Dubai school survival guide

A child's first day at school is enough to make mums break out in a cold sweat. Here is how to survive

Lesson 1

Be prepared
Tears, tantrums and mad panic – ah, it must be a regular school morning. Striker Sammy has footie practice today but his kit is still festering in the bottom of his sports bag and picky Penelope is in a strop because you forgot to go to the supermarket and have run out of her favourite cheese spread. Sound familiar? We’ve all been there, and, while it may sound a bit OCD, organisation is most definitely key. Being prepared well before the alarm goes off is vital if you don’t want your unruly rabble arriving at school flustered or, even worse, grumpy.

We asked mum-of-three Kath Vincent how she keeps her boisterous brood of boys in check. ‘Getting everything ready the night before certainly makes life easier,’ she says. She also strongly advises you print off a copy of their timetable and stick it somewhere prominent, like the fridge. ‘That way you’ll know in advance when they’ve got swimming or PE or library, so you can get organised.’

Discovering all the socks are in the wash is less of a headache at 7.30pm than 7.30am, so Kath ensures the boys’ uniforms are clean and ironed the night before, checks underwear essentials and makes sure she can find two shoes of the same design and size. She advises buying extra of those items that tend to go astray – such as swimming trunks, sports socks and the ever-elusive school tie. ‘Ties can be a real nightmare in our house,’ Kath says. ‘Everything else can be ready but, all of a sudden, there’s a mad panic because they’ve ripped their tie off and don’t remember where they’ve put it. It usually turns up, but I keep a spare one downstairs for those “lost tie” emergencies.’

School bags
At some point, your pint-sized pupils will have to take responsibility for their own bags, but you can help out by keeping an eye on their schedule and reading their communication book every day so you can point them in the right direction. ‘That way you know if PE means swimming or soccer and you avoid that last-minute dash with the right kit later in the day,’ says Kath. Younger kids may find it a little overwhelming in the beginning, so get everything ready the night before, packing homework, library books, signed forms, and sports or music gear together, then set them out, grouped by child, beside the door. Then, in theory, it’s just grab and go. Also get them into the habit of emptying their bags as soon as they come through the door, popping sweaty gym kits in the laundry and laying out their homework for the evening.

It’s the most important meal of the day, and if you let your kids skip breakfast, chances are they’ll be lethargic and bad-tempered by mid-morning. Check your brekkie supplies the night before and spend five minutes setting the table so there’s no excuse for not squeezing in a bite amid the morning mayhem. If you can, make up lunch boxes the night before. ‘Then you just have to take them out the fridge and pop them in their bags as they’re about to leave,’ says Kath. Plan what you want to give them for lunch each day before you do your weekly supermarket shop, and make sure the items on your list are enough to last the week.

Lesson 2

How to help with homework
Er, let’s change that actually. Apparently kids no longer get boring old homework. No siree. These days it’s exciting, imaginative ‘home learning’. (We’re not entirely convinced the change in terminology will pull the wool over our brood’s eyes, but, for the sake of argument, let’s run with it.) As education expert Matt Lecuyer says, ‘Learning should always be a positive experience, so it needs to be focused, fun and creative.’ Sounds great, but what role do parents play? ‘The parent is the first teacher. They’re key to the educational process because they can facilitate the way kids process and learn.’ he says. Follow these tips to make the whole home-learning process as pain-free and positive as possible:

Adopt a flexible routine
‘All children learn differently, so you must allow for that,’ says Matt. ‘Some like music in the background, some like silence, some will fiddle with toys or tap, others will have a doodle pad. Ask your child’s class teacher to help you work out what works best for your child.’ While it’s all well and good to encourage your kids to complete assignments promptly, ye olde ‘No TV ’til you’ve done your homework!’ cry is not necessarily helping Maisie solve her math equations. ‘Routine is good, but it should be flexible and take account of after-school activities,’ says Matt. Kath Vincent encourages her boys to complete all their assignments on the day they get them. ‘I know from bitter experience that if they let their homework build up, there’ll be tears and panic when it’s time to hand it in,’ she says. ‘It’s not always possible, but it’s a good habit to get into when they’re young because it helps them manage the increasing workload as they get older.’ Matt agrees. ‘The idea is that home learning should link to learning done at school, so there are advantages of completing the task while the method is still fresh, but it is important not to over-burden children.’

