Tips for starting a new school, returning to school after the COVID lockdown interruption and advice for helping your child start school after home education.
Starting a new school is very daunting. Starting a new school in another country can be even more overwhelming. Sharing tips to help make the first day of school a less stressful event for your child AND you!
Also, taking a look at how you can help your home-schooled child move smoothly into formal education.
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Welcome aboard the Expatability Chat podcast, helping expat parents navigate the challenges of moving and living overseas. With Carole Hallett Mobbs, Expat Life Mentor and Consultant and founder of ExpatChild.com
Welcome back to the Expatability Chat podcast. It's August. A whole new month! And this is generally the time when we start thinking about kids going back to school, or at least it is in the U.K. And generally, if you're in the international school system, this will be quite similar to you as well. Of course, this year is different because of COVID, and it may be that your children are returning to school after not being at school since about March.
They may be feeling pretty anxious about this. So you might get some hints and tips from this as well. I'm also going to look at starting school after home education.
There are a fair number of topics that I'm covering here. So, you've made the move, you've unpacked, you've started a new job or your partner's started a new job, and you're en route to your whole 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 their new school and can fully embrace your new life together. Starting any new school is hard, even at home in their native country. They must learn rules, routines, 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.
Starting a new school is very daunting. Can you imagine how scary it could be starting a new school in an unfamiliar country? I've always been incredibly impressed by expat kids who do this time and time again. The good news is the benefits of an international education for your child are enormous and kids are often better at coping than we give them credit for. But they do still need our help and support. It's a well-documented fact that moving to a new house is one of the most stressful things we'll ever undertake.
And the same applies to your child. The chances are when you move you'll time it so that you have a few weeks to settle in and explore your new home before you start work. Wherever possible, give your child the same period of grace, maybe not a few weeks, though. Personally, I've always found it easier to start my daughter at school as soon as possible after arriving. It gives her a sense of being, a sense of self, and it allows her to make some new friends very, very quickly.
And of course, it benefits us by getting her out to school and enabling me to unpack everything. If you haven't managed to move at the start of a term, agree a suitable starting date with the school. Let your child settle into their new home a little bit before they take on the next challenge. Many people choose to move at the beginning of the long summer holiday in order to settle in. However, this isn't always a good idea. Many people, especially expats, go away for the whole of the long break. So you won't actually meet anybody. Schools won't be open, obviously. So you and your child won't be able to meet any school families. And the long school holidays can be a trial without any respite at all.
Consider moving towards the end of the summer holidays. 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.
The first day at a new school can be overwhelming and definitely they might feel like they're thrown in at the deep end. Most schools are receptive to the idea of 'getting to know you' visits, especially for the little ones 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.
With older children your tend to have to shove them through the gates and then run away. But for smaller children, especially when they're first starting school, try and take it a little bit more slowly. This will give them a chance to meet the teachers and build relationships with other kids and also for your child to start getting a feel for the whole school system. Even a couple of hours is good as then your child won't be completely at sea on their first day. They'll know where the bathroom is, for example. Another bonus is that you'll be able to time the school run. This is kind of important for obvious reasons. You can do a trial run of the school run in the middle of the day and it will be ten minutes. You try doing it at rush hour when the schools tend to open and you could be in traffic for an hour. And I'm not even kidding, there!
All these little things add up to getting off on the right foot. For very young kids, or if they're particularly anxious, perhaps you could agree some half days, individual sessions or extracurricular activities that your child can join in. Something a bit more fun than lessons safe in the knowledge that it won't be long before you come back.
It's all about building confidence in the early days, finding out the layout of the school, learning where the toilets are, what the routine is for the day, where coats and bags are stored. These might all seem like minor details to an adult, but for a child they can be major worry issues and a huge distraction from the core purpose of learning.
Here are some tips for starting a new school.
Visit the school with your child before they start there. This can take a chunk of anxiety away from that first day of school panic. While there, check out what the current pupils are wearing and carrying. This is particularly important if the school doesn't have a uniform. This might seem unusual to people of countries where uniform isn't a big deal, but in the U.K., uniform is a 'thing', and going to a school where there is no uniform is quite an alien experience for most parents and children. Most children don't want to stand out from the crowd, so seeing the unspoken dress rules is important. Very much so for older kids. Fitting in will override comfort and common sense. So be prepared for the fact that wearing the right shoes or the backpack is vital. And as an aside, you might also meet other parents who can help you find your feet in the area.
