Primary issues

School can be a source of great anxiety to some children – and their parents. We discuss some common problems that can hinder kids’ progress when settling in at ‘big school’


Thankfully, schools have changed enormously since we parents were little sprogs in long shorts and gymslips. Back then, children were seen and not heard, the cane was a not-too-distant memory, and we all had that teacher we feared even more than the devil himself.

These days (thankfully!), the attitude to learning – and teaching, is completely different. It’s all geared towards making the classroom environment a happy, positive experience for the pupils, which will in turn promote self confidence and a desire to learn. Children are also taught to learn through their own investigations and research, and there is a big emphasis on school being a happy place. Even so, not every child will immediately enjoy going to school – and when anxiety is involved, parents, no matter how well-meaning, can actually make the situation worse. But the good news is, it’s all surmountable. So read on!

My 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, he explains. ‘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 difficult to accept.’

My best friend left last term!
With all the comings and goings over summer, 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 your attention by giving them plenty as a matter of course,’ Helen advises.

I want my mummy!
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 by being here; school is meant to be fun.’

Helga Mehta, a Dubai-based mum-of-four, says: ‘The best advice I was ever given by a teacher, about getting my kids not to stick to my legs like a limpet in their first weeks of school, was to “bring some of the classroom home”. That means making the home and the school environment intermingle. I stated off by putting the class list on the fridge and learning all my children’s classmates’ names. I would talk to them about their friends and ask them who they played with. When I found out who they liked best, I arranged plenty of play dates early on in the term. Hanging up your children’s paintings, asking them about their teachers, and even doing some volunteer classroom time during school hours (if you’re not a working mum) can all help your child to settle better at school.’

But what can you do from your end to make your child feel happier about the prospect of school? Helga says: ‘I’ve always told my children; 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 strict routine during term time, so that the mornings are all about “action” and not “discussion” about whether they want to go to school or not. The more comfortable and used to the routine they get, the easier the goodbyes will become.’

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.

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