Expat kids go back to school
For expat parents and their children, the start of September and a new year of schooling can be even more daunting than it is in the UK.
The start of September can bring some of the stiffest tests in expat life. A new year of schooling means a period of transition, and a host of associated worries for both children and parents. Unsettled young people in schools – whether overseas or in the UK – can mean the start of cracks in any plans.
Natural responses from parents include a feeling of helplessness, or a need to try and control everything they can to avoid problems. But without resorting to micromanagement, there are practical ways in which expat parents can provide useful support and smooth the way.
Be prepared for the change
Whether children are starting school for the first time in a new location, or making the jump to secondary level, avoiding the pitfalls of change is always the first step. Of course, a visit to the school will help enormously. However, it is not always possible to get to the school, so make sure you’ve researched its location and buildings as much as you can from the website, DVD and prospectus so your child knows what to expect.
Have open conversations about the new school and what it means to them, including any concerns they might have. (This is natural, and your support and understanding is vital here.) It’s far better to air worries early. But also talk to your children about the positive aspects; the facilities and extracurricular opportunities and trips which are on offer. And remember to remind them that they never lose good friends, they just make more, many of whom will become lifelong.
You may not be there at the start of term to settle them, so it is important to make sure they have everything they will need. Never underestimate how derailing the lack of the most trivial piece of equipment can be when mum or dad is not there to help. Depending on their age, it can be a good thing to talk about your own school experiences, especially those times you’ve been apprehensive about change, (the older they are, the less receptive they are likely to be to this, at least on the outside, but don’t think they are not taking it in). It will reassure them that it is all right to feel nervous, apprehensive and worried.
Expat children at boarding school
If your children are at schools in the UK while you remain abroad, set up reliable channels of communication along with some ground rules for how and when you’ll be in touch. Mobile phones, Skype, and social media have made this easier, but it’s important they are used in the right way, without digital communications becoming either intrusive or overly relied upon.
Once the children have started their new term it’s important for parents themselves to be patient. Expect the transition to work out well – children will quickly pick up on a lack of faith – but remember that the early days may well bring some problems, meaning more time is needed to adjust to all the different kinds of change. Put aside time to do what you say you are going to do, even if it is just to speak by phone. And don’t worry if they don’t call – that really is a good sign. Mums especially fret that their child has not been in contact, but it is so very often because they are having a whale of a time.
For parents who are out of the country, the school is even more in loco parentis. So it is important that you develop a good relationship with the Houseparent. They will know when to contact you with a concern, and you must learn to trust their judgement. They are usually very good at picking up signals. The school will most probably have a comprehensive induction and familiarisation programme for your child. Encourage them to be fully involved in this. It is a crucial time to make friends and to have others to share those new experiences with.
Your child is unique
It won’t always work out at a particular school, and that doesn’t have to be a problem. It doesn’t necessarily signal any kind of failure. Many children end up changing schools and then settle into a new environment which suits their needs much better. Your child is unique. Genuine achievement is not always about being at the “best” school in terms of ranking or reputation, but it is about finding the one that provides the right experience for your child. Again, honest conversations with children – and with the school – will be the foundation for success.
Every school year will bring challenges. But it’s important to remember, transitions aren’t a pass or fail situation. There isn’t just a single ladder to be climbed.
By Ian Hunt. First published 10 Aug 2012
Ian Hunt is the managing director at independent schooling experts Gabbitas Education