Find out what items you need to buy before school starts. Some schools provide all stationery, while others require you to spend a small fortune and source it all for yourself. And finding the latter out after school has already started is not fun. I speak from bitter experience. We didn't find out until after the first day of school in Berlin that we were expected to provide all the different bits of stationery, and they all had to be very specific as well. Nobody had bothered to tell us this little nugget of information, and it meant a frantic charge around an unfamiliar city after school that day to find the right items for the following day.
The thing is, everybody else had bought the items, so nothing was in stock and it just got everybody off onto a really bad start.
Label everything, everything! Items will get lost, make it easier to find in a lost property box by making sure everything's got a label on it.
Make sure you ask what will be required on their first day of school. You'll be given an equipment list, a uniform list, a stationery list, a PE kit list... They don't need to take it all in on the first day. A PE kit is unlikely to be necessary on your first day. Lugging everything in including the PE kit is not fun. Your child has enough to contend with on that all important first day
And as I said before, make the journey to school a few times too, so you and your child know the route to and from. Do it at school run time and then add some minutes for the mad rush of an actual school day on the first day of school.
Encourage your child from start to get their school back ready the previous evening and what they want to wear. You don't want discussions on whether that T-shirt is right or this T-shirt is the one that they need. Set it all out the night before.
Do not be late. This can be a social disaster for many children.
If your child has to start a new school midway through a term, acknowledge how difficult it can be for them, it will be harder for them to make new friends and fit in with an existing peer group, let alone catch up academically. Provide as much support as you can.
And with older children, a parent being seen at the school gate is a big fat no! Encourage independence, let them get on with it and just be there if you're needed. Hide around the corner or something!
When it comes to timetables and homework, make a copy of the timetable for yourself. You know your kid will lose it and you basically are in charge of making sure they have the right kit on each day. Hopefully they'll get used to this as they get older. But you never know. It's not necessarily a given. It also helps you to know when clean PE kit is required or cooking ingredients.
If you can create a homework area at home with the right ambience and equipment to hand, just to get them used to sitting down and doing homework every night. Agree when homework will be done and stick to it religiously. The sooner you can start this habit, the easier it will be as their school life goes on.
Something I found very useful in lots of situations, not just school, and I know others do too, is to have plenty of trial runs of everything, not only for you finding the school and possibly a parking space, but to cover all kinds of new expectations of your child. Treat these a bit like fire drills. And on that matter, by the way, what kind of drills will there be in that school?
When I was a kid a - long time ago - at school in the UK, we had fire drills, that was it. Loud bell, yay! Leave the lesson, no running in the corridors, hang around in the field for ages until the teacher told you to go back inside.
And then in Japan, it just never occurred to me... they had earthquake drills, too. The kids had silver padded hoods to put over their heads and the instruction to get under a table quickly. Now, it was a little bit scary to start with for my daughter. But the practice runs meant that the day that the big earthquake hit in March 2011, she was able to remain calm and follow the drill for real.
In Germany one day she came home from school, terrified. They'd had a 'lockdown drill' in case a gunman came into the school grounds, again, I had no idea, it just didn't occur to me, so I couldn't have prepared her. Sadly, these kinds of drills have become commonplace worldwide now
In Africa, she was much older, but we still had to run through anti-kidnap drills and anti-hijacking drills and all sorts of other personal safety issues.
Now, these might sound scary, but if you run through the points to note with humour, drama and whatever rocks your child's boat, the procedures will become normal and anxiety will be radically lessened.
Anyway, find out what kinds of things make your child anxious. It might be helpful for you to role play as you being the teacher, and she's being the child and she can ask you, "can I go to the toilet, please, miss?" And you just deal with whatever it is that your child will become anxious about and work through them with little trial runs.
This trial run idea may be helpful to more of you, as lots of kids haven't actually been in school since March due to COVID. And when they do go back to school, probably in September in the UK, they may have anxieties about the virus that they just didn't have before all this.
Keep the communication pathway open so that you can be aware of how they feel and how they cope with it all.
Now, if your child has been home educated for a few years, going into a school system is going to be a very unusual experience for them.
So that's what I want to talk about briefly now. Homeschooling is becoming increasingly popular, which may be why many expat families choose to undertake a period of home education when they move. It gives the family time to settle into a new location and explore it together. It avoids the difficulties of having to choose schools before relocating. And it can be a great option for culturally adjusting children of all ages. Some short term homeschoolers love it so much that they decide to keep going and it's a valid option.
There are loads of resources and support available to enable families to do exactly that, wherever they are in the world. For some, though, it's simply not a long term option. Perhaps you home educated your child while they were small and you were in a different country. Now they're older and you've moved to a country where the schools are fabulous and your child may need and want the stimulation of a formal school environment. Or maybe home schooling isn't legal in your new country, or your child is reaching an age where certain exams are due and it's easier to get through them with a school behind you.
