Your little one’s up, dressed, fed and ready to go, but then, uh oh, the bottom lip starts to wobble and their big woeful eyes start to well up. How you should handle this will vary hugely depending on the cause of the upset and how long it’s been going on for.
Here, we look at the four biggest sources of school-based sadness for little ones and talk to the experts about how best to deal with each situation.
‘The teacher doesn’t like me’
‘No teacher should ever convey feelings of dislike to a child,’ says Clive Pierrepont, director of communications for the Taaleem group of schools and former school principal. ‘Children must also understand that what teachers say and what teachers mean are often two different things: if a teacher says “shut up”, a sensitive child might take that as the teacher disliking them, when in fact the opposite could be true – sometimes it can actually be a positive sign that the teacher is taking an active interest in them.’
That’s all very well in the rational, adult world, but how can we assure children that this is the case without undermining their feelings? ‘The problem should be addressed with the teacher. For younger children this would probably be done by the parents, but as kids get older and develop their social skills, they might prefer to do it themselves. It’s vital that you – or they – create that dialogue, otherwise children will retreat and think: If you don’t like me, I’ll give you a reason not to like me – and that’s a dangerous downwards spiral.’
Living in Dubai can add to these difficulties: ‘Teachers are taught how damaging a seemingly casual remark can be – but sometimes misunderstandings are inevitable,’ Clive says. ‘In this culture some children are brought up by hired help and there are no behavioural boundaries, so when they’re in school and the teacher doesn’t let them do whatever they want, the child can find it shocking and think that the teacher doesn’t like them.’
With all the comings and goings this summer (more goings than comings, we think), chances are your child will be missing a friend or two when they return to school. While it’s tempting to adopt the ‘stiff upper lip’ school of parenting, remember that your child is experiencing feelings of grief.
Parenting educator Helen Williams advises, ‘It’s really important that parents talk to their children about loss, what it feels like, why it’s painful and why it makes you sad.’ Mums and dads should be around to lend a shoulder for those tearful sessions and to suggest ways of keeping in touch. If you also have a friend who’s moved away, lead by example, not hiding your feelings but showing your child how to deal with them: ‘Look, I can’t see Lucy but I’m going to write her an email.’
Helen says parents should try not to get so caught up in the new-term happenings that they forget their kids may have lost a lot of core familiarity. ‘Keep talking about it and offer cuddles and comfort. Let them cry and explain that they will meet new, exciting friends. Encourage your child to be chatty, friendly and open,’ she says.
There is, however, a difference between grief and feeling sorry for yourself. ‘Make sure your kids aren’t pretending to be miserable in order to get attention by giving them plenty as a matter of course.’
To make an appointment with Helen call 055 893 6524 or 04 394 1000.
‘I’m being bullied’
This is a serious situation that needs to be handled quickly and sensitively. Sam Maclaren, a modern languages teacher at Dubai College, says, ‘Sometimes, when it’s not physical, children don’t even realise that what’s happening to them constitutes bullying. If your child has told you about what’s happening, you’ve won half the battle. You should inform your child’s teacher straight away – then they can do their best to nip it in the bud.’
She continues, ‘How the teacher would deal with the situation depends on the child. We would certainly assure them that the matter would be treated confidentially. In our school, and I’m sure this applies to most others, we have a zero tolerance policy on bullying. It’s simply not acceptable.’
But aren’t a lot of kids scared of telling anyone in case it makes matters worse? ‘As a parent, you need to tell them that if they keep quiet, things will only get worse,’ says Sam. ‘In cases of verbal bullying, the teachers in our school wouldn’t go straight to the bully and confront them – we’d inform our colleagues and, as a team, observe the situation, so that we could get a more informed understanding of what was going on. Of course, if it was physical bullying, things would be different as that is potentially dangerous. Until you know what the situation is, you don’t know how you can help. Sometimes, just having a group discussion can resolve things; other times it takes individual talks. Every situation is unique.’
‘I don’t want mummy to leave’
Rosy Gerlach, a grade two teacher at the Australian International School in Sharjah, says: ‘As teachers, we do our best to make school a welcoming, fun environment, so that at the start of term, kids don’t feel like they’re being dragged away from home against their will. We’ll do little projects about where they went in the summer, we’ll do timelines, we’ll read, we’ll play games – anything we can to get to know them better. They mustn’t feel like they’re being punished; school is meant to be fun.’
But what can you do from your end to make your child feel happier about the prospect of school? A really useful tip we got from a local mum is to explain the situation to kids in a logical way: ‘It’s mummy and daddy’s jobs to go to work and look after the children while it’s the children’s job to go to school and learn.’ It’s also important to establish a routine (which our organisational tips on the previous pages should help you to achieve) – if they get used to the way their mornings are run, the whole ‘getting ready for school’ process will feel more familiar and, consequently, more comfortable. Once you get to school, make the goodbye quick – hanging around or making false promises (‘I’ll be back in five minutes!’) will only remind them of what they’re missing out on. Furthermore, whatever you do, don’t ‘just pop in’ to check on them throughout the day (or if you do, at least don’t let them see you!).
If these measures don’t work, don’t panic: separation anxiety is perfectly normal, and with any luck it will sort itself out with time. If it doesn’t, it really is vital to keep the lines of communication open with your child’s teacher. As Rosy says, ‘If we don’t know that something’s wrong, we can’t help.’ The teacher will be full of extra ideas on how to help based on your child’s personality, and whether it’s giving them a special job to do or pairing them up with a specially assigned friend, together you will be able to solve the problem.