Talk through the problem
So, little Ben has plonked a pile of books on the kitchen table and you’re faced with that day’s assignment. How do you begin? ‘Talk the task through together, but let your child decide what the objective is and what he thinks the teacher is looking for,’ advises Matt. Once they’ve grasped the point of the exercise, sit with them and maybe work through the first one or two questions or activities together, but remember, there’s no value whatsoever in doing it for them. ‘Try it together for a little while, then allow for their independent imagination to run.’

Allow for ‘brain breaks’
Make sure you break up all home learning into manageable chunks, says Matt. ‘A child shouldn’t have to stay rooted to his desk for 30 minutes. It’s important to allow for brain breaks,’ he adds. Apparently concentration span equals age plus 20, so your average five-year-old can only really focus on anything for around 25 minutes. If they want to walk around, move to a different space or go for a swim or a bounce on the trampoline, then let them – it doesn’t mean they’re not knuckling down. ‘It’s very good for kids to move physical space. Teachers do that a lot in classrooms because it refocuses the children,’ says Matt. If they’re working at the kitchen table while you prepare dinner, lounging in the garden or in their room, then that’s fine if it works for them. ‘Homework doesn’t necessarily mean at home either. It can be done anywhere outside the classroom – even at the park or the beach.’

Check but don’t correct
Once the task is completed, check it, but resist the temptation to scream, ‘That’s wrong!’ every time you spot an error. ‘Allow your child to self correct and let the teacher do the corrections,’ says Matt. ‘You want to make the experience positive. If you start correcting every single mistake, the child is going to get despondent,’ he adds. Instead, encourage them to think about the problem in a different way. ‘Of course it’s important children learn from their mistakes,’ says Matt, ‘but they need the freedom and safety to try new things, make mistakes and improve on them. That’s what open learning is all about.’

What if we’re stuck?
Kids these days are facing the kind of tasks that we hadn’t even heard of 20 years ago – particularly in the fields of science and technology. On those occasions when you too don’t have a clue (trust us, they will arise) don’t be tempted to bluff your way through. Any good teacher will tell you that it’s the process rather than the outcome that is most important, so get your child to explain the problem to you, talk it through and have a go. If you get it wrong, you get it wrong together. Matt suggests asking the class teacher for help or enrolling in one of his parental workshops.
Imagine Education offers after-school activities, tutoring, holiday camps and parental workshops (055 369 5642;;

Lesson 3

Pack the perfect lunch box
The importance of eating healthily during school hours can’t be underestimated and, while finding foods that are both nutritious and popular with the kids may be blood-boilingly frustrating, with a little perseverance, some child-like knowledge and a lot of planning, you can have the last (vitamin-fuelled) laugh.

Plan what you’ll put in their lunch before you go to the supermarket, and make sure you buy enough to last the whole week. Picky blighters may be more inclined to eat what they have helped choose themselves, so get them involved in the shopping and preparation of their lunch, explaining why they’re having each item – milk gives you strong teeth, carrots help your eyesight, and so on. Ask them what their friends have for lunch and, if they seem enthusiastic about any of the items – provided they’re healthy of course – then try them out. In our experience, if the cool kid in class eats kiwi fruit, junior’s far more likely to decide he likes them too.

So, what should go into the ideal lunchbox? Carole Holditch from Good Habits says a good packed lunch should provide one third of your child’s daily nutritional requirements and strike a balance between different food groups. ‘Make sandwiches using protein fillings such as chicken, egg, tuna or cheese, or make salads such as chicken or tuna pasta,’ she says. Be sure to include breads and cereals, but try to choose wholemeal varieties, which release calories slowly and help keep up energy levels and concentration. ‘Pasta, potato or rice salads also make a nice change from sandwiches,’ says Carole.