I'm going to focus here on children who have been out of formal education for a year or more and how their families can help them to adjust and move back into a classroom environment.
We need to start by understanding the main difference between home education and school. Children who are home educated quickly become accustomed to a lack of formality in their lessons and may follow an educational plan that's different from the school curriculum. Far from being behind with their studies, they are often streets ahead of the subjects that interest them, because those are often the ones that are pursued most actively and enthusiastically.
They are often given the freedom to choose their own study times, to snack as and when they want to, to make the most of good weather by being out and about, to question authority, to develop their own opinions and mindset and basically, to take ownership of their learning. In short, they have a far greater degree of freedom, a different outlook on life, the universe and everything.
There is a school of thought that suggests that home educated children may make excellent leaders because they are trained to know their own mind and to influence others in the pursuit of their interests.
School, by contrast, has a strict curriculum; classes of around 20 to 30 children, lots of rules, set routines for breaks and lunches, and a largely indoor based classroom environment where children are expected to listen and learn for up to six hours a day.
When it's put that way. School does seem like a tough gig for any child, doesn't it? The reaction to returning from home to school will depend largely on your child's character. But in general, if you know you're not planning to homeschool permanently then it's a good idea to keep the conversation alive. Talk about schools frequently so your child doesn't have any false expectations. Prepare them well in advance for the possibility so it doesn't come as a complete shock.
Be honest, and when the time comes for them to go to school, make the journey a joint one. View schools together, talk about the choices together, discuss any concerns together.
So, what can you do to make the transition from home education to mainstream school easier for your child? First of all, socialisation encourage and facilitate your child in building a social network that will include children that they are likely to be at school with further down the line. Join youth groups, craft groups sports teams and local leisure facilities.
Encourage your child to interact with their peers as much as possible. Returning to the classroom will seem much less scary if they already know some people that are there. Lead by example, get to know other parents and build relationships. As well as helping your child with a school transition. This will help your whole family settle into a new home, into your new routine.
Research as well. Start talking to the potential schools as soon as you can about their entry criteria, Document your child's learning and be ready to share their progress to make these conversations easier.
Find out if your child will need to be assessed for any ability whatsoever before being placed in the right year group. Find out if there are any mandatory requirements such as inoculations. Being prepared in advance equals no nasty surprises. It's not about getting in either. Don't forget to ask the schools what provisions they have that cater to your child's interests. What's their IT set-up like? What kind of sports do they do? Are there any interesting after school groups? These will all be really important for the settling in process. And the closer they match your child's aspirations, the better the chances are that they'll adjust well.
Be a leader. Don't overlook the importance of parental leadership. If you're negative, your child will be anxious. If you are stressed out, your child will be anxious. If you are anxious, your child well - will implode. Making a change is easier for a child than it is for an adult, but they must be given the appropriate guidance in positive thinking and change management.
Now, keep the curriculum in mind as well. Although it may seem boring, if you know you're not going to be home schooling forever then do try to make sure that your approach to learning is structured to a certain extent and loosely mirrors the official curriculum. Many parents see homeschooling as being about grasping learning opportunities when they arise and pursuing interests through ad hoc projects, but this will make it harder for your child to regain the concept of structured learning. So have some sort of routine.
There will be key struggle points. For example, waking up on time, waking up early perhaps. Some schools start really early. Travelling to school, abiding by the rules, time keeping, organisation, retaining focus throughout a full school day are just a few of the big ones. Is there scope to incorporate some of these school based routines into your home routine?
Obviously, I'm not suggesting that you read the whole school day. What would be the point of that? That would defeat the object of homeschooling and it would also detract from the joy of spending time together as a family. But some simple things, like a set time to get up in the morning and teaching your child to navigate local bus routes, for example, can really help.
Remember, however, convinced you are that this is the right decision for you and your child, it is a scary one. Your child will go from being educated one on one in a free environment, to being just one of 30 in a busy classroom where the teacher doesn't have time or the inclination to pander to their wishes. The scope for self exploration and pushing boundaries that are celebrated in homeschooling doesn't exist in the classroom, and your child may well feel stifled or suppressed. Recognise this possibility. Encourage your child to continue exploring their self, learning for themselves, working on their own personal interests and so on. Learning doesn't end when the school day ends.
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 their mind to unravel difficulties and explore solutions. You may well feel that, 'Well, obviously I'm going to talk to my child', but you'll have a lot on your plate, too, and it's easy to trivialise their very valid concerns. Having said that, this is all 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 the day. This is usually the quickest way to get them to clam up. So try not to overdo it. Overthinking and over-analysing creates anxieties when there are none. Set aside some time each day for a chat, a one-to-one chat. Perhaps this would be when you sit down together to eat. In our case, it's always the drive to and from school, which is when my daughter opens up about absolutely everything.
