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Thursday, Oct 06, 2022

Low Social Skills, Separation Anxiety On The Rise Among Kids Starting School, Say Experts

Low Social Skills, Separation Anxiety On The Rise Among Kids Starting School, Say Experts

With the new academic school year looming, social anxiety and separation anxiety may be common among children born just before or during the recent pandemic, according to psychologists in the UAE.

Parents are being urged to look out for the signs and take steps to help ensure their child's transition into education in early September is a smooth one.

Anthony Nhlapo, Clinical Psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai, says: 'Every parent wants their child to have a wonderful experience when they start nursery or school for the first time. The pandemic, however, has shattered this opportunity for many young children and for those starting in September, many are unlikely to remember a time before Covid-19.'

'I have witnessed an increase in underdeveloped social skills and separation anxiety among young children as a direct consequence of the pandemic and its associated restrictions. This will definitely impact negatively on their ability to adjust to any new social environment, especially a school setting. They may feel overwhelmed and have difficulty establishing and maintaining healthy relationships. Social anxiety will certainly make it difficult for them to enjoy and fully immerse themselves in the school environment, with the risk of adversely affecting their learning ability.'

While it is normal for a parent to feel anxious when their child starts school for the first time, especially given the unpredictable nature of infection rates, this is more likely to subside over time as the child begins to settle in their new environment.

However, common signs and symptoms that could point to more pressing issues such as social and separation anxiety, among children in the weeks leading up to and in those early days of starting school include:

*  Persistent changes in their eating and sleeping patterns
*  Tantrums that were not common prior to starting school
*  Aggressive behaviour
*  Social withdrawal
*  Crying spells that are inconsolable
*  Refusal to go to school despite constant nagging
*  'Clingyness' that was not present before starting school
*  Bedwetting that was not present before starting school

Another UAE psychologist, Rania Ali says children will spend a large proportion of their day in school, so it's vital they feel happy and included. 'Aside from the educational element, school also plays an important role in enhancing a child's emotional and social growth,' said.

'It is here they learn to foster their communication and social skills, learn how to become part of a team, appropriately express and regulate their feelings and emotions – in addition to understanding those of their peers. They learn how to control their actions, take turns and are exposed to society 'rules' from an early age.'

Dr Rania added: 'While many children have benefited from extra time at home with parents during the pandemic, there is no doubt that it has also had a negative impact on the wellbeing of many others. Children who came into the world during this exceptional period may feel overwhelmed as a result of their lack of social interaction and experience of loneliness. However, children are resilient by nature. They have the capacity to cope with changes and embrace new environments.'

For those children who are displaying signs of social anxiety or a reluctance to leave their parents or caregivers for any period of time, the psychologists recommend the following to help them settle into school:

*  Validate and acknowledge your child's fears and anxieties of being in a new environment. Be ready to answer their questions in a simple way and let them know that they are not being a difficult child for not wanting to go to school.

*  Offer plenty of reassurance. Ensure your child is aware of your continued support and care as they try to adjust to their new school environment.

*  Give your child a hug before going to school. This can help lessen the tension and anxiety the child feels in the morning before going to school.

*  Learn to say 'goodbye' and 'I will see you later' to your child daily. This small gesture can help them internalise that separation (i.e. dropping the child off or taking the child to the bus) and reunion (picking them up) are not mutually exclusive experiences, but part of the process of parting and meeting.

*  Spend daily quality time with your child to feel more supported and connected to you as they acclimate to a new environment. Share your first experience of school with them to help 'normalise' their worries and ensure they are involved and feel included in all aspects of school preparation, such as choosing stationery, new shoes etc.

*  Organise play dates – these are a great opportunity for children to extend contact with their peers beyond the school boundaries. They will help encourage quick familiarity and foster emotional bonds that will help your child feel safe and secure at school.

*  Implement a responsible sleep routine several days before the school terms begin - so they are always well rested to start a new and challenging day.

*  Speak to the teacher. Most teachers have plenty of experience in dealing with a whole host of challenges that can affect new school starters. Parents can work with the teacher and/or school counsellor to provide a stimulating and supportive atmosphere to help with a smooth transition.

*  Hybrid learning or flexible schooling. This is an option that can be considered for children who are really struggling to settle. Alternating between in-person and online learning can help to lessen anxiety, while also ensuring continued learning.

*  Seek professional help. If a child's symptoms appear to be persistent and unabating, consult a child psychologist/counsellor to help you and your child learn ways to manage the transition.

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