We have all been there. The first time we stepped foot into our new home-away-from-home, it may have been with great anxiety and trepidation. Moving to a foreign country is challenging at the best of times, but uprooting your family and acclimatizing to a new cultural environment comes with its own set of unique tests and trials.
Families moving to Beijing have several issues to contend with once their feet touch the tarmac. Relocation can be one of the most testing times for families who have uprooted their lives from one country to the next. Usually, they spend a considerable amount of time navigating their way through several transitions; not least is the issue of getting the kids settled into a new school.
Dulwich College Beijing (DCB) has been investing in several ways to help ease the strain that a family may go through when moving across shores to build a new life. Their counseling program with the support of the student body and members of faculty work together to provide a welcoming environment for new students and a support network for both them and their families.
DCB Teacher and Counselor, Karla Hawkins, shared with beijingkids first-hand knowledge of the biggest challenges faced by students and parents who have moved to Beijing, “They have gone through a roller coaster of emotions from pure excitement and the prospect of all the new adventures ahead, to incredible lows surrounding the leaving of friends, family, and often pets.”
Hawkins went on to say that most families start seeking out ways to develop some sort of normalcy after arriving. They often prioritize making efforts to recreate elements of their previous life while doing their best to cultivate friendships. However, this rush to experience some semblance of their old life often results in a family neglecting to take their time to get accustomed to the culture and way of life here, which often leads to them rushing the transitional period only to realize that some things take much longer than anticipated.
To combat some of the disappointment a student and parent might experience during the initial phase of adjustment in a new country, DCB has set up a Peer Mentoring Programme where International Baccalaureate (IB) students are trained to mentor and support Key Stage 3 (Years 7, 8, and 9) students. New students in particular really benefit from this program, which offers one-to-one support. “Younger students benefit from talking to older students as they often feel that someone closer to their age understands them better than the adults in their lives,” says Hawkins.
When it comes to age-specific challenges for students, there are a few to consider for both younger and older kids. If you have young children they may tend to miss their usual routines and the comfort of their old surroundings, however, they usually adapt more quickly in comparison to older students on campus, especially if supported by parents who recreate as many of these routines as possible.
For older students establishing meaningful friendships can take time and is one of the key sources of difficulty for some as they try and develop more of a social standing in school, however, this all gets easier as older students begin to immerse themselves in extracurricular activities. “As students move into IB DP (Diploma Program) years, it gets easier again as they tend to focus more on their work and get involved in after-school activity programs,” explained Hawkins.
At DCB all new students and their parents attend a New Families Orientation session the day before the rest of the student body arrives at the school for the start of the academic year; “This gives the new students an opportunity to meet their teachers and other new students ahead of the first day of school,” said Hawkins. This is vital to supporting students through the initial difficult first few weeks and months and partners other awesome initiatives. These include the Early Years and Junior School summer presentation, where students are presented with a photo and a short introduction to their class teacher, and Buddy program, which involves assigning new students to a member of the student body who can help them find their feet until they are ready to go at it alone.
There is also a week-long transition program for Year 6 students who are moving from Junior School to Senior School, whereby all new and current students join DCB from other schools in Beijing to participate in helping one another to transition confidently into the new year. This, Hawkins said, is a proactive and motivational aspect of student life; “The student body is extremely welcoming and always happy to help new students. Most go above and beyond to help and support.”
For the families of students attending DCB, the school organizes a “Newcomers Fair.” This is an opportunity for parents and extended family to get familiar with their community, network, and ask questions. Their parent association, ‘Friends of Dulwich’ is very active in organizing “connection lunches,” and “Bring a Friend” coffee mornings to help engage newcomers, welcome them and their families, and offer a support network made up of parents.
Acclimatization is never easy, and stringent back-up initiatives are always needed for those who may continue to struggle with their new environment. The Pastoral system at DCB deals with offering consistent and ongoing support, “The pastoral leaders work closely with the teachers and form tutors to ensure that those who are struggling have a support strategy put in place that will ensure they do acclimatize and settle in,” said Hawkins.
If you and your family are struggling to settle in Beijing and wondering how your home-away-from-home will ever really feel like ‘home,’ then patience is the key says, Hawkins. Take your time and allow you and the kids to adapt without the added pressure of wanting to make everything happen now. Check out what kind of support services the school where your kids attend offer and ensure that you and your family take advantage of the many opportunities to participate in school and family-orientated initiatives and activities. The kids can meet and make new friends and parents can connect with other parents also needing support and advice.
Remember that the name of the game for a family transitioning into a new life abroad often involves a period of testing times. Even seasoned expats have experiences with isolation, challenges with culture, and adapting to a new environment, particularly if you are worried about how your kids are coping at school. As Hawkins put perfectly; “There is often trial and error until your child finds the right activity, but once they do, that sense of being part of a group is essential for belonging and transition.”
Photo: Courtesy of DCB