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Story | Education
5 September 2021

QF psychologist discusses how to help children socialize again as they return to school

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Image source: New Africa, via Shutterstock

Jody Roberson, psychologist at The Learning Center, explains how children might express anxiety, and what steps teachers and parents need to take to address these

As students prepare to return from their summer break and settle into the blended learning format, where they might have to go school on a few days and socialize with friends and teachers, socialization can become a huge challenge not just for students, but for teachers and parents as well in this back to school period.

Being socially distanced for more than a year has affected all members of society, including children. It has affected their social skills, and consequently reinforced their anxiety about returning to a physical, interactive environment.

According to Jody R. Roberson, Psychologist at The Learning Center, a specialized center for supporting children with mild to moderate learning needs across Qatar Foundation (QF) schools, and part of QF’s Pre-University Education, feelings of anxiety are common during this period.

Children may express their feelings of stress by saying that they feel sick, such as their stomach hurts, or they have a headache, which calls for attention from parents

Jody R. Roberson
Jody R. Roberson

“These feelings go back to three main reasons,” Roberson says. “The first is the common fear of infection; second is the high expectations of teachers and students’ performance; and the third is related to the level of socialization. Children may express their feelings of stress by saying that they feel sick, such as their stomach hurts, or they have a headache, which calls for attention from parents.”

When something like this happens, parents shouldn’t talk to their children about their stomach pain or headache, but rather about the fears they suffer from, and help reduce these fears.

Creating a daily routine is important to make the child feel comfortable

Jody R. Roberson

Creating a daily routine is important to make the child feel comfortable. It is better that the child is prepared for what he or she will experience during their school day, which will reduce the tantrums, crying or resistance. “Here, parents can try to predict the sequence of events in the school which will make it easier for children to accept and adapt to,” Roberson explains.

Packing the school bag ahead of time, talking about teachers and friends the child will meet, reading a story – all help with reassuring anxious children. Roberson also recommends to encourage the child to talk about any anxiety he or she feels.

The development of communication skills is one of the most important educational goals at QF schools. Image source: ESB Professional, via Shutterstock

School teachers and educators can also help in this by informing parents in advance of study plans, as well as COVID-19 protocols at the school, so that the child’s expectations do not collide with the reality in school, especially for younger children who have built their own expectations about their friends, hugging them, and playing with them.

Distance education does not teach coping skills, like dealing with frustration, failure. So, our focus should be on helping them enhance those skills

Jody R. Roberson

Explaining how virtual or distance learning affects the social development of children, Roberson explains: “Children learn better from each other, which is why students are divided into groups in classrooms in QF schools, and the development of communication skills is one of our most important educational goals.

“Learning social skills includes dealing with frustration, failure, and other negative emotions, and distance education does not teach these coping skills. So, as students returning to school, our focus should be on helping them enhance those skills.”

With children being cooped up at home and not meeting as many people socially, their lack of acceptance of new faces is a challenge as well. Strengthening their feelings of safety and trust toward others is something parents and teachers need to work on.

We may find that some children have become quiet or shy, and don’t talk to others, they need to be reassured that they will be safe, and that others are not here to harm them

Jody R. Roberson

“We may find that some children have become quiet or shy, and don’t talk to others, and their reaction to dealing with the resulting anxiety is either anger or escape because they don’t know how to deal with these situations. And in this case, these children need to be reassured that they will be safe, and that others are not here to harm them,” Roberson says.

Children look for safety when reading facial expressions but putting on masks prevents them from hearing our voices clearly or seeing our smiles – all of which makes them take longer before they accept us, according to Roberson.

Wearing masks hide our smiles and muffle our voices which makes children take longer to accept us. Image source: Drazen Zigic, via Shutterstock

And feelings of anxiety are not limited to students only, teachers also suffer from the same, and to mitigate anxiety, they should ensure that they follow a routine, such as getting enough sleep, exercise, eat healthy, as well as socialize with others.

Roberson points to the focus of QF schools on the mental health of teachers as well, where psychological support systems are available for them, such as organizing weekly sessions to talk about their fears and challenges they faced due to the pandemic.

“The majority of our teachers are far from their families and do not have many opportunities to communicate. We try to provide them with those opportunities such as listening to them, integrating them into certain activities, giving them the resources to be able to do what they want,” Roberson says.

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