Were you ever the new student at school? If so, it’s likely you can recall just how overwhelming it can be. The first day of school for any child is full of anxious moments and nervous feelings about the unknown. Imagine what this must be like for children who are starting a new school in a new country. In addition to the normal feelings of anxiety, these children are also dealing with a sense of loss having said goodbye to friends and family and all things familiar as they move to a place full of unknowns.
While relocating internationally can be an exciting adventure, it can also be overwhelming for families, and the list of things to think about and manage is long. When it comes to education, anxiety levels can rise simply because assignee parents and their children are not equipped to know how to even start the process.
A common term used when referring to children of international assignees is Third Culture Kids (TCKs). You may have heard the definition, statistics, and importance to “get it right” when relocating with children, but what does that mean? What practical steps can you take to ensure that the experience is not only smooth, but also rewarding for TCKs?
Who are Third Culture Kids?
A Third Culture Kid is an individual who has spent a significant amount of their developmental years in a culture other than that of their parents. On average, a TCK will move four times by the age of 18 and an additional six in the subsequent 20 years. TCKs grow up knowing that they have to change their behaviour, language and customs to suit the situation, some might even call them “cultural chameleons” because, after a few relocations, no one has to formally teach them how to behave, it is something they often learn by experience. To that end, TCKs have a high degree of adaptability, grow up quickly and are more mature than most children their age.
Although they may become more self-reliant, when children are relocating the growth of their identity can be disrupted. A sense of belonging is important for any child, and a TCK will find it challenging to strike the balance between being youthful and experiencing life at an early age. On the surface, they tend to make friends easily and are fairly outgoing because they want to belong, but those friendships may only exist on the surface as they are always preparing to move on and protect themselves from a sense of loss when saying goodbye.
Talking to parents
It is just as important to provide realistic information to parents. There are a number of ways to help families with the school search process, starting with an educated global mobility team. Be sure that the global mobility organisation’s local team is up to date about the schools in the host location. This includes knowledge of any changes to curriculum, updates on facilities, administrative changes with the Head of School or Principal, or changes to the admissions procedures. Find out if the schools in the assignment locations have experience of working with families who are relocating and if they have experience with the process of repatriation. Know what type of support programs, both academic and pastoral, exist for families in transition.
The best way to get to know the schools in host locations is to get to know the admissions contact at each of the schools. You will be more of an advocate for the assignees and transferring families you are supporting if you become an expert in the schooling options and if you are not an unknown face at the local schools. To ease anxiety for relocating parents, it is often expected that an organisation should pay for school application fees. As soon as your organisation becomes aware of an offer of relocation being made to an employee with an accompanying family and school-aged children, it is important to contact the schools, to enquire about availability. If the schools are taking appointments, the next step is to arrange for school visits on the family’s preview trip to the new location.
Finding the right school
The process of finding a school in a city you don’t know is not only daunting, but can be frustrating, especially if there are limited options and long waiting lists. Difficulty in finding a suitable school is well known as a barrier to an employee accepting an international assignment. In addition to understanding the options available, it is important for assignee families, HR representatives, business leaders, educational consultants, global mobility professionals and schools to fully understand and consider who these children are and what their needs are when finding the right school.
In order to make a smooth transition, you need to consider the children, understanding and validating their concerns about moving internationally, as well as the parents. ACS International Schools in London recently completed a research project to try to understand what the real issues are for children during international relocation. The research found that when you ask children, they rate their top three issues as leaving friends and family, fitting in and making new friends, and finding the right school so they can do well academically.
Let the family know that appointments are often limited in many locations and, as a result, they need to be prepared to attend the appointments that are available. Be prepared to discuss alternatives to an assignee’s first choice school. It is important to explain to parents that there is limited space for schools that are in high-demand. If possible, try to ensure that assignee families are considering more than one school so that they have options when the admissions decisions are released.
What do schools want to know?
When contacting a school, try to have as much information on hand about a child as possible. Depending on the size of the school and the demand for places, school admissions offices could be processing a large number of applications at any one time. It’s vital that schools have as much information about a family in advance of a visit as possible, so that time is spent wisely.
What can you expect from the school?
Schools have a responsibility to support families in transition too. You should feel comfortable challenging schools to offer a high level of support for TCKs and assignee families. Ensure that all schools provide a formal tour and orientation of the facilities. Make sure that the children know the basics, such as where to find the toilets, how the lunch programme is handled, what a daily schedule looks like, what they need to bring to school on the first day, what are their teachers’ names, and who can they go to if they have questions. Will someone be with the student to ensure that he/she has someone to eat lunch with and play with on the playground?
All schools should have a buddy system for new students. Don’t be afraid to ask what the schools offer. While it’s important that the children know what to expect, it’s equally important that parents know what to expect. Most schools understand the need of the partnership with parents. Some schools do it better than others and offer formal Parent Associations, often called PTAs (Parent Teacher Associations). Similar to the student needs, parents need to know who they can approach with questions, what type of support will be available for their children, how the school will communicate with them, and what volunteer opportunities might be available. The school can play a critical role in ensuring that parents are settled in their new location too. Many schools offer welcome committees, or parent support groups. Both are helpful in putting parents in touch with others who speak their native language or have children of similar ages.
A successful assignment
The key to the success of finding the right school for assignee children is for global mobility professionals to remember that, in addition to the company, there are three vital stakeholders in the process: the child, the family and the school. To satisfy the needs of each, you have to be well informed:
- Know as much as possible about the child (needs, interests, previous experiences, current situation, etc.)
- Have a thorough understanding of the family’s needs and preferences
- Have a good knowledge of the available schools (size, philosophy, availability, approach to teaching, approach to new students, etc.).
Remember to be an advocate for the family, but also be realistic about the schooling options in your organisation’s assignment locations, especially those locations where business needs are critical and unique assignee skills are needed. And remember that many times the family can become focused on one specific school, and may tend to ignore other schools that also have a good fit with the child. Being familiar with the options available and having the knowledge to inform on the differences and similarities between the schools can help in supporting the family’s school search. Once the family finds the right school, the working partnership between the family, the school, and the organisation’s global mobility professionals can bring about a smooth and successful transition for everyone.