Parents are being urged to be aware of the warning signs in new school starters, aka “Covid babies”, who may experience bed-wetting, clinginess and crying spells as they navigate their emotions and new environment, according to Anthony Nhlapo, clinical psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai.
Many children and teens have or will experience social and separation anxiety as they head back to school, but for those children who have never been to school, one UAE psychologist is warning the after-effects of the pandemic could be particularly profound.
“Every parent wants their child to have a wonderful experience when they start nursery or school for the first time,” he explains. “The pandemic, however, has shattered this opportunity for many young children and for those starting in September, many are unlikely to remember a time before Covid.”
Nhlapo says he has witnessed an increase in underdeveloped social skills and separation anxiety among young children, which he considers a direct consequence of the pandemic and its associated restrictions.
“This will definitely impact negatively on their ability to adjust to any new social environment, especially a school setting,” he explains. “They may feel overwhelmed and have difficulty establishing and maintaining healthy relationships. Social anxiety will certainly make it difficult for them to enjoy and fully immerse themselves in the school environment, with the risk of adversely affecting their learning ability.”
Some of the signs to watch for leading up to and during the first weeks of school include:
• Persistent changes in their eating and sleeping patterns
• Tantrums that were not common prior to starting school
• Aggressive behavior
• Social withdrawal
• Crying spells that are inconsolable
• Refusal to go to school despite constant nagging
• ‘Clingyiness’ that was not present before starting school
• Bedwetting that was not present before starting school
Nhlapo recommends parents take the following steps to help their children settle into school:
• Validate and acknowledge your child’s fears and anxieties of being in a new environment. Be ready to answer their questions in a simple way and let them know that they are not being a difficult child for not wanting to go to school.
• Offer plenty of reassurance. Ensure your child is aware of your continued support and care as they try to adjust to their new school environment.
• Give your child a hug before going to school. This can help lessen tension and anxiety that the child is feeling in the morning before going to school.
• Learn to say “goodbye” and “I will see you later” to your child daily. This small gesture can help them internalize that separation and reunion are not mutually exclusive experiences, but part of the process of parting and meeting.
• Spend daily, quality time with your child so that they can feel more supported and connected to you as they acclimatize to a new environment. Share your first experience of school with them, to help ‘normalize’ their worries and ensure they are involved and feel included in all aspects of school preparation.
• Organize play dates, which are a great opportunity for children to extend contact with their peers beyond the school boundaries. They will help encourage quick familiarity and foster emotional bonds that will help your child feel safe and secure at school.
• Implement a responsible sleep routine several days before the school terms begin so they are well rested.
• Speak to the teacher. Most teachers have plenty of experience in dealing with a whole host of challenges that can affect new school starters. Parents can work with the teacher and/or school counsellor to provide a stimulating and supportive atmosphere to help with a smooth transition.
• Hybrid learning or flexible schooling. This is an option that can be considered for children who are really struggling to settle. Alternating between in-person and online learning can help to lessen anxiety, while also ensuring continued learning.
• Seek professional help. If a child’s symptoms appear to be persistent and unabating, consult a child psychologist/counsellor to help you and your child learn ways to manage the transition.
• This piece was contributed by Priory Wellbeing Center, Dubai.