How to cope with a new school system

We’ve moved country a couple of times now, and I’d say my family are pretty good at adapting to a new home, a new culture and even new languages. One thing that has become increasingly difficult is moving to a new school system.

It’s not snobbery that makes many expat parents decide to send their kids to an international school, or one that follows their home country’s curriculum. Without a doubt, for families who move a lot, it’s much easier for kids if the school system remains the same.

This isn’t the route we chose, for various reasons, so if you are like us and are trying to settle a child into a new school system, here’s what we found helpful.

Language Skills

If the new school is in a language that your kids already speak, then that’s a huge advantage. If not, then start as early as possible to introduce the new language. Go to courses if available, listen to music in the target language before you move (internet radio and YouTube can be very helpful for this), and start using some words around the home. My daughter labelled her furniture and fittings in her room with sticky notes in the new language.

When you arrive at the new school, ask if they offer specific classes for children who weren’t brought up with the local language. Many schools have after-school clubs or extra tuition for children from other countries. This can also be a way for your child to meet with other kids in a similar situation so they don’t feel so alone.

If you don’t speak the language yourself, or not well enough to help with homework, engage a tutor. You may be able to muddle through with maths and science, but when it comes to doing writing and comprehension work, particularly with older kids, it can be frustrating and wearying for everyone.

Maths

With many other subjects there is not quite as obvious a difference in learning levels but math can be challenging. We moved from the UK to Germany, so obviously there are gaps in my kids’ knowledge when it comes to German history, and they may not have done the exact same topics in geography or social studies. These subjects don’t build on previous knowledge in quite the same way that maths does. If kids haven’t learned the basics of maths, they will struggle with algebra.

What we’ve noticed is that each country teaches maths differently. When moving from Switzerland to the UK, we realised that in the UK schools start teaching times tables much earlier, so our daughter had some catching up to do. When we moved from the UK to Germany, it soon became apparent that they were already doing more advanced maths.

This becomes especially tricky when we look at the actual method of working something out. In most school systems, maths is marked according to a) the correct answer and b) the correct method of coming to this answer. If a child makes a mistake in working out the answer, but can show they were using the correct method, teachers will often award half a point.

Ask the school for a copy of the maths curriculum so that you can see where your child has gaps, and you can work on teaching them at home, either yourself or via a tutor.

To Tutor or Not to Tutor

In the short-term, engaging a tutor can help your child catch up with the other students in their class. This can be helpful in lessons such as maths and the local language (literacy lessons).

Don’t be tempted to ask the tutor to ‘fill the gaps’ of knowledge. A good tutor can do that as they go along. It’s advisable to ensure that the tutor is teaching the lessons that the child is currently learning in school, so that the child feels that they are able to keep up with the school lessons.

You may find it helpful to arrange intensive tutoring for a week or two, perhaps even during the holidays.

Dealing with Pressure

Moving house is one of the most stressful times in life, and I don’t have to tell you that adding an international move on top of that increases that stress. Changing schools can be really tough for children, so don’t be too upset or worried if there is a change in behaviour. It’s totally normal for kids to act out a bit at home when they are not happy in school, and the best way of dealing with this is to show acceptance and sympathy. Commiserate with your child, show them that you understand that it’s tough for them, and that you are proud of them for working through it. Offer help in dealing with issues that come up but don’t force your views on them.

Be there for them when they want to talk. Take time to ask about how things are going in school and listen to their concerns. Put away your smartphone and give them your full attention.

Make sure you have enough time (even if you are struggling to adjust to the new country and a new job) to spend with them at the weekends, and try to talk positively about the new experiences you are having. If you complain constantly about the country, the people, the weather – how can you expect your child to be happy and optimistic?

Local Customs

One of the things we struggled with was the way in which schools are organised in Germany, in comparison to UK schools. Where we were used to kids being given books in school, and only needing a notebook and some pens, in Germany the children are given a huge list of required stationery. Each teacher requests that the children use a different combination of notebooks – lined, geometric, A4, A5, with border, without border… and then covers for the notebooks in various colours. Every day, my kids would come home with another list of stationery, and we had to dash out to buy it so that they were equipped with the correct items in time for school the next day.

We also found that there was limited understanding and sympathy from teachers if the children didn’t have the ‘right’ equipment or if they did the wrong homework because they simply didn’t understand what was expected of them. If I could change one thing, it would be to have insisted on a meeting at the beginning of the school year, to ask about the processes in school – how the children are expected to be kitted out, what is the requirement in respect of uniform and sportswear, what are the rules for homework etc. I would also request that the teachers check if the kids have understood their homework assignment, as misunderstandings are common when there is a language barrier.

Make it clear to the school that your child is willing and eager to learn, but that they don’t know the local customs and the school’s processes and procedures. Some schools will assign a ‘buddy’ to new pupils, to help them with any teething issues.

Be Prepared to Get Involved

There may be some teething problems in the new school, so don’t be shy about going into school and making an appointment to speak to the class teacher or the head of year. Misunderstandings are sometimes blown out of proportion.

We had a situation where my 12 year old son was scolded for not copying French vocabulary into his homework book, because he didn’t understand which words he was supposed to write. When I spoke to his teacher, it became clear that she was unaware that he’d only started school four weeks earlier – she thought he’d been in school the previous term. By speaking to her, I was able to clear up this misunderstanding and she was less critical of my son and much more helpful.

Above all, show patience and acceptance if your child is struggling. Don’t try to push them towards making new friends before they are ready, and don’t take it personally if they blame you for ‘ruining’ their life; particularly if you have teens, this could be an accusation hurled at you in a moment of frustration. Work with them, show understanding and acceptance of their feelings, and never dismiss their concerns with comments such as ‘It’ll be better soon, you have to give it time’.

Be positive and encouraging and get involved in school activities if you can. Go along and support the school and your child on open days or at the Christmas fete. Keep an open line of communication with the school and your child’s teachers, and be willing to go to bat for your child.

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Lynn Schreiber is founder and editor of Jump! Mag an online magazine for kids aged 8 years +. She currently lives in Germany with her husband, two children and fluffy white dog. She can be found on Twitter @lynncschreiber and on her Facebook group Jump! Parents, where she’s always happy to discuss parenting, social media and living abroad.




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