What you and your kids need to know about changing schools
It is the nature of expat life that families have to become accustomed to frequent changes. Still, the prospect of moving to a new school, dealing with a new schedule and making new friends can be stressful for even the most well-traveled kid. What can you do to make this sometimes scary transition as smooth as possible for your own children? We spoke with several Beijing international schools to get some practical advice for parents of kids dealing with a move to Beijing, a school transfer, or a move between school levels.
Get comfortable with the new environment
You don’t want young kids to be shocked by anything out of the ordinary when they start school, so try to provide yours with as much advance exposure to their future school as possible. “At Ivy,” explains Jack Hsu, “as soon as a child registers, we encourage parents to bring them to our campuses so that the kid is familiar with the new environment.” A lot of schools let young kids come in for tester days before they begin school so that they can see the facilities and maybe even make a few friends before day one. It’s also worth looking into flexible school schedules – it’s best that the transition from staying at home and going to school every day be an incremental one.
Be strong, mom and pop, be strong
Hard as it may be to hold back, a tearful farewell at the classroom door is not in your kid’s best interest. You want your child to realize that going to school is a normal, everyday thing, instead of a cause for alarm or sadness. “At Eton, all parents are offered a course on separation anxiety,” says Sarah Ma. “This includes information on how to drop off a child for the first time without any trauma. Saying goodbye to your children for the first time is often a lot harder on the parents than the children, and kids can pick up on a lot of this stress.” Consider planning something relaxing or fun that you can do after the big goodbye – this will give you something to look forward to and a schedule to keep to.
Real Life Experience: Starting Elementary School
Grace Fan attended the International Montessori School of Beijing from the age of 2 and then moved on to The British School of Beijing for elementary. We spoke to her dad Wen-Chun about how she handled the change.
I think kids are very adaptable at a young age. Before transferring to the British School, Grace had always looked forward to going to school every day. For the first few weeks at the British School though, she was reluctant to go to school each day. But after that she was fine.
We always asked her about how her day was at school. We knew that MSB and the British School would be totally different. Actually, the British School teachers were much stricter than the MSB teachers, so we tried to explain to her that they weren’t being mean, but just being strict so she could learn more.
Find a school that fits your needs. Then do whatever it takes to make it a positive experience. And, if possible, [if your kids are going into preschool]start them out on a half-day program.
Monkey see, monkey do
Eton likes to have returning students come back to school first. “New students arrive and see the other children are already settled in and getting on with their day and are encouraged to copy them,” comments Sarah. This method helps establish a routine for the children, and minimizes the first-day chaos of a bunch of new arrivals attempting to make sense of it all. If your child’s school doesn’t work similarly, you might try to find an older child or sibling to accompany your child on the way to school the first day or two.
Don’t be overwhelmed
The first day can often be flustering. To avoid sensory overload, Ivy Bilingual School separates their newcomers into two groups and has them come in on separate days. “This ensures that kids aren’t overwhelmed by the experience and we also encourage parents to join their children in the classroom during this transition period,” says Jack.
Moving on up
If it’s time for your child to make the leap from nursery to elementary school, consider the similarities and differences between their current and future schools. If your child attends a kindergarten or nursery with a Montessori curriculum and will be transitioning to a Chinese elementary school, for instance, she may have some difficulties getting used to the more structured schedule. Some schools offer transitional classes in which kids are introduced to things like raising their hands and sitting in rows. However, a lot of Beijing’s international nursery schools and kindergartens have links with international elementary schools with whom they share similar environments, so a transition class might not be necessary.
• This can be as hard on you as it is for your kid – harder sometimes!
• Don’t let your child sense your apprehension when you drop her off.
• Get involved in school activities.
• Meet parents in the same situation and get their advice.
Elementary School Transitions
Wayne Demnar, Elementary School Principal at Beijing BISS International School, gives advice on setting a positive example
Get psyched for school
Talking about the experiences your child is going to have in a positive fashion will help turn feelings of apprehension into excitement, suggests Wayne. “We try to talk very positively in the interview process about the school, the students and the staff, so that the children are really looking forward to coming to school.” The good news is that this shouldn’t be too hard for kids starting elementary school at the same time as others: “The kids want to make friends and have a good time,” says Wayne, “and that is the motivation for their initial communication with their new classmates.”