We all know fruit and vegetables are important, but getting the fussy toe rags to eat their five-a-day is often easier said than done. ‘Whole fruit may not be that appealing to youngsters, so try cutting fruit into chunks and threading it onto skewers or thin straws. Include dried fruit too – dried apricots in particular are rich in vitamins and minerals,’ says Carole. Canned fruit – so long as it’s in juice rather than syrup – is also fine.

A moderate amount of milk is necessary for calcium to build strong teeth and bones, but kids under five should still have whole milk rather than low-fat products where possible. ‘Cheese, yoghurt, fromage frais, yoghurt drinks, smoothies and milkshakes are all excellent sources of calcium,’ says Carole. Frozen yoghurt or milk has the added benefit of keeping the other foods cool.

Lesson 4

Dealing with first-day jitters
For a lot of kids, the most stressful time of their school year comes before school even starts. Anticipating those first few weeks can be downright traumatising. ‘It is really daunting,’ says Matt Lecuyer of Imagine Education. ‘School means new experiences, new friends, new classrooms, new books, new teachers and so on, but you shouldn’t underestimate just how adaptable children are – much more than adults.’

‘I don’t want mummy to leave!’
‘For the first two weeks at school, my daughter would weep and wail and cling onto my leg like a limpet. It broke my heart to prise her off and send her on her way,’ says mum of two Christine Wallis. ‘But it is better just to leave the kids at school and go, because, nine times out of 10, they’ll settle pretty quickly. I would have a little cry in the car, then ring the school half an hour later to discover that she was absolutely fine.’

Dubai-based teacher and parent educator, Carmen Benton agrees that the ‘kiss and drop’ technique is best – even if your child is distressed. ‘It is very hard to do – but it’s pure torture for the child if the goodbye process is prolonged. It’s also tough on the other kids in the class, who wonder why their parents haven’t waited around too.’ Carmen advises parents to prepare their children in the weeks beforehand: ‘Mummy will kiss you goodbye, go and have a coffee, and will soon be back to collect you.’ But don’t be tempted to sneak away. ‘If they suddenly realise you’ve gone without telling them, they’ll be more upset. Just be honest, calm and brief.’

‘Will I make friends?’
Teaching children to understand the transient nature of expat life is important when it comes to helping them learn how to make friends, says Carmen. ‘We live in an environment where friends leave the country, children might not see their classmates for a whole summer, and kids tend to socialise more with family friends than those in their class. Because of this, we need to make sure our children are proactive when it comes to approaching other kids – and that we teach them friendship skills.’ These skills, says Carmen, can be simple, social graces, like encouraging your children to include the shy child in their games, and approaching people with a smile, rather than waiting for others to approach them. ‘Arrange a play date with a child in their year the week before the new term starts, so they are familiar with at least one peer before school begins. Also, try to bring a little school back home too. Learn all the names of your children’s classmates, pin them up on the fridge so you don’t forget them. Ask your child about their friends when the day is over and arrange play dates with other parents. Bringing a bit of school home – and vice versa – really helps kids settle in well.’

‘I don’t like my teacher!’
‘First off, parents need to be very careful about the conversations they have in front of their children – especially if it’s about school, because their own anxieties can very easily affect the opinions of their child,’ says Carmen. ‘But, if your child is genuinely distressed at the prospect of their new class teacher, don’t brush their fears away with an “Oh, your new teacher is lovely!” Sit them down and talk it through. It could be that they’ve heard things about the teacher from other children – and you just need to reassure them.’

Be positive, and give kids a reasonable settling-in period, but if problems persist, working with, rather than against, the class teacher will result in a more favourable outcome. ‘It’s very rare for a school to move a child out of a class because they don’t like their teacher, and parents need to understand that there are bound to be some years when their child may not gel so well with their teachers. But, ultimately, that’s life, and we all need to work through difficult relationships and learn conflict resolution skills.’ But, she adds, ‘If your child’s fears really are justified – and in a place like Dubai where schools are international and teachers do have very different styles, they might well be – then you need to consider the situation more seriously. However, in the vast majority of cases, children can find positive aspects, especially when this is reinforced by their parents.’

