In two days, when most children in the UAE return to school in freshly-ironed uniforms, shouldering new backpacks and dreams for the academic year, it’s hard to miss the tribe of kindergartners, incongruous in their shiny new shoes that reflect their well-scrubbed faces, an expression of wonder at their new surroundings as they walk to school, hands wound tightly into their parents’.
As the bell rings, some children’s hold on their parents’ hands will be an unyielding vice-like grip, their wails of disbelief renting the air when they realise mummy and daddy won’t remain with them at school – a weird new place full of strangers. Along with the alphabet and nursery rhymes, this will be their introduction to separation anxiety.
It’s a scene Aya Osama, working mum of three-year-old Mounir, is all too familiar with. The pre-schooler who attends Crown Nursery in Sharjah would break down in tears every time he had to part ways with his mother at school time. ‘It was two weeks of constant crying and then it took him a good month to be more accepting of us taking him to nursery,’ recounts Aya. As his keening cries broke her heart, Aya would wonder if he’d be okay at all. But within the span of an hour, Mounir’s tear-streaked face would break into a sunny smile as he would engage and have fun with his pals and mum was forgotten... until home time. The next day, the cycle would be repeated.
Mounir is a classic example of separation anxiety in young children. Dubai-based educational psychologist Dr Onita Nakra believes it is not unusual. ‘In children between the ages of five and seven years, separation anxiety is the fear of leaving their parents when school starts. It is the normal developmental separation issues of a pre-schooler peaking with entry into kindergarten, then [resurfacing] between ages of eight and nine and again in middle school or high school.’
Vandana Gandhi, founder and CEO of British Orchard Nursery says one out of every 10 of their kindergarteners exhibits separation anxiety.
But what separates the other nine bushy-tailed and bright-eyed kids who walk into the school grounds excited and eager and remain so throughout the year?
Karen Cooke, a kindergarten teacher for over 25 years, who teaches at Dubai’s Greenfield Community School, says separation anxiety usually stems from the transition from home to school, ‘which is why many of them will settle down and stop crying in the first 10-15 minutes. They love being at home and they love being at school but what’s tricky is moving between the two.’
The transition period, say experts, takes different times for different children. There’s no magic formula except for good old time and patience. All that parents and educators can do is adopt methods to comfort the child and distract them from the separation.
‘Some kids walk in the first day and own the place. Other children take anywhere from three months to six months. Sometimes they’ll cry [incessantly] and need to be near the teacher and [hold] them. Eventually they’ll reach a stage where they just want to sit and watch but not be engaged,’ Karen explains.
Physical touch – a hug, a back rub – Dr Nakra says, is one method to soothe the child. ‘Teachers can identify a special toy or activity the child enjoys and they should ask them to perform specific jobs like being the teacher’s helper,’ she suggests.
Karen swears by a set of strategies: ‘It helps to leave a photograph of you with the child or an item of clothing that has the scent of the parent, or an important piece of [inexpensive] jewellery. In my classroom, I take a clock and mark the time at which mum or dad will come to get them. Watching the hand move assures them home time is nearing and meanwhile they can be happy at school.’
Dani Palmer, former learning assistant at Greenfield Community School, has dealt with separation anxiety as both a parent and educator. Her daughter Faith is nine and well-adjusted. Faith’s separation anxiety was broken by the sense of worth she gained when her teacher assigned her an important role in the school play. ‘It made her feel she had a reason to attend school when the teacher insisted Faith was irreplaceable.’
An important component to mitigating and allaying a child’s fears is figuring out what triggered it in the first place. Generally, it’s the change in routine – from home to school – that characterises first day nervousness and tantrums. However, separation anxiety is often rooted in hypothetical ‘what ifs’, especially if it makes a delayed appearance smack in the middle of the school term.
Dani has had students fret about everything from ‘who will love me at school if mummy isn’t here?’ to toddlers with pregnant mums worrying they’ll miss their sibling’s birth. ‘They don’t understand reasons, they just know they’ve got this feeling inside them they don’t like.’
Sometimes dad is travelling and what if he doesn’t come back or a sibling in university might not return and grandma who’s visiting might leave when they’re in school are worries that cloud the vivid imaginative minds of young children. To analyse and understand these intimate details that might hamper their education, it’s necessary that parents and teachers establish a solid relationship of trust.
‘From the missing cat to an argument between the parents, it needs to be shared with the school so the teacher can respond in a more compassionate and caring way,’ says Karen.
Rana Mani, founder of Stepping Stones Academy, concurs. ‘Children feel safest when they know the adult caring for them is in control of the situation and therefore we strive to establish boundaries and routines quickly.’
These reassuring boundaries and routines involve parents following the teacher’s advice and leaving school premises when asked to.
While it’s heart-breaking to walk away from a crying child, it’s imperative to not be overprotective. ‘A crying child requires a calm parent who believes their child is being left with a safe, caring, loving teacher,’ explains Dr Nakra and this is vital as often kids become anxious when they pick up on their parents’ apprehensions about a school or teacher.
Parents’ fears are bolstered by actions and reassurances from the school.
Technology ensures parents can stay connected with their kids at school even if they’re out of sight. Apps like Seesaw, a social media platform similar to Facebook allows teachers to record and share events of the day with parents is the norm at Dani and Karen’s school. But old school communication is always vital too, says Karen. ‘During drop-offs, teachers can give each parent a few minutes so they feel their concerns are being listened to whether they’re valid or completely ridiculous, then they can trust the teacher with their child.’
Beyond establishing a stable relationship with your child’s teachers, there are a few other things parents can do to ease kids into school and they tie-up with the two common factors that cause separation anxiety – a fear of abandonment and the language of the school being the child’s second language.
Rana’s school encourages parents to visit the nursery with their child prior to enrolment to meet the teacher and familiarise with the environment. ‘It’s much easier when parents leave children for shorter sessions starting with an hour – it reassures the child the parent will return and then gradually increasing the time until they’re busy with activities and cease noticing it,’ Rana says.
What is essential, though, is you never lie to the child about when you’ll return. ‘Kids can be highly traumatised about separation if a parent has lied to them about quick nip to shops and showing up hours later,’ says Karen.
Talking to your child about nursery or school through books and rhymes related to school helps prepare them for the change enthusiastically, says Vandana. ‘And when you’re dropping them off on the first day never leave without a goodbye,’ she reminds.
Irish exits aside, language and the fear of being lost in translation can hinder kids whose mother tongue isn’t English, a major concern in multicultural UAE where expat families land with very little to short notice and children are enrolled in schools within days of the move.
Teaching them simple phrases like ‘hello’ and ‘where is the bathroom’ is helpful as the inability to ask for a toilet and the fear of their needs not being understood is often very debilitating and can trigger separation anxiety, explains Karen.
If despite all these tactics, your child refuses to attend school over a consistent period of time, then it’s time to rope in the experts as separation anxiety is now separation anxiety disorder. ‘When anxiety is intense enough to manifest physical illness it’s called school phobia,’ says Dr Nakra.
Dani’s daughter Faith would have nightmares and scratch herself. At school Faith would devise new ways to get out of school, from wetting herself, to clinging relentlessly to her mum. After trying different strategies in cahoots with Faith’s teacher, Dani took Faith to a general physician who recommended some meditation and essential oils. ‘Funnily, it was bedtime baby oil in her bath that calmed her,’ says Dani.
If there’s a rare situation where teachers are unable to resolve, approach the school counsellor or a child psychologist.
You can’t pre-determine anxiety triggers as they can vary from child to child. However, what’s key to helping them, says Dani, ‘is teaching them that change – whether in the environment or any other aspect – is okay!’