Whatever their age, the start of a new school year can be a daunting time for your child. Facing the challenges together could go a long way to making their time in the classroom enjoyable. Jennifer Gibson asked the UAE’s leading childhood and education experts for their advice on tackling 10 of the most common challenges.

01. Fitting in with new classmates

While finding their place within a new school or class can prove daunting for any child, helping them to settle successfully is all about increasing their confidence in the task ahead. “Perhaps ‘fitting in’ should not be the goal, but instead ‘meeting new classmates’ or ‘getting along’ with them,” says Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director at The LightHouse Arabia. “In a world where too many people are trying to ‘fit in’ we should strive for our children to be able to stand on their own while getting along with the group. Have conversations, ask open-ended questions and listen with an open heart and mind. By knowing more about themselves, they will have the self-esteem to be a part of a group and retain their individuality.” For older kids heading to high school, the challenge can be just as great, says Mini S Menon, a former teacher who sits on the advisory body of Sharjah’s GEMS Millennium School. “Encourage your child to keep an open mind when interacting with their new classmates, and remember that some children take more time than others to find their ground in a new environment. Just let them know that you are on their side, regardless.”

02. Getting to know a new teacher

The easiest way to calm your child’s nerves about this is to remind them that this is a nerve-racking time for teachers too, assures Sarah Brannon, head of preparatory school at Brighton College Dubai. “Encourage your child to try and share their ideas and feelings with their teacher and their relationship will quickly build. Teachers will explain class routines and how things are going to work, but don’t be afraid to ask if you forget.”

Nonetheless, if your child is unusually nervous, there are some practical steps you can take, explains Dr Saliha. “Speak to the teacher and let them know that your child is slow to warm up and may need some assistance in getting comfortable.”

03. Experiencing or witnessing bullying

Undoubtedly one of the toughest challenges pupils have to face, bullying is also one of many parents’ most common concerns. “All schools should have an anti-bullying policy, which must be shared with both students and parents at the start of the new academic year,” says David Quick, principal at Riverston School Dubai. “Communication is paramount here. If your child appears to be having a hard time, make yourself available. Try not to force the conversation though – just give them a hug and tell them that you are there for them if they want to talk. Find somewhere they feel safe or do something they enjoy doing to help them feel comfortable to tell you what’s on their mind. And always tell the school, even if it is only a hunch.”

04. Struggling academically

“Increased stress levels interfere with a child’s performance in both academic and social activities,” explains Beat Sommer, headteacher at Dubai’s Swiss International Scientific School, so ensuring things don’t get on top of your child is key. “Teachers break down tasks to minimise cumulative stress and enable children to have enough planning time in class.”

It’s also important to ensure your child knows that effort is the most important thing, says Dr Saliha. “When they come home with a grade they are disappointed in, ask them ‘did you do your best?’ Kids generally know if they did, and if they say ‘yes’ then they should be proud of their result. If they say ‘no’ then you can work through strategies on what they could do differently next time.”

05. Coping with increased expectation and workload

While this can cause nerves in even the most secure child, it is worth reassuring your little one that everyone is in the same boat, says Janecke Aarnaes, headteacher at Dwight School Dubai. “This is a normal rite of passage and it is helpful for students to know that they are often much more ready than they think. Additionally, teachers know that students will need time to understand the new system and are building this into the start of the year.”

On a practical level, says Dr Saliha, “One of the best things to teach children is to have time management skills. Create a schedule, work with them to understand their high and low-energy times to attend to homework, build study skills that work for them, and have visuals and reminders that help them feel more in control of their workload.”

06. Being around much bigger children for the first time

“Everyone is different and just because they are bigger or older, it doesn’t mean they will not be friendly or want to get to know younger kids,” says Barry Cooper, deputy academic head at Brighton College Dubai. “You will find that a lot of the older students are keen to help the younger students as they have been in the same position as them before.”

Nonetheless, increasing your child’s self-confidence can help significantly, says Dr Saliha. “The only thing your child needs to worry about is how to stand up for themselves if those kids should try to bother them. Teach your child assertiveness skills, where they can be firm, gentle and kind as they ask for what they need and talk about what they do not like.”

07. Finding their place socially

“Children these days don’t have as many social skills due to less exposure to adults and more technology and social media,” warns Dr Saliha. “How to introduce themselves, how to start conversations, what types of questions to ask and how to listen and show interest are all skills that need to be taught to kids. Model those skills for them by interacting with them and allowing them to see you interacting with other adults.”

Parents should also watch for signs of loneliness or social isolation in their child, says Beat. “Social withdrawal, increased sensitivity towards peers or teachers and a lack of trust in the school environment as a whole are easily identified through close observation and frequent communication with teachers and parents. Once detected, teachers and staff can put the necessary systems in place to support the student successfully.”

08. “I don’t want to go to school” Saturday nights

While this can happen to every child at some point in their school career, a more regular end-of-weekend dread can signify a deeper problem, says Dr Saliha. “Could they be struggling with a subject? Not getting along with a teacher? Afraid of another student? Do they have a test? Are they too tired in the mornings? If you stay connected to your child, and keep communication open, you will uncover a pattern which will help you address the deeper issue behind their school refusal.”

09. Lack of self-confidence

supervisor of Global Indian International’s primary section, and increasing dialogue with your child is key to overcoming it. “Ask your child what is worrying them and encourage them to share their fears. Make it a point to fix a time and place to talk to your child. Praising your child on their accomplishments and acknowledging their efforts helps to boost their self-confidence, while role-playing a certain situation with your child can also help them feel more confident in their handling of it.”

10. Test and exam pressures

Encouraging your child to see tests and exams as an opportunity can go a long way to helping them navigate this period confidently, says Brighton College’s Barry Cooper. “Tests only matter in what they tell you about your progress. They are an opportunity to see where you are strong and where you need to work. Not getting something right is not a bad thing, only failing to learn from your mistake is.”