In this MumAbroad Interview of the Week, we talked to Dr Christina Limbird, Cofounder of Linden Global Learning & Support based in Berlin, Germany.
Christina has over 15 years’ experience in educational psychology, and through Linden Global Learning offers online and on-site educational support for international students across the world.
She has completed extensive research into bilingualism, and runs a non-profit organisation training young women to become leaders in their communities – Girls Gearing Up.
Christina talked about how Linden education helps international students to thrive, with an in-house team of education specialists for whatever skill a child requires.
She explained the importance of emotional wellbeing to help develop each child’s self-esteem alongside whatever subject it may they require assistance with. Help can also include speech therapy and psychology support.
Dr Christina Limbird talks the benefits of bilingualism and how a women’s networking conference inspired her to build a non-profit that trains young women with public speaking skills, self-confidence and equipping them to become leaders in their communities.
During her maternity leave with her first child, Christina explains how she had time to conceptualise what she wanted her work environment to be, which led to the creation of Linden Global Learning & Support.
MumAbroad: Welcome to MumAbroad’s YouTube channel. I’m joined today by Christina Limbird, she has over 15 years’ experience in the field of educational psychology. She’s a founding partner of Linden education in Berlin, which offers online and on-site educational and therapeutic support for international students anywhere in the world. Career highlights include building a comprehensive program of inclusion at an International Baccalaureate school in Germany, and creating a non-profit organisation to build programs for teenagers in post-conflict Croatia. Christina has also published several articles and book chapters on the effects of bilingualism on literary acquisition and school performance. Welcome Christina.
Christina: Thank you so much for having me Jane.
[1:00] MumAbroad: Thank you for joining me. Christina, on the homepage of the Linden website it says: ‘Children everywhere should have the ability to thrive. Our goal is to make that happen.’ That’s a big statement. What do you mean exactly?
Christina: Both my co-founder, Chineme Ugbor, and I worked as school counselors and school psychologists at international schools before founding Linden Global Learning Support. And what we discovered during our time there was the children who are falling through the cracks, the children who weren’t thriving, were simply those who just didn’t have enough of the right kind of support on their sides. International schools are little islands unto themselves and they can’t always offer the broad range of help that a kid would really need to reach their fullest potential. And so we really believe that if a child isn’t succeeding in school, if they’re not thriving, it’s usually due to a lack of skills, a gap somehow, and it’s not a lack of motivation. It’s not that they’re lazy. Children want to do well, children are wired to want to learn and they’re wired to connect with others and they want to please adults, and if they’re not doing that it’s almost always because there’s a skill missing, there’s a gap, or there’s something blocking them. What we like to do at Linden is try to figure out what is that gap? What is that that’s blocking them? It could be for international children, that they’ve moved around so much they’ve missed something along the way in their travels. It could be a linguistic gap due to the different languages they’ve learnt along the way, it could be due to a learning disability or a developmental delay, so we try to pinpoint, though it’s usually a multitude of factors, try to figure out what is it that’s missing? Then pair the student with an amazing specialist who has the skills, the aptitude and the understanding to kind of take that student by the hand and help them get to where they want to go. So we’re just trying to bridge those gaps and we know it takes a village to raise a child, right, but what do we do when our families that we work with, these international families, have left their villages? You know they left aunties and uncle and their paediatrician at home and the school system that they understand, and the healthcare system that they grew up in. What we try to do is sort of recreate that village for them, or at least be a resource so that when you’re living abroad you still have a village of supportso we can all work together to help children thrive.
[3:50] MumAbroad: You work alongside a team of diverse, highly skilled professionals, how do you go about choosing team members and how important is it to you to have a positive company culture?
