x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Educating children 'a role for parents'

Reading to a child is worth six months at school, forum told.

DUBAI // Parents are putting the development of their children at risk by relying too heavily on outside help.

Educators must help them to realise the importance of involvement in a child's development, an education forum heard yesterday.

"More needs to be done," said Rabaa Al Sumaiti, a bilingual inspector at Dubai's education body, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), and author of a policy recommendation paper presented to the Dubai School of Government forum.

"We can start with postnatal classes that encourage both parents to be actively involved in their child's development from an early age and reduce the reliance on nannies and maids in a child's upbringing," she said yesterday.

Ms Al Sumaiti also urges schools to create awareness and provide more communication opportunities for parents. Too many families are unaware of the positive effects of parental engagement in their children's well-being, she said.

The latest results of a student test conducted in 65 countries, including the UAE, found engaged parents improved their children's academic outcome.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) found children in countries where parents read to their children scored higher than those in countries where they do not. Pisa officials equated the value of such involvement to having an extra six months of school.

According to the Dubai Statistics Centre, 94 per cent of Emirati parents hire nannies or maids to look after their children. Only 5 per cent of expatriate families have house-help.

Children spend between 30 and 70 hours a week with a nanny; in the US and Europe, the average is 28 hours a week.

Experts say the over-dependence on nannies has an adverse effect on children's growth.

"In most families both the parents work and the house help becomes necessary, but they are not the primary caregivers," said Sarah Dayal, a psychologist who runs the learning support programme at Raffles International School.

"When the children start spending more time with the maid, they are missing out on the value system and culture of the parents."

Ms Dayal said the long-term effects of such alienation are behavioural issues, including a lack of confidence, social isolation and phobias.

Educators discussing the issue at the DSG forum yesterday said the reliance could also hamper the child's language skills and create identity issues, as most housemaids are not Arabic speakers and their English is weak.

Ms Al Sumaiti said there was a perception among parents that the school was fully responsible for educating their children and that they needn't be involved at all.

"[They focus] on more day-to-day issues like textbooks and transport," she said.

The report, which interviewed parents across the board but focused on Emiratis, also noted that schools failed to engage Emirati parents appropriately. They did not take cultural considerations into account, such as when a phone call was more appropriate than written communication.

Noura Rashid, an Emirati mother of a Grade 3 pupil at an American curriculum school, said the teachers had just started making an effort to improve communication.

"However, there is very little face-to-face interaction, and I prefer that," she said.

"I would have them talk to me more about how my child is doing at school."

She said the school had started sending text messages to keep them updated. "This is good but they need to put in more effort to include us."

School inspectors did not find parent volunteer programmes in many schools and, when they did, their engagement was restricted to organising social events.

"In many schools, the only interaction between parents and the school is at infrequent parent-teacher interviews," said Ms Al Sumaiti.

"Expanding activities to include school governance arrangements, volunteering during school classes and regular feedback sessions will encourage parents to take a more active role in the education of their children."

Shaikha Al Tunaiji, assistant professor at the department of Foundations of Education at United Arab Emirates University, said parents could not be blamed completely as schools need to direct them on how to participate.

"If parents need to be engaged you need to be a welcoming school," she said. "Parents need to know what is required from them.

"We need to look at the schools' practices and encourage teachers to hold workshops for parents."

She said schools must create parent-teacher associations.

Kim Quick, a Dubai mother of two, said there should be more communication outlets. "I would like more parent-teacher evenings at my son's school.

"I do not only want to see the teacher on a formal basis once a year and just have a written report on his progress."

aahmed@thenational.ae