Handle with Care’ programme where parents of vulnerable children can request special care and attention,” she adds.

According to Yonatan Gilazgi, school counsellor at Emirates American School, Sharjah, students who have previously experienced aggression by school mates show more reluctance to return to school after the break. “We help them cope with this by giving them counselling sessions, follow up on it and then assign a peer who would support them till they settle.” He adds that for many students who perform below par, it is also the pressure of academic expectations that causes anxiety.

Going from parents to peers

Are parents a part of this stress matrix that the Back-to-School period involves? Not as much as one might think. Interestingly, it is having the children at home with little academic activity and a lot of vacant time that makes many a parent go bonkers, trying to find a useful way to keep them amply occupied. To such parents, the end of summer is a respite from having to find novel methods to keep boredom and gadgets at bay. It is curious that the children’s bane is the parents’ boon, viz. slipping back to routine.

Allan Omondi with wife Marjorie and sons Aaron, Alvin and Adriel
Allan Omondi with wife Marjorie and sons Aaron, Alvin and Adriel

Dr. Nudrat Malik, mother of an 11-year-old, minces no words when she says that it is more a happy time for her as a parent because life will now be settled and systemised. “Especially in summer, when she has no outdoor activities, my daughter spends most of her time at home, and often gets bored with the extra time. Going back to school will put her back into various things.”

Malik’s daughter, Omera Soodhun, however, begs to differ. She is not particularly stoked about returning to school because she has ‘no good friends there’. Her 10-year-old-cousin, Sana Munir, seconds her sentiment by saying she has nothing to look forward to in terms of fun or friends in school. Their seemingly innocuous statements call for an immediate focus on helping children build meaningful social connections in school and creating an environment of trust and belongingness in its premises.

However, to a majority of children, although waking up at the crack of dawn and lugging their bags with droopy eyes is a dampening thought, their spirits perk up when they think of going back to their friends. To them, the drudgery of academics is abundantly compensated for by the presence of their peers and it is the biggest perk of going back to school — a joy they reinvented especially after the pandemic.

Shaista Ansari, school counsellor and designated safeguarding lead, Emirates International School, Jumeirah
Shaista Ansari, school counsellor and designated safeguarding lead, Emirates International School, Jumeirah

That the emotions are mixed, they vary from child to child and the family has an immersive role to play in getting children up to speed before the new term begins is testified by Allan Omondi, father of three boys, ages 15, 12 and 10 years. He lays huge emphasis on the need to keep a tab on the children’s activities and behaviour through the summer break, so they don’t struggle to put the rubrics back in place when the holidays end.

“We make sure that our boys are not completely disengaged from books and don’t vegetate by getting hooked to gadgets. They spend at least 2-3 hours learning every day, after which they pursue their individual interests like music, origami and coding. Now, they are eager to go back to school because after being active for 8-9 months, when they get a long break, it gets boring after some days. They are now looking to get back to their studies and friends.”

Yonatan Gilazgi, school counsellor, Emirates American School
Yonatan Gilazgi, school counsellor, Emirates American School

The key to preparing children, according to him, is to reintroduce the school time schedule days before the resumption date. The readiness and excitement he talks about is duly attested by the three boys who line up next to their father to give me a brief audience.

If Malik expresses keenness to feel settled in a daily slot and Omondi advocates a smooth and planned segueing into a new term, what echoes in Sarah Cann’s voice is animated anticipation. Cann is all set to take her little boy from FS2 to Year 1, a transition she believes will be a big leap because it will be proper school now. “I am looking forward to seeing Arlo’s growth and development with that jump. He will be with a new group of students this year, but I am sure he will make new friends because he is very sociable and connects easily,” she says, exuding confidence and pride.

School is where the support system is

No amount of preparation by parents can translate into real time comfort in this transitional period unless the schools are primed for it. A lot of combined effort goes into what Nargish Khambatta, Principal, GEMS Modern Academy & senior vice president, GEMS Education, describes as a ‘significant undertaking that sets the tone and expectations for the year, achieved through a meticulously structured process’.

Nargish Khambatta, principal, GEMS Modern Academy & senior vice president, GEMS Education
Nargish Khambatta, principal, GEMS Modern Academy & senior vice president, GEMS Education

“It takes weeks and sometimes months for us to plan and ensure a smooth transition and we don’t jump straight into lessons.” While she stresses the inevitability of reinstating rules and routines, she adds it is all done in a fun and exciting way. “We have special assemblies, inspirational talks, organised games and the circle time in class when vacation news is shared between teachers and students. The school employs buddy programmes like yoga, dedicated down time, mindfulness sessions, stress management workshops, and individualised academic support to help students realign,” she elaborates.

“Student voice, choice and agency is a priority for us, and we seek constant feedback from them. We get the seniors to make their schedules and set smart goals and help them plan their success in their own way,” says Khambatta, giving us a glimpse of the importance the school places on keeping students constantly motivated as they shift gears to a new term.

Does this period put a lot of stress on her and her team? “The philosophy in our school is you can either be stressed about something or you can enjoy it,” she replies conclusively.

With battalions of BTS (Back to School) Army working in earnest across the territory to help students get over the hangover of holidays and arming them to face challenges, all that our children need to do is determinately march back to the campuses in their best Monday dressing when the gates reopen next week.

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