Starting a new school year can be a mix of thrill and trepidation. Many expats have the added challenge of settling down in a foreign country. We spoke to Bruce G. Hammond, vice principal at Tsinghua International High School (THIS), Dr. Alan Mease clinical psychologist and medical director at Beijing LIH Olivia’s Place Pediatric Clinic, and Dr. Caleb Korngold, psychiatry section chief at Beijing United Family Hospita
Newbie Crash Course
Fall brings a flock of new expats ready to embark on a China adventure. A new schooling environment in a new country will naturally result in some level of anxiety for both parents and children. Dr. Mease says that the parents’ attitudes drive the success of the children’s adjustment. “If the parents are negative about China then the kids will be as well.”
In additional to adjusting to a new country, many children may be adapting to a new curriculum. “Open-mindedness is so important for any student coming to a new school and new cultural context,” says Hammond. “Children sometimes adapt better than their parents,” says Dr. Korngold. If children are adapting well parents can focus on their own emotional and social needs.
Replay or Reset?
Expat families who have already been living in Beijing for some time face their own challenges at the beginning of each school year: children adjusting to new classes, starting school for the first time, moving schools, or changing curricula.
“Returning students should take the opportunity to reinvent themselves as opposed to repeating patterns from past years,” says Hammond. “International schools are dynamic communities from which students (and teachers) come and go every year. Better to embrace change than to get stuck on, say, angling to get into classes with the same students who were classmates in the previous year.”
Signs of stress
“Adolescence is a high risk period for mental and behavioral issues as children are trying to establish their identity as a person during this period so it’s an especially sensitive time,” says Dr Mease. “For kindergarten kids and elementary school children keep an eye out for temper tantrums, oppositional behavior and other behavioral problems. Also, many developmental and behavioral challenges can start to reveal themselves during this time and can emerge more quickly under a stressful period.”
Not sleeping, acting-out behavior, shorter temper, crying or regressing developmentally (struggling to achieve tasks that they’re normally at ease with) are the most common signs that children are stressed. There may also be physical symptoms such as constant head-and stomach-aches says Dr. Mease.
According to Dr Mease, the most common signs of stressed parents are extreme irritability, being negative about everything in China, and depression or anxiety. Parents exhibiting these symptoms should seek counseling because their stress will affect the other family members. Marriage difficulties can be also be accentuated during this kind of transition, which can also lead to more stress and challenges for children.
Routine, routine, routine
Within the third and fourth week of school, it’s a good idea to touch base with the child’s teacher or the school counselor to seek feedback. In some cases, the school will call parents early to let them know if they have concerns and give suggestions on how to move forward.
“Kids at almost any age generally do better with routine,” says Dr. Korngold. “The routine of sports, religious community, art class, or anything healthy and semi-structured, can help children get into the rhythm of Beijing life.”
Both doctors recommend exercise, balanced nutrition, time for regular self-care, and sleep as important basics for parents guiding their families through school transitions.
Parents should seek out other parents to create a support network where they can share and encourage each other. The formation of social bonds with other parents guard against the effects of isolation that are common when moving to a new country. For families already living in Beijing, welcoming new friends keeps despondency over friends who have left at bay.
“As a couple, take more time to talk and communicate. This is so important and sometimes during times of stress parents get busy and forget to do this,” says Dr. Mease. “Get help from a professional early if you need it. Don’t wait until it’s a big problem.”
Quick Tips for Parents
- Take school administrators’ advice on which grade is most appropriate for your child, as academic levels may be different from back home. Shifting to a new curriculum may also necessitate a grade change.
- Have a daily chat with your children about their experience at school. Get to know their friends and friends’ parents.
- Set up play dates with classmates.
- Find your own support
- Engage your school community: other parents, teachers, nurses, coaches, administrators, and any other relevant staff members can all be a source of information and assistance. Solicit their feedback and ask for their advice.
- Stay positive and calm and encourage your kids to take a similarly relaxed and upbeat attitude.
Paper, Scissors, Pen! Where to Buy Stationery
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This article originally appeared on page 64-65 of the beijingkids August 2015 issue. Click here to read the issue for free on Issuu.com. To find out how you can get your own copy, email email@example.com.
Photos: Knight foundation, Sander Van Deer Wel, Storyvillegirl, & US Department of Education (flickr)