Christina: Absolutely essential. I used to say that the way we find the people who were on our team is magic, but now I believe it’s something more. I think we really wear the values of our organisation on our sleeves. It’s clear from anyone who meets us, who meets me and my co-founder Chi or anyone who works in the team, that we really have the sole purpose of helping support children and young learners who find themselves in school settings that can’t support them. So we’re really purpose-driven and so incredible staff tend to find their way to us, with all sorts of different types of skills, like people who want to try a different way of working maybe not in a traditional school setting but want to kind of open up their way of work in a more agile way or work with children in all sorts of different school systems all around the world. So we really attract very a special type of specialist: learning support teachers, speech therapists, occupational therapists, psychologists, counselors, people who are drawn to us are really a magical kind of people. We also have a really rigorous interview process, everyone who wants to be part of the team has to go through two or three interviews, really intensive reference checks, police checks, but then we do a lot of work in our onboarding, talking about our company culture and this is really the crux of it. For me and Chi anyone who joins the team has to have two attributes: they have to be excellent and what they do, really top of the tops, and be incredibly kind, and when you have those two things together you have a really magical group of people working together for the purpose of trying to help children and so this combination of excellence and kindness is quintessential to the work we do. We love coming to work everyday. We have people who are passionate about what they do, really, really excellent bringing excellent skills to the table and coming from a diverse range of perspectives, so we’ll have school psychologists from Israel coming with that perspective of their training and their experience from their culture, with a psychologist from Florida or Australia and the the way that they synergise and have conversations about student support and wellbeing. It’s so rich and so diverse, so we celebrate that and it’s amazing to seeafter someone just being with us for a few weekshow they will introduce a colleague to a client saying:’Please meet my amazing colleague, one of the most excellent speech therapiststhat I’ve ever worked with, Sarah.’The way we continue to celebrate each other and put each other forwardin excellence and kindness is a very, very special place to work.
[7:00] MumAbroad: Christina, you mentioned that your your team members come from all over the world. Do they exclusively work in English? Or do they also work in their native languages?
Christina: Great question. The working language at Linden Global Learning is English.However, we have specialists with 17 different home languagesor that speak 17 different languages within the teamand whenever possible we’ll match specialist with students from the same backgroundor home language or culture, and so for example once again our educational psychologistfrom Israel, if we do have a Hebrew-speaking family, an Israeli familywe’ll match her with them to enrichen the process.She’s bringing not only the linguistic understandingbut some cultural understanding too, and that can really help the families feel understoodfeel at home, and feel with their home language and culture is reflectedin the work we do.It’s not always possible that our goal is to have the 50 differentlanguages represented within the team.I think that can really help these international families and third culture kidsfeel reflected, seen and respected in the work we do.
[8:20] MumAbroad: Obviously most students want to achieve academically but their emotional well-being is also very important, as you mentioned earlier. How do you help students in a competitive environment to find the right balance?
We’re seeing international schools place much more value on social and emotional learning then they have in the past. I think that emphasis has even been accentuated during the Corona crisis where mental health was seen in a different light than before as so many people around the world were struggling with isolation, with grief and loss and I think schools, teachers and parents see mental health as being absolutely critical in the development of children nin a way that they haven’t before. Of course international schools are very progressive and have always had that as part of their curriculum but I think it’s becoming more and more important. In addition, the way technology has changed our lives it’s become very apparent that anyone can have access to information children anywhere can get information, but what needs to be taught and fostered are social skills, organisational skills, social-emotional skills, resilience, self-esteem, mental health. These are the life skills that we will all need to survive. We can Google anything we want, but in order to be thriving adults and contributing members of society, mental health is absolutely critical I think that is changing in schools, we’ll see when universities and college boards and exam boards start to kind of catch up to that understanding. But at Linden, for example, we don’t have tutoring in the classic sense. We offer instead what we call academic coaching and an academic coach for example in math isn’t just going to be drilling sine and cosine formulas our academic coaches are going to be working on helping the students manage their schedules manage their study skills, manage their organisation working on their self-esteem, working on their self-efficacy so students believe in themselves they see themselves – ‘I’m a mathematician’ ‘I am learning’ ‘I am growing’, and we see that as an essential part of them succeeding in their academic world as well. They have to go hand-in-hand.
[11:00] MumAbroad: What age groups do you work with?
Christina: Our youngest student right now in the Linden family is two and we work with students all the way up through graduate school we partner with universities and study abroad programs as well so we’ll have graduate school students around the age of 25, so a pretty wide range.
[11:20] MumAbroad: You’ve done a lot of research on bilingualism. What would you say are the benefits of bilingualism?
