Most expat kids will go through it, along with their worry-filled mind mothers. As an expat mum, chances are you will move at some point. And when you do, you will have to face the fact that your children will change schools.
Of course, this can feel scary, for both the mums and the children. The age of your children at the time and their personality will also affect how big the impact will be.
We moved our kids twice. After the -not so great- first experience, I did some research and (after some trial and error) I compiled the 10 steps to help your kids adapt to a new school.
1. Start talking about it as soon as possible and be relentlessly positive about it
Aim for as soon as you know you’re moving. And try to know it as soon as possible. Kids react much better if they know something is going to happen.
Explain to them why you’re moving and be undeniably happy and positive about it. Discuss how the weather, food, distance to relatives, language and traditions will be different, but keep it always under a positive light.
2. Choose your new school wisely
This one requires thorough research of the schooling system in your new host country. Public or private? It really depends on the quality of the public system and your own preference.
Public schools offer a deeper language immersion, which in the long run will promote integration and identification to the new country.
A private or international school, if you can afford it, provides an opportunity to learn the local language at a more gentle pace. The cultural shock will probably be less dramatic if the kids can at least communicate in one of the languages of the international school.
What’s more, they will socialise with other kids that are in their same situation. Beware of isolation, though. If you’re planning to stay for a relatively long time in your host country, strive for your kids to integrate and also find local friends.
3. Visit the school before the start of the year
Try to visit the school before the start of the year, when it’s nice and quiet. That way the kids will have the time to explore and familiarise with the surroundings at their own pace.
Let them play for a little while and let them see that the school is actually filled with fun stuff to do! Meeting the teacher/s is also a great idea, if at all possible.
If they have a clear picture of what the school and teachers look like, they won't have to deal with fearing the unknown.
4. Get ready for some tears
You may count yourself as one of those lucky parents who have children who stay anywhere without a fuss. I'm not one of them.
Most kids will experience some degree of anxiety when a change as big as this happens in their life. Sometimes it won’t hit immediately, but only after the rush of the first few days and the novelty fade out. You can expect them to have a few tough weeks at the beginning. It can be longer or shorter, of course, but only a cause for concern if they’re still unhappy after several months.
5. Let them take a transitional object with them
Depending on how old your kids are, they still may have some sort of lovey or comfort toy that provides them psychological comfort. These objects are particularly useful when the kids are faced with unusual situations.
Encourage your kids to bring their lovey to school. Hint: If they’re embarrassed about it, they can simply carry it inside their backpacks without anyone noticing.
It made a lot of a difference for my eldest when I wrapped a piece of my jewellery around his favourite teddy bear. It turned out to be a powerful combo! It doesn’t have to be your favourite piece of jewellery of course; after all, they might lose it! Just anything that belongs to you.
6. Get a “Sorgenfresser”
Now this one was a winner! A “Sorgenfresser”, or Worry Eater, is a German toy in the form of many adorable little monsters that have a big mouth and a zip to close it. The idea is that you can write down what worries them about school in a piece of paper and have the Worry Eater chomp it away.
When we wrote “mum going away” and put it inside of our Worry Eater, something clicked inside my older one. It was so popular, that other children even started putting their worries inside! A lifesaver.
They're made in Germany, but they can be found in shops in many European countries or bought online. Amazon has them and ships them worldwide. If you still can’t get hold of one, you can simply use a box or anything where you can “lock” their fears and worries away (it works for nightmares too!).
7. Make the drop-off as quick and relaxed as possible
Choose a routine for drop off that works for you, and stick to it! That way the kids will know what to expect. We like to come in and get our slippers on, then do a group hug and a kiss. They then go to their classroom.
In the early days, when they were not so crazy about staying, I was tempted to stay longer, but that's a double-edged knife. If you stay longer because they cry, then they might keep on doing it only to get you to stay. And the cycle goes on and on.
So the best way is to be calm and matter-of-fact. Follow your routine, tell them you’ll be back for them in no time and leave.
8. Don’t diminish their feelings
When you’re discussing your kids’ worries, you might be tempted to diminish them, in an attempt to make them seem smaller than they really are.
This is dangerous. They may seem small for you. After all, you know they’ll be just fine and that you will go back to get them. But to your kids, this is a huge deal, and if you turn down their feelings they may think they’re silly or weak for having them.
They’re allowed to have feelings! Acknowledge their fears and worries and address them as best as you can. Make sure they’re able to put words on what they're feeling and overcome them, don’t shut them down.
9. Help them making new friends
Encourage them to socialise and try to reinforce the budding relationships that will develop after the first few weeks.
Get creative here. You can organise a “moving in” party with the kids of the class. Once they make a few acquaintances, you can organise sleepovers or play dates. To foster more friendships, you can enrol your kids in some after-school activities.
10. Be patient
Adjusting to a new place takes time. You know this first-hand. It’s the same with your kids, only they’ll probably adapt and pick up the language much faster than you.
Be patient when they’re anxious, with the rough drop-offs, possible mood swings and anger. After all, it was you who moved them from a place they knew and liked. Give them the time and space to find their place again.
Changing countries and schools can be an enriching experience. The key is planning, doing research and preparing for it. After the dust settles, you’ll find that you and your kids are stronger, more resourceful and thriving.