How to help your child settle in a new school

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Adjusting to a new normal

You’ve made the move, unpacked, started your new job and your new life! It’s an exciting time – but there are still some challenges on the road ahead. One of the big trials is making sure your child can settle happily into his or her new school and can fully embrace your new life together.

Starting any new school is hard – even in their native country. They must learn rules, routines and expectations on top of a demanding curriculum and the first few weeks are hard work. When you add the extra elements of not knowing anyone, not speaking the local language and not having an instinctive feel for the culture, that’s an awful lot for a child to process!

The good news is the benefits to your child are enormous and kids are often better at coping than we give them credit for. But they still need our help and support.

Get the timing right

It’s a well-documented fact that moving to a new house is one of the most stressful things we ever undertake and the same stress applies to a child. The chances are that when you move, you’ll time it so that you have a few weeks to settle in and explore before you start your new job. Wherever possible, give your child the same period of grace.

Agree a suitable starting date with the school, even if it doesn’t coincide with the start of a term, and let your child settle into their new home before they take on the next challenge.

Many people choose to move at the beginning of the long school holiday in order to settle in. However, this isn’t always a good idea. Many people go away for the holidays so you won’t meet many, if any, fellow expats. Schools won’t be open (obviously!) so you and your child won’t be able to meet school families. The long school holidays can be a trial with no respite.

Consider moving towards the end of the break. This strategy gives you and your children more time with existing friends and you won’t be kicking around looking in vain for people to meet in your new country.

Take small steps

The first day at a new school can be overwhelming and thrown in the deep end, a child can feel a sense of dislocation and abandonment. Most schools are receptive to the idea of ‘getting to know you’ visits and might even be able to welcome you and your child to attend different parts of the day together, to get a feel for the environment. This will give you a chance to meet the teachers, build relationships and for your child to start making some new friends. Even a couple of hours is good, as then your child won’t be completely at sea on their first day. Another bonus is you’ll be able to time the school run! All these little things add up to getting off on the right foot.

Perhaps you could agree some half days, individual sessions or extra-curricular activities where your child can join in, safe in the knowledge that it won’t be long before you come back. It’s all about building confidence; finding out the layout of the school, where the toilets are, what the routine is for the day, where coats and bags are stored – these all seem like minor details as an adult but for a child they can be a major worry and a distraction from the core purpose of learning.

Keep talking

It sounds obvious but your child needs the opportunity to talk to you about what they’re going through. Talking things over allows the mind to unravel difficulties and explore solutions. You may well feel that this is a given – of course you talk to your child – but you’ll have a lot on your plate too so it’s easier to trivialise their concerns.

Having said that, this is about balance. You might be feeling anxious about your child’s transition and you might be tempted to ask them about every tiny detail of their day. Don’t overdo it. Sometimes over-thinking and over-analysing can create anxieties where there are none. Set aside some time each day for a chat. Perhaps this would be when you sit down together to eat, or in our case, the drive to and from school is when my daughter opens up. Whichever works for you, provide that opportunity.

Ask your child, “how did your day go?” This provides the prompt with a fairly open question rather than “did you have a good day?” which just requires a yes or no response. From that point on it’s often best to let them take the lead and share as much, or as little, as they want.

In the background, do whatever you can to make home life ‘safe’ and ‘normal’ – source familiar foods, establish a secure routine and try to keep the moving-house stress to a minimum. Every little helps!

Be aware

Children of different ages handle this whole transition business very differently.

Kindergarten age

Preschool children are often the most resilient. Once they’ve made a friend and learned to communicate with them (which is a much simpler task when you’re under 5 and have toys, sand and water to play with!) they’ll feel much happier and will settle in very quickly.

Primary school age

Primary school children tend to be the ones whose worries are a little more abstract. You might think they’re worried about language, learning and making friends but actually, they’re more likely to be distracted by whether they have the right things in their bag, what happens at break time, how the lunch system works and knowing when they can, or can’t, go to the bathroom!

You can make their transition easier by finding out exactly what they need before they start. Books, pens, pencils, uniform – researching the school together and finding out whether there are any trends that the children are currently sharing. We didn’t find out until after the first day of school in Berlin that we had to provide all the stationery. This made for a frantic charge around an unfamiliar city to find the ‘right’ items and got everyone off to a bad start.

Make sure they have smart, up-to-date belongings that they can take pride in. You may feel this is an unwelcome expense but it will help your child feel a lot less anxious. Communication and socialising comes easily to most younger children and they’ll make connections quickly if they don’t have trivial things to worry about.

Secondary school age

At secondary school age, things get a bit more difficult. From the age of about 11 or 12 children develop a much stronger sense of self-awareness and this is where fitting in gets tricky. At this age, you need to be a lot more guided by the child and undertake a lot more planning and preparation. For example, if they’ll be attending a local school, giving them the opportunity to learn the language and culture in advance will be helpful. Find out if the school provide a good settling in process for new kids and take advantage of it.

It’s unlikely your teen will choose to share as much with you as a younger child might, so the best way to ensure you’re providing the right support is to be there as much as possible and to be observant. Changes in behaviour, eating habits, mood and appearance can all indicate difficulties so keep your eyes and ears open. At this age, if problems aren’t addressed they can lead very quickly to mental health issues and anti-social behaviour so don’t be afraid to intervene if you think something is causing a concern.

Bragging rights

At all ages, your child will feel reassured if they can keep in touch with friends from home. Sending and receiving letters can be a big comfort. Social media really does come into its own here too, but keep an eye on what they’re doing online. And don’t underestimate the value of having the chance to brag a little bit about their new experiences! Feeling that they’re having an adventure while things at home are just normal, can lend a unique and exciting edge to their transition and can help them to see it in a positive light.

There’s no right or wrong answer to settling in; be guided by the needs of your child, keep an open mind and perhaps most importantly, be positive – don’t let your worries (so many worries!) become theirs.

Expatability Chat Podcast

If you’d prefer to listen to me talk about this topic, here is my podcast episode about First Day of School Tips

My book on choosing the right school for YOUR child overseas

Choosing the right school for your child is one of the hardest decisions you’ll make as an expat parent when moving abroad. There are many education options around for expats, and so much depends on your individual family set-up and child that there is no ‘one-school-fits-all’ solution.

Each child is different and each country’s school system is different, even within the ‘generic’ international schools. Also, families differ in their requirements and aspirations, and even relocations vary greatly. What worked well for you all in one country won’t necessarily be replicated in your next move.

It’s easy to get very stressed at this point. Don’t panic! I’ve put together this book to help you kick-start your search for the best type of school for your child.

Available on your local Amazon

To get instant access to the key points you need to know right now, check out my abridged version eBook here

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