This summer we're starting a new series for children and their adjustment. This series is being hosted by Nextpat in collaboration with Kim Adams of Resilient Expats. In addition to this article, we have a wonderful Back-to-School guide that can be downloaded from Nextpat's website. We'll also be examining challenges of returning to the U.S. for college later in the year. If you have a burning question about kids' adjustments or a great story about the challenges your kids faced and how they overcame them, please reach out!
Now, on to the good stuff!
People have a few basic needs (beyond the basics ;)): They need to feel a sense of belonging. They need to be able to make choices and to feel a degree of control in their lives. And they need to have fun! (Adults might call it joy or fulfillment, or the combination of happiness and meaning.) What does this look like in the context of starting a new school? Especially in a new place with fewer international students and where differences are less obvious.
Remember you're not only changing school, but adapting to a new city and culture too. For more resources on this topic, see Nextpat’s article on how to prepare kids for a move. A few of the most important strategies to help kids cope are outlined in Sue Holloway's article in Global Living Magazine: How to Help Your Kids Cope with Culture Shock.
In short, getting “buy in” from your kids will go a long way in meeting their needs for control, choice, fun and belonging. With that in mind, here are a few suggestions when preparing for a new school. For more specific ideas check out our Back-to-School Guide.
Give your kids as much notice as possible and encourage their questions.
Give your kids ample opportunities to ask questions, and take all questions seriously. Let kids lead through their questions, rather than front-loading lots of information. Usually they’ll absorb only what they’re ready for. At the same time, try to figure out and answer your child’s underlying questions.
Example from Priya’s childhood:
I asked my parents whether there would be grass in the new playground, because I had heard that America was all concrete. My parents assured me there was grass. But my question really was whether I’d be able to show off and fit in by doing what was cool at the time - jumping off the swings!
Younger kids may be confused about the timeline. Some children won’t seem to be processing changes until the process is well underway. They might not say much until the house is prepared for the moving company, or you go visit the new school. However, it’s always best to give them plenty of time to mentally adjust and prepare.
Give them vocabulary to voice their experience.
Ask your children what they’re thinking about to uncover their concerns. They might have trouble putting it into words. They might be worried about aspects of life you’re not thinking about at all.
Reverse culture shock can be surprising and very confusing. Giving your kids a framework to think about their emotional reactions (such as the rollercoaster below) can be reassuring. It helps them feel safe knowing you’ll understand what they’re trying to express. It also helps you connect as a family through your shared experience of adjustment.
A change in activity and location often leads to different conversation. For example:
>Long drives - being captive but not having to make eye contact allows more vulnerability
>When the hands are busy (cooking, crafting, or working side by side) bonding happens
>Physical activity. Have you noticed that the conversation with coworkers while walking for coffee is radically different than in the office?
Older kids will benefit from knowing what to expect and having the vocabulary to express it. Using a picture like this rollercoaster can make it accessible to kids of all ages.
Let your kids participate in decisions whenever possible.
When there are choices kids can participate in, let them. For example,
>picking out school supplies,
>how to handle lunch (buying lunch vs homemade),
>when and where to drop them off or pick them up,
>what to wear to school.
Are there cultural values you need to review?
Your kids have probably absorbed a lot of American worldview from you. They've also absorbed some values from the host culture. To anticipate areas where your family may experience "rub," take an anthropologist's approach. This short piece, Values Americans Live By (L. Robert Kohls), explores cultural values from the perspective of a foreigner.
As an “anthropologist,” you can observe first and reserve judgment. Take time to figure out what’s happening, and then decide how you wish to engage. In other words, “Look, Listen, Learn” before you act. This is a coping skill children can learn, and benefit from long term. Teach them to recognize thoughts like, “That’s not how it works in XYZ country!” as a cue to Look Listen Learn.
Fitting into the new social environment
Explain to your kids the differences in clothing styles they’ll encounter.
For example, Kim’s kids are acclimated to extreme heat, and would happily wear long pants and long shirts in summer. In the US this would earn them stares and comments.
Some kids are very independent no matter what the crowd is doing; others care a lot about blending in. Be prepared to adjust wardrobe and school supplies once your child discovers what is “cool.”
One issue relevant to kids is the need to not be seen as boastful. Help your kids understand situations where they should try to be “low key.”
Our Back to School Guide (developed in collaboration with Kim Adams of Resilient Expats) delves into
>cultural questions to assess,
>reminders on American English usage.
***One of our future pieces in this series on summer activities that might help expose children to some of these nuances in advance! If you are returning to the DC-MD-VA area - Nextpat’s reorientation course can also address some of these issues. We’ll be hosting our summer DC reorientation in August 2019 - sign up here!
Finding out about the community
Look online for tourism or economic development videos from the region.
Search for your city on Facebook and try to find friendly groups where you can ask about neighborhoods, schools, events and activities.
See if you can find a pen-pal in advance for your kids to ask questions of someone they can relate to.
Finding out about the school
If you are trying to decide on a school or trying to remember how the school system works in the States, check out this book: “Understanding American Schools” from the Interchange Institute. It explains U.S. school terminology and procedures in contrast to international schools. As such, it is a great reminder of some nuances of the system.
Explore the school’s website together with your child. If there’s a digital newspaper or magazine, it can give you a glimpse into the conversations and events going on.
It’s likely you’ll be in touch with the school counselor as part of the admissions process. (Note: In an international school this role may have been filled by a class teacher, year level leader, advisory teacher or pastoral care coordinator.) The counselor should have a pulse on attitudes in the school and be able to describe the school culture and make up. Our back-to-school guide also has questions you can ask the school for cultural adjustment - download it directly from our website.
Does your child generally need more time to mentally prepare and adjust? Ask if someone could give a brief video tour (live or recorded) through the school and classroom, even a quick hello with the teacher.
Remember that school staff are extremely busy, so be patient and don’t be too concerned if the response is not lengthy.
Get to know the school before they start classes.
Take advantage of any orientation times the school has set up. If your kids need more help adjusting, ask permission to go by another time as well.
Tour the whole campus, being sure to see all the places your child will visit during the week. Classroom(s), lockers, restrooms, bus or pickup/dropoff area, cafeteria, sports areas. Also be sure your child knows where to go for special concerns. The nurse’s office, attendance office, counselor's office.
If a student can lead the tour you’ll get a different perspective, and it may give your child one social connection. Try to find out: What are the routines during recess, lunch, before and after school, and between classes? What do kids do during their down time? Which places on campus are good for socializing and meeting people? Are there clubs, activities or classes known for having a lot of fun?
Go to the school’s library to look at last year’s yearbook, school newspaper, or magazine. Even if your child isn’t very interested, parents can get some insights on the school culture and activities that are available.
There’s a good chance that class sizes and student teacher ratio will be different. Daily rhythms, homework routines and assessment practices may be quite different from your last school. Try to get a sample timetable in advance (even if it’s from last year) so your child can get an idea of how things go.
Once school starts.
Be sure to ask: What steps can my child take if they have an issue during the school day or feel lonely? Who should he talk to?
Can your child get leniency in spelling until she has learned the American spellings?
Ask the teacher for a few short (keep it to 5 minutes!) meetings in the first weeks. Check in with the teacher. Share with each other any observations and insights about what is going well or what is a struggle.
Have realistic expectations. The social adjustment could take a long time depending on your child’s age, temperament, and the context you’re moving from and into. Some children will settle in very quickly. However, it could take a year to settle in before students are able to tackle academics full force again.