A lot of schools like to pair off new students using a “buddy system” in which a new student is assigned someone to look after them for their first few days. This is a good way for kids to learn the ropes and a means of developing the much-needed friendships that will help everything else run smoothly. “We also believe that parents organizing play sessions at their home with their children’s new friends is also an effective way of helping students to settle in,” says Wayne.
• Help your child with the extra work she might be taking on.
• Be positive about the experience your child is going to have.
• Communicate with the school if you are having any problems.
• Meet parents of other new children and share your experiences.
Real Life Experience: Transferring Schools in High School
When Ariana Koblitz moved to Beijing from Germany last fall, she had both a new country and a new school to contend with at the same time. With one successful year at the International School of Beijing under her belt, she’s returning to ISB as a senior this fall. We asked Ariana and her mom Becky for some advice on smooth school swapping.
Ariana: Presenting yourself for judgment is never easy, and so of course the first day at ISB was something I’d definitely thought a lot about beforehand. But having previously attended an international school in Germany, I wasn’t too nervous about entering ISB. There are numerous aspects that are common to international schools all over, and one of them that I especially appreciate is the tolerance towards people with a complicated family history, heritage, or a truckload of experiences to share. So I wasn’t too worried about settling in.
Becky: As parents we were not too nervous because we knew from Ariana’s younger sister’s experience entering ISB that the faculty is open, and we also knew that it was the type of school that Ariana was looking for. We knew Ariana was an outgoing person so we weren’t worried about how she was going to settle in.
During the summer preceding her enrollment we got information from the English department about the coursework so she would have an overview of what to expect as well as be able to read the books on their list of recommended summer reading.
We would advise other families to involve their child in the choice of school. The school the child attends should be where they want to be, but even more important, they should be committed to making it work. This commitment comes more readily when they have had a say in the choice of school.
Middle School and High School Transitions
David Wood, a high school counselor at Western Academy of Beijing, discusses keeping your kid active and healthy
Do your groundwork
“It’s all about preparation for new school students,” insists David. “Familiarizing your child with the new environment is key and it can really help them in the difficult transition phase.” David suggests giving your child a visual sense of the school and neighborhood by scoping out the campus, or, if you are unable to visit, by checking out photos on the web. “At WAB we try to meet the students at least once before they arrive, but if we can’t we make sure that they have e-mail and phone contact with a counselor or a teacher from the school. We don’t want there to be any surprises when they get here.”
Of course, students aren’t going to be getting the same info from a teacher as they would from future classmates, so David also suggests trying to contact a student you already know who attends the school. “We set up e-mail buddies so the kids can get the lowdown on what the school’s like, as well as stuff like where to buy cool clothes, or get a decent cheeseburger. It’s important that the information they get is positive, so I am very selective in which students I choose.”
Hit the ground running
“It’s really important to be active and get involved in after-school activities as soon as you arrive,” suggests David. This shouldn’t be a problem in Beijing, where international schools are renowned for their great facilities and abundant extracurricular programs.
Home sweet home
“If you are arriving in Beijing for the first time it’s also a good idea to set up your home as soon as you can because, even though you may feel like you’re not going to be in Beijing forever, you have to at least have your base ready,” David points out.
Stick to a healthy schedule
In addition to a stable home base and a calendar full of activities, the next most important thing is to look after your child’s health. “If kids are eating right and getting exercise then this makes a big difference to their whole wellbeing and can make them feel a lot more positive about everything they are about to face.” Don’t let all the changes throw your family’s healthy patterns out of whack.
• Encourage your kid to stay open-minded about her new school.
• Prepare for difference and expect change.
• If you’re new to China, learn enough of the language to get around as soon as you can.
• Check out pictures to give yourselves a sense of what’s to come.
• Do some research into the activities your child enjoys and where she can participate in them.