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CommunityExpertHealthBack to school: your questions answered

Parents put their questions about the return to school to principal Wayne Howsen and psychologist Reem Shaheen.
Anna PukasSeptember 18, 202018 min
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Last week, talked to two teachers about their experience of being back at school for the first time in six months. This week, gives parents the chance to put their most pressing questions to our panelists Wayne Howsen, principal of Aquila School in Dubai and Reem Shaheen, psychologist and clinical director of the Be Psychology Center in Dubai.

Is my child receiving the same quality of education as before?

Wayne: School does feel a little different. We don’t have things like carpets and in the younger children’s classrooms, there are no cuddly toys, but the children are still learning.

We’re getting really good at collaborative learning while keeping the children at least 1.5 metres apart. So while school is different, this is the new normal. The quality of learning is not exactly the same because we can’t do group work, where children work together on a shared piece of work, but we’re coming up with innovative ways of helping children learn together in class and also have enjoyable playtimes where they don’t need to share a piece of equipment.

We do respect that some families, for a variety of reasons, prefer their children to learn at home. At our school we have a tiny proportion that have taken advantage of this. Nothing can replicate learning in school face-to-face with a teacher, but learning at home is the next best thing and all schools are making sure that what the children are learning at home matches as closely as possible.

How can parents support their child’s online learning?  

Reem: The most important thing is to provide a routine. Wake up at the same school time and have the same kind of structure as if they were in school. It’s that structure that allows them to learn. We all respond well to structure. Without it, we fall completely out of order. Minimize any distractions at home –  no access to social media or TV or iPads except for those that they need for schoolwork.

Dress appropriately. You don’t have to put on a suit but get up, shower and put on proper clothes for work. This all helps the child feel like there’s some kind of normality.

What if parents don’t have time because they are working too?

Wayne: We offer a very, very full menu. We respect that mums and dads are busy. Make a sensible choice based on what’s manageable. For example, at our school, live lessons are from 7.30am to 10.30am each day, so we say to parents, try and set aside a bit of time then, particularly with young children. But if you can’t, you can access pre-recorded lessons later. Keep it manageable, keep it stress-free and do what you can. If you can’t do it all, it’s not the end of the world.

Reem: For working parents, encourage the child to work independently and only intervene and support them with the more difficult subjects. It could help to contact other parents and have Zoom groups for the kids so they can help each other.

Any tips for how to set up a routine if your child is learning at home ?  

Reem: The more specific the routine the better for the child, for parents and for the household in general. You will notice that on the days when you’re not in your regular routine, you’ll struggle more.

Set a time for waking up – it doesn’t have to be as early as before if there’s no school bus to catch – and give enough time for everyone to be set and ready to start their working day or school day. Set time for breaks so they can have a snack or do something else. More importantly, have a separation between work and family life. The working day ends at 6pm and nobody should be working on their computer after that. Dinner time is still the same. It’s pretty much a similar routine to what  they would have if they were at school but without the commute.

I don’t know how to motivate my child to stay active, so is it okay if I don’t?

Reem: Physical activity is very important for children and adults. Everybody needs an outlet, plus we all know it’s important for the release of a lot of the happy hormones and helps with mood, anxiety and getting good sleep.

I limit my child’s screen time but they need the computer to distance-learn. Should I let them play games afterwards?

Wayne: There is far more to distance learning than a child having to stare at a screen. In our school, if a lesson is 40 minutes long, for 15 minutes the teacher is putting things on screen and explaining the task and then the children go away and complete the task away from the screen and come back and show what they’ve done or upload it. No lesson should be 40 minutes of staring at a screen. It would be torturous, especially for the younger children.

Reem: There should be minimum breaks between online learning and gaming. If it was always a part of their routine to have screen time at the end of the day, removing it wouldn’t be beneficial.

My child is already very shy and I’m worried they won’t develop social skills with all the Covid restrictions. What should I do?

Wayne: If they’re going to school they still will develop social skills because although children are not mixing with children in other classes, they are still interacting with other children. We still have a sense of school community. We had about 200 pupils join our school in the last fortnight and I’m confident every single one has made a friend. We just aren’t seeing as many people from other classes but we’re still seeing them on screen or passing them in the corridor. School is still a sociable place.

Reem: Virtual socialization can help, maybe having a group of children on a Zoom session or one-to-one, or set up play dates online.

My child is reacting to all the changes by being moody and closed-off. How do I talk to him?  

Reem: Encourage him to exercise to lift his mood. Try to limit screen time. Have one-on-one time together to just chat with your child. It doesn’t have to be an investigation – make it more conversational. Do not problem-solve in the discussions – just be curious and let the child talk more. Relate it to your experience. Say, ‘Yes, I’m struggling too’.  It doesn’t mean you‘re not able to cope with the situation. But don’t make it all about you as a parent. Just sharing teaches children to have those conversations about feelings. Listen without judgment.

Wayne: The child might be feeling under pressure either from the family or from themselves or from the school. That’s when it’s time to take a break and say “Lets do something else that you’re interested in.” if it’s not working, move away. If the child is stressed, it’s going to be stressful for the family as well.

I feel like my teenager is not getting enough schoolwork but I know his teacher is doing both online and in-person learning. Can I ask her to give him more?

Wayne: No, because it’s really hard for a teacher to teach a class all day, every day, while being asked to also deliver learning at home. We need to protect the wellbeing of teachers as well because teachers need to be in a fit state to deliver the goods all through the year. We don’t want them burning out at the end of the third week of term. However, if there’s a genuine concern that the quality of work or the standard of work isn’t stretching and isn’t appropriate for the ability of the child, that’s another conversation to have, but actually it’s the quality of the learning that matters, not the quantity.

Reem: I totally agree. A lot of parents believe that unless the child has six hours of homework every day after school, they’re not learning. If the child is learning online, this is where feedback from parents is important for teachers. But it’s not a question of more schoolwork but of the child maybe needing something more advanced.

What would you suggest for parents who are getting more frustrated with their kids with distance learning or in general?

Wayne: Unless your child is vulnerable or there are vulnerabilities in the household, why not consider sending them back to school? Talk to the school, talk to other families at school, see how strictly the school is following the reopening plans, see how much the school is doing everything it can to minimize the risk and try and convince yourself that being at school is better for your child socially, better academically and better for family life overall.

Reem: As to sending them back, that’s a personal decision. However, if the parent decides not to send the child back, I go back to the importance of maintaining a healthy routine at home. And remind yourself that we are going through a traumatic global experience. This is not an easy time for anyone. Everyone is struggling in a different way so having compassion toward oneself is really important. Set lower expectations of yourself and your child. It doesn’t have to be perfect. We are going through extraordinary circumstances. We know it will end. We don’t know when or how but it will end.

Also, try and identify the causes or triggers for the frustration, and removing some of those triggers so that you’re not on a short fuse. But what I find works best is showing yourself and those around you a lot of compassion.

My daughter is distance-learning, but she doesn’t like her new teacher, although she has only met her over video. How do I address this problem?

Wayne: This is where human contact matters, whether face-to-face or online. Contact the school and ask if your daughter and the teacher can arrange to have a face-to-face chat – not a lesson, a chat. We did exactly that at the end of August. All of our teachers met all their classes online for a face-to-face chat because nothing can replicate that.

Reem: I totally agree. Request a one -on-one with the teacher that isn’t about learning but to build a relationship. It’s much harder to do that virtually.

Wayne Howsen and Reem Shaheen took part in the webinar on September 14

Anna Pukas

Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.

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