Christina: So my first job was as a graduate student, my first job abroad was as a graduate student here in Germany looking at the effects of bilingualism on literacy acquisition and the reason that topic was so interesting to me is at the time the big PISA study had come out which measured the reading and writing, math and science skills of students in 30 OECD countries, and Germany and come out average, and Germany was not happy with coming out average – especially in literacy, they consider their school system to be quite excellent. And they started positing that that was possibly because there were so many immigrants who weren’t speaking German at home, and it was kind of bringing things down. And the word on the street, that was discussed in 2002, was that families should not be speaking their home languages at home and everyone needed to just push German and leave their second language out. From what I knew from my research at the time and my academic career was that bilingualism had a lot of benefits for cognitive skills not to mention the emotional and social connection to a home culture so I decided to research that and see is there really a negative effects of being bilingual on literacy acquisition for early readers, and what I found was, mixed bag, no surprise that bilingual learners have better phonological awareness in many cases that means they can hear sounds differently, they can perceive different aspects of language, especially on the phoneme level, on the sound level better than a monolingual learner. Where bilingual learners could have a disadvantage is that their vocabularies in each language are little bit smaller. My lesson learned from that was that bilingual learners they know more words, but in each language they might know fewer words, so we have to be a little bit more explicit about vocabulary instruction for bilingual kids meaning when you’re a parent or teacher reading to a bilingual kid you’re going to want to stop on those more scientific words, or those slightly trickier words and talk about them, make a connection to the word in the other language and be a bit more explicit in teaching vocabulary for bilingual learners. But overall, that’s only the cognitive component, the advantages that bilingual children have, of being able to unlock a whole other language or whole other culture and be able to connect to grandparents or aunts and uncles in their home country – that’s priceless. That’s a huge advantage. And there is research showing that children who are bilingual learners are at an advantage when it comes to learning a third and a fourth language as well. Because every bilingual learner and every bilingual child is different the relation between Mandarin and English vs Dutch and German are very different language combinations, so it’s hard to get excellent research or super clear findings, but when it comes to the social and emotional component of being connected to a culture or unlocking a whole other world with that language, that’s indisputable.
[15:05] MumAbroad: I think it’s also important to point out here that every family is different, isn’t it? And there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to language learning and each family will have to find their own way and that suits them best.
Christina: 100 percent.
[15:20] MumAbroad: There’s also a non-profit side to Linden, Girls Gearing Up, a leadership academy for girls which you co-founded with Chi Ugbor. Can you tell us a little bit more about that Christina?
Yes. So for the past 20 years our other co-founder, Courtney Adams, and I have been using a summer camp model to build skills and resilience in teenagers. We find that what teenagers can learn or how they can grow in their identity, and in their skills, in a summer camp is exponentially higher than in a week of high school and so we initially started using the summer camp model for peace-building programs in the Balkans as you mentioned in your introduction about me and then after a few years we realised that we, as females and female facilitators and female leaders of the programme, we were having a stronger impact on the girls in our programme, and around that same time I attemded leadership conference and around that same time I attended a leadership conference called the Women’s International Networking Conference where 900 women from around the world came to listen to each other speak about their leadership opportunities, about their accomplishments and that was such a powerful moment to be in a room with 900 women celebrating each other’s leadership skills, celebrating the impact that women can have on the world. Our cofounder Courtney Adams and I we looked at each other and said, ‘Why didn’t we have this when we 14’ and ‘Let’s do this’. About 7 years ago we, although we initially thought this would be part of the Linden program, it made more sense to establish Girls Gearing Up as a non-profit, which we did, and since then have been inviting about 30 girls from around the world for a week-long intensive leadership academy. The academy is based on three pillars: inspiring the girls where they meet amazing women role models from a range of different fields, science to arts to journalists and politicians, then equipping them with actual leadership skills, that means public speaking skills. They learn how to moderate or do design thinking, innovation. This year we worked on telling stories with filmmaking. The third pillar is my speciality, which is building self-confidence, so helping these girls be equipped, inspired and confident to go out there and make a change in their communities. We do that because woman are underrepresented in every area of social, political and corporate life in 2021 and we believe it’s time to change that and that the world could use a few more strong female voices to help us tackle some of these crises that are coming at us. When you meet these girls they have so much to say they are so bright and so passionate about the things they want to see change in their futures and in their lives and the contributions they want to make it, it’s incredibly inspiring work. So our annual academy is usually in Berlin, but this year due to COVID we opened up two different sites, so people wouldn’t be flying as far around the world. So we had a site in Berlin, where about 20 girls came then we had an additional hub in Malawi and an additional Hub in India and we all ran parallel, did some of our sessions together and some of them separately, but it’s it’s a beautiful project that gives much more than it takes, and has a lot of potential to make a difference in the world.