Whichever works best for you, provide that opportunity on a regular basis. A good tip is to ask your child, "How did your day go?" instead of "What did you do?" This provides a fairly open question rather than, "Did you have a good day?" which will just require a yes or no response. From that point on, it's often best to let them take the lead and to share as much or as little as they want. Nod and smile... nod and smile!
It's also wise to be aware that some kids simply download everything horrible onto you. Every negative and worrying and scary thing that happened that day. And then they skip off as if nothing's wrong, leaving you as an anxiety-ridden, tense mess! Try not to let it get to you. It's just the way their brain works. If there is anything seriously worrying deal with it as necessary. Otherwise, just understand that you're a safe place for your child to use as a dumping ground for angst. It's lovely, honestly!
Children of different ages handle this whole transition business very differently. The little ones - kindergarten age, preschool children - are often the most resilient. Once they've made a friend and learned to communicate with them, (which is much simpler when you're under five and you have toys and sand and water), they'll feel much happier and will settle in very quickly.
When it comes to primary school children, these tend to be the ones whose worries are a little bit more abstract. You might think they'll be worried about language, learning, making friends, but actually they're more likely to be worried about 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, checking out the school together and finding out whether there are any trends that children are currently sharing.
Make sure they have nice, smart, up to date belongings so that they can take pride in them. You may feel this is an unwelcome expense, but it will help your child feel a lot less anxious. I'm sure it wasn't just me who thoroughly enjoyed getting a new pencil case just before a new school year. It is the little things that help right now.
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.
And at secondary school age, everything just gets a whole lot more difficult. From about the age of 11 or 12, kids develop a much stronger sense of self-awareness. And this is where fitting in gets very tricky. At this age, you need to be a lot more guided by your child and undertake a lot more planning and preparation, and at the same time, staying back out the way a lot more. If they'll be attending a local school, giving them the opportunity to learn the language and culture well in advance will be immensely helpful.
Of course, teenagers are going to push boundaries. That's their job. And it's unlikely your teen will choose to share as much with you as a younger child might. You can still try the "How was your day?" question, but be prepared to get not much out of them at all. So the best way to ensure you're providing the right support is to just be there as much as possible and to be observant.
Changes in behaviour, eating habits, mood and the parents can all indicate difficulties. So do keep your eyes and ears open at this age. If problems aren't addressed well, they can lead very quickly to mental health issues and antisocial behaviour. So please don't be afraid to intervene if you think something is a cause for concern.
At all ages, your child will feel reassured if they can keep in touch with friends from home, sending and receiving old fashioned letters can be a great comfort. But really, let's be frank, social media really does come into its own right now. Do 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 quite a unique and exciting age to their transition and can help them see it in a more 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 most importantly, be positive. But don't let your worries become their worries. Keep them to yourself.
So, basically, preparation and communication can make it easier. But patience itself is going to be your main virtue and you'll need it in abundance as you listen to their day to day adjustment problems. And remember what I said about you being a safe dumping ground for all their worries, niggles and complaints.
For any kind of school, find out if the school provide a good settling in process for new kids and take advantage of it if they do. Some schools handle newcomers better than others. But if you don't ask, you'll never know. And you may even prompt a change of policy which will help other newbies in due course.
Expect the first few weeks or months to be an emotional roller coaster for your child and for you. You're adjusting to a new normal, and I didn't expect that phrase to become so well used this year. There'll be a lot of trying out new friendships as well as a lot of settling in and a lot of getting used to a new routine.
Life can get quite emotional. Just be there and try not to intervene too much unless something very serious is occurring, of course. Try not to weigh in too much on their behalf, though. This journey is about learning to stand on their own two feet, and learn they will, but it takes resilience and it takes time.
Starting school is a massive step for any child. It's also a massive step for you. And I think you'll probably feel more anxious than your child does.
I've given you a few tips to help get you underway. I've got lots more in my book, which I'll give a link to in the show notes and just remember, have patience, nod and smile and listen. Whether your child is starting school for the first time, whether your child is starting school in a new country for the first time, or whether your child is returning to school after a period of home education or just being stuck at home due to COVID, I hope the tips that you've heard today help you a lot.
I wish you all the very best. I look forward to chatting with you again soon. Take care.
Thank you for listening to the Expatability podcast, please check out ExpatChild.com for more free information and resources and follow me on your favourite social media. Don't forget to join me next week for another episode. Until then, bye bye.