Back to school: Parents advised to look out for these behaviours indicating separation anxiety

The academic year begins on August 29


Ismail Sebugwaawo

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Published: Fri 26 Aug 2022, 3:24 PM

Educational experts in the UAE have identified some behavioural patterns caused by separation anxiety. Parents should keep an eye out for them during the start of the new academic year on August 29.

Tara Foster, primary head teacher at GEMS Metropole School – Motor City says parents may notice changes in behaviour such as crying, clinginess, refusing to eat and with younger students wetting themselves.

“To reduce with these behaviours and anxieties it is important that you prepare your child. Talk to them about school who they will meet and the routine of the day. Attend any induction sessions that the school offer, so that your child becomes familiar with the setting and the people,” said Foster.

“It may also help to reassure the child of a fun activity they will do in school, if they enjoy painting, etc. so that they can look forward to doing that activity. Children also like to know what they will be doing when they return home and it is nice to have an activity planned for them to enjoy time with you. Simple activities such as drawing a picture of their day in school, etc. can help them relate better to the school experience.”

The education expert noted that parents themselves should be mindful of their own behaviour. “Many parents also feel anxious about their child starting school and children will pick up on your anxieties. Be positive about school, show your excitement, retell happy memories of when you started school and reassure them that you will be there at the end of the day to meet them,” said Foster.

According to the head teacher, as children spend a large portion of their day at school, schools will use a range of strategies to ensure that children settle quickly to tackle separation anxiety.

“The most effective way for educational institutions to tackle separation anxiety it to develop a trusting relationship with the child. Once the child feels comfortable, they will be happier and ready to learn. Teaching in the first couple of weeks is usually focused on pastoral support, developing friendships and having a positive atmosphere in the classroom,” explains Foster.

“This helps students settle and cope with any separation anxiety they may be facing. This may be in the form of a shorter day or staggered return to school, commonly found in the foundation stage. Often teachers will ask students to bring in photos or special items from home to share with the class, to develop a home-school connection.”

Schools often have a buddy system where students are linked together so they have an immediate friend and point of contact so that they learn the routines. If separation anxiety persists, the school counsellors and often the Inclusion Department will be on hand to help with more child-specific strategies, she added.

Melanie Moses, Elementary Counsellor and Designated Safeguarding Lead at GEMS American Academy – Abu Dhabi says parents should keep an eye on any regression to their child’s talk or behaviours, or any attention-seeking behaviour or when they pretend, they do not feel well, and emotional crying for no apparent reason, withdrawn or aggressive behaviour.

“This also includes reattaching to a toy, book, clothing for comfort or anything that something that feels familiar and known to them, or even by trying to control things by being demanding,” she said.

Moses points out that educational institutions and schools can tackle separation anxiety through social stories. “They can encourage communication from home, like sharing a picture or an activity the students did with their family and friends. Schools should communicate with parents in advance and send out welcome letters and visual schedules to prepare the students and schedule pre-visits to the school,” she said.

Schools have support systems

Raquel Nahas, Assistant Head of Primary at GEMS International School – Al Khail says many schools have support systems in place that focus on strategies for both parents and children in tackling separation anxiety. “This begins with student orientation days for new students where they become familiar with the school, their spaces, their homeroom teachers, and have team building activities where friendships can be formed,” she said.

“For younger students, they are invited in with their parents to explore their environment and begin to build positive relationships with their teacher. There is also continued support by the school counsellors for both students and parents sharing tips and strategies on how to ensure a smooth and secure transition into the new school year.”

The educational expert says school counsellors organise sessions for new students to orient themselves to the school environment and peers. There are workshops and information shared with parents to provide them with strategies on how to support their child with separation anxiety. A tip for parents is to be consistent with bringing children to school. Remind your child that you love them and that you will be back at the end of the day to collect them. It also helps to remind them of activities they will engage with that they love.

Some mental health tips for parents to help children:

>>Consciously practice thinking positive thoughts on a daily basis

>>Saying no is okay – you can say no in a respectful way and remain positive

>>Choose to share your feeling in a safe environment, with a professional, or a trusted person when you find yourself overwhelmed

>>Maintain your sleep hygiene routine

>>Maintain a healthy diet- our mind just like the rest of our body is impacted by the diet. Healthy diet is the much-needed fuel for our bodies to function well

>>Use a calendar

>>Start bedtime routines early

>>Back-to-school shopping

>>Prepare lunchboxes and keep them accessible

>>Find a 'go-to-school friend’

>>Talk about homework

>>Deal with expectations

>>Show them what you think about them

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