[19:10] MumAbroad: Sounds like an absolutely amazing experience and obviously something that you’re very passionate about. How do you find participants for this?
Christina: We have a network of schools and nonprofit organisations around the world who often would nominate girls to join, but truly many girls find us on Instagram or just on the internet because they’re looking for an opportunity like this to make a change. We’re the only international girls leadership academy in Europe that we know of and we think there’s space for this, and our participants show us that there is they’re looking for something like this to make a difference. We make it possible, we’re a non-profit organisation, we make it possible for any girl who feels called to be there, to be there. So we’ll find sponsorships and donors to be able to pay their flights if necessary.
[20:05] MumAbroad: What do you love about being your own boss, Christina, and what are your many achievements would you say that you’re most proud of?
Christina: I love being my own boss for so many reasons. It became clear to me when my first child was pretty young that working in a traditional work environment or institution wasn’t going to allow me to be the kind of mum that I wanted to be that’s sort of what set off the idea. Luckily I live in Germany with a very generous maternity leave sort of system and I was able to take my maternity leave from having my second child to start a company. So I used that year to conceptualise with Chi. What kind of organisation do we want to work in? What was our ideal work environment, a place where people are purpose-driven where they’re passionate where people are happy to come to work, and you don’t have that icky feeling on Sunday night. ‘Oh, no tomorrow’s Monday morning’. And dream up our dream organisation and to be able to really bring that to life, to make that possible is such a privilege. I love being able to take on the projects that I care about and set my schedule the way I want to, I got to spend 6 weeks at home with my parents this summer and be able to work anywhere I want to and take time off to go to a choir concert or a dentist appointment or whatever I need to do for my kids, so I love the flexibility. I love being able to pick my own projects and more than anything. I love being able to choose my own team. I adore the ability to be able work with people who I highly respect, always hiring people into the team who are better than I am, people from whom I can learn and people who bring that kindness and excellence into my life. What I’m most proud of is when I look into our master schedule I can open up our system and see how many children every day are getting help. How many children have an advocate with an amazing skill set who are trying to help them reach their potential. That’s sometimes overwhelming to see. In one day there’s maybe 50 to 100 children who are getting support all around the world and that we just dreamed that up and made it possible is a big honour. So, I’m really proud of that. We did an incredible job managing COVID. There was a moment there wasn’t sure we were going to survive I think like many businesses, but we were able to pivot very quickly to moving all of our services online, including psycho-educational diagnostics which wouldn’t have been possible 5 years ago, but the technology has caught up the research has caught up to allow us to be able to offer remote psycho-educational assessments so I’m very proud of us for being able to be agile enough to make that difference. Also during COVID the reached out to our team and said ‘Listen, the community of Berlin, our international community is struggling, who would be able to volunteer some hours to help families in need?’ And almost everyone donated hours so we were able to give back to the community as well, offering tutoring, some counselling support, parental help, and that was a really special moment. And the biggest thing in the recent years, in the recent months is we’ve established a partnership with the International School Counselling Organisation which allows us to work with schools counsellors all around the world. It’s been a wonderful partnership, and just this week we’re going to be announcing, this is a preview, an official partnership with the Council of International Schools which is working with 1600 international schools around the world. Being a partner of theirs is also a great honour and a great accomplishment for Linden.
[24:15] MumAbroad: Wow, so much there. It’s so, so interesting to talk to you, and so lovely to talk to you Christina to talk to somebody who is so passionate about what they do. So if anybody wants to find out more about Linden education and wants to contact you, they can take a look at your website which is linden-education.com there they’ll find out your contact details. So thank you so much for joining me today, Christina.
Christina: Thank you, Jane, it was wonderful to speak with you.
To read more about Linden Global Learning & Support, please visit our educational specialists page.