Guidance from Dr. Josette Abdalla
By Harim Humayun
In her deep soothing voice, licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Josette Abdalla answers the phone late evening and we launch into a riveting chat about problems people have getting their kids (and themselves) back into school/work mode after relaxing for so long.
Cairo West Magazine learns how to get ready for school and work after a relaxing break away and some fun things for you to try out with your children (and yourself!).
CWM: How far in advance should you try to get the children back into normal school year routine?
Dr. JA: I would say around 10 days before the actual start of the school year. It should be a gradual re-introduction like going to sleep at regular hours; during summer holidays parents are relaxed about sleep schedules. Children of all ages stay up beyond their bedtime and the routine is completely disturbed, so it’s a gradual change back that we should focus on.
You can start by reinforcing the routine that comes along with the start of school, meaning that if a child (it differs with age) is going to have dinner around 7/8ish, bath after that and then bedtime, we should start getting back into that routine by having regular meal times and engaging in calm activities during the day gradually. The last 24 hours should not be hectic. It has to be a fun and gradual preparation where the child is not overwhelmed and bored at the same time.
What are the most important adjustments to be made?
Setting the mind frame of the child is very important. There are always some children that do not want to go back to school while others really do. So for those who are not keen on going back to school, it’s a good idea for the parents to have their child socialize with two interesting kids from their child’s class. Or if the children are taking the bus, it could be the children on that bus. The contagion that comes along with a child not being keen on going to school is that they latch on, so this can be a step towards easing the child into the idea of going back to school.
What steps can the whole family take together to get back into work/school mode?
Nobody is going to go out of his or her way; it should not be a dramatic situation. It should be a relaxed situation in which the child should not feel like something horrible or out of the ordinary is about to happen. It should be a normal setting in which there could be a fun activity a day or two before the start date of school, but make sure it is not a long one, something that lasts about 4 to 5 hours and does not make the child get nervous.
And if there are obligations that need to be fulfilled, as some children do in families where the parents are not together, it’s good to get the social obligations like meeting up with a parent out of their way before the start of the school year.
How can you handle a child who is rebelling at the idea of holidays being over?
This is why I am talking about the indirect approach rather than the direct approach; let the child rebel as much as he/she wants without focusing on it too much or allowing it to become an issue. When they gradually start to settle into their bedtime routine, changes and discussions about having to go to school are not blown out of proportion or handled in a confrontational way, rebelling against having to return to school will probably gradually decrease In most cases when they find out who else is going to be with them in the school or class – they are much happier to go.
Are there any simple tips that can make the idea of getting back to school more fun?
Some parents will find it very useful to carpool if their child does not take a bus. It would be an indirect fun activity, one day its one mother/father picking up a few children, another day is some other parent etc. – kids enjoy this kind of get together. You can give them motivation such as scheduling training sessions for sports during weekends, or getting new stuff for school, e.g. a new pencil case or a new backpack; or re-arranging their room in at attractive way, etc. nothing extravagant or over the top, just a few things to get them keen and eager.
Even for adults it can be difficult to get back into work mode, what advice can you give to avoid post-holiday depression?
Same thing with parents – whether they are working parents or non-working parents – everyone needs to adjust to a routine. It should be so that the parent feels like a load has been settled before getting back into the school and work routine. The adults also need to have a methodology where all the activities related to house and work are handled in a clear routine.
You cannot come back from a vacation where the house is a mess, and it is an attack of sorts where all the cleaning, shopping and resituating happens at the same time. So the adult has to get into a clear routine in which they are relaxed and the kids are also relaxed in the 10 days where we begin the gradual preparedness for school. So when the child starts school and comes home grumpy to a house that is a whirlwind of activity and to a parent who is overwhelmed, it takes a toll on them and creates a vicious cycle of negativity in both the adult and the child.
How many extra-curricular activities should a child have once they get back to school?
I do not recommend extra-curricular activities during the weekdays unless the child is in KG and has no homework. If a child comes home at 4pm, then is expected to sleep at 7pm or 8pm, you find that it is the mother who is pushing the child to change, go to the club, train well, then go back home, to do homework. This may cause the child to throw tantrums and rebel, which in turn can anger the parent. In general, if this is the routine than it is not worth pushing extra activities on the children, they can just enjoy a relaxed evening, let them play with their own toys, give them half an hour on screen devices and make sure family bonding is kept a priority.
How many hours of TV should a child watch during the week?
Depending on the age of the child, it could go from less to more. Some schools already do a lot of the work on iPads, Interactive White Boards and computers. When a child has completed all of his or her obligations, as a fun activity, I would recommend letting him or her watch TV for say 1 to 2 hours at the most per day under certain circumstances. On weekends, IT time can go up to 4 hours , but with breaks.
What else must we bear in mind?
It is important for children to have a sense of responsibility. Parents need to set criteria – do your work, we’ll check, finish up all your obligations etc. and then the children can be rewarded for completing those obligations. The routine set in place once the school year begins should not be rushed for a child. Let’s say a child (14 years old) wakes up at 6/6:30 am, heads to school after that, comes home from school at 4pm, takes an hour to relax, starts homework at 5pm which needs at least 3 hours, bedtime is at 10pm, and we need to ensure they get 8 hours of sleep. Add training or extracurricular activities into this schedule – this is what we would call a rushed and hectic routine for a child. There needs to be a balance with family also – a child needs family but hanging out with them should not be a day chore. Add a bit of sport into the routine for weekends, make them socialize with their classmates, go out together for something quick, easy and fun. Make sure it is a routine filled with lots of love, affection and responsibility – starting from when they are around 4 years old and onwards.
Dr. Josette Abdalla is a licensed clinical psychologist, with a BA in psychology from AUC and a Masters and PhD from Ain Shams University, Cairo. She taught at AUC (Psychology Department) for around 20 years, has been in private practice since 2000, and has also had professional experience working with companies on organizational psychology. She is at the moment practicing in Maadi (Head of Counseling at Learning Resource Center), Sheikh Zayed (Oasis Clinics), and a private practice in Heliopolis.