What if I’m bullied?
‘It’s always horrible when real bullying takes place and all too often, the victim is too afraid to come forward. Because of this, we always advise children to talk to an adult if someone is victimising them, so the correct course of action can be taken quickly and sensitively,’ says Carmen. ‘However, very often, entirely normal incidents between children can be misconstrued by parents as bullying – and this is a very common problem. For example, little Johnny whacking William over the head with a sand-pit spade is not bullying; it’s normal child-to-child interaction that a teacher can deal with effectively. If parents do have a serious concern, though, they should talk to the teacher so their fears are allayed and the situation can be pleasantly resolved.’ She adds that very often, children have peers they don’t get on with, but that teaching children conflict-resolution skills from an early age, rather than their parents rushing in to defend them all the time, will boost their confidence and, as a result, decrease the likelihood of real bullying occurring. ‘I’ve taught classes of five-year-olds how to make their feelings known if someone does something they don’t like. Teachers aren’t always around, and telling the teacher immediately isn’t always the solution,’ she says. Dealing with difficult personalities is a life skill and one that kids also need to learn. ‘Teaching them how to handle tricky situations with other kids is actually good for them,’ says Carmen.
Carmen Benton is a teacher and parent educator for Lifeworks, which runs parent and child workshops and one-on-one counselling. To find out more, visit

Turn your bad apples into smart cookies with these food tips

Make eating fruit fun: Kids are busy people and will ditch food that takes effort to eat. Peel tangerines and cover with plastic wrap, halve kiwi fruit or make colourful skewers with bite-sized pieces.

Build on your child’s tastes: Look at what comes back untouched and ask (nicely) why it wasn’t eaten. Ask your child what he particularly enjoyed and if there are any foods that his friends eat that he would like to try.

Do it the night before: Prepare pasta salads, sandwich fillings, fruit compotes or include something from last night’s dinner, such as soup in a flask, chicken skewers or a Spanish omelette.

Give them cereal bars: Many contain more than 30 per cent fat and 40 per cent sugar that sticks to teeth, causing maximum damage.

Give them flavoured yoghurt: The once-healthy yoghurt now often comes attached to a pack of confectionery to stir in. Some of these contain more than five teaspoons of sugar in each pot.

Give them savoury snacks: Cheese strings, crisps and the like tend to be highly processed and may contain high levels of saturated fat and salt. If you must have them, eat potassium-rich foods such as bananas and dried apricots to balance the effect of salt in the body.

Fall for fake fruit snacks: Look closely at the label on snacks and fruit juice drinks as some contain a whopping amount of sugar and may include artificial flavourings, sweeteners and colourings.
Carole Holditch at Good Habits hosts educational cooking classes for kids (04 344 9692;;

Food for thought

A quarter of the food energy we consume is used to keep the brain functioning, so if your child is struggling to concentrate in class and doesn’t have much energy on the playing field, you should look at their diet. If their brains are getting what they need, you’ll find they perform better – from playing guitar to sports to sitting exams. So, how do you tell a brain goodie from a brain baddie?

Naturally bright-coloured foods are good for you. Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, prunes and the like all contain anti-oxidants that are linked to improving memory.

Omega 3
Found in oily fish, flax seeds, canola, soybeans, walnuts, butternuts and red and black currants, omega 3 supplies fatty acids that are associated with increasing both visual clarity and brain alertness.

Vitamin B
Foods rich in Vitamin B such as wheat and oats (porridge for breakfast is a good idea), fish, chicken, meat, eggs, milk, yoghurt, cheese, green veggies and oranges will help your kids cope with school-related stress.

Drink six to eight glasses a day to speed up metabolism and flush out toxins – far better for the body and brain than fizzy pop.

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