by Dr. Jeff Devens

This article was written by high school personal academic counselor Dr. Jeff Devens.

In part two of Moving In, Setting Up, Settling Down, Dr. Jeff Devens shares a set of questions and answers to help parents as they transition into a new culture, school, and country.

1. When should we tell our kids we’re moving?
When you know moving is a likelihood you should inform the kids. Depending on their age, children will have a host of normal childhood responses: excitement, denial, withdrawal, anger, joy, etc. Kids (especially younger ones) tend to mimic the emotional state of parents. It’s important to help children learn to deal with the various feelings that encompass saying goodbye and moving on. Kids often respond with anxiety regarding fitting-in to the new school community.  The adjustment phase begins before the physical move. During this time it’s not uncommon to see a drop in academic performance, increases in peer difficulties, and regression of behaviors. This is, for the most part, common and to be expected. Anticipating changes and addressing fears are important front-end work. 

2. When is the “best” time to move?
In most cases the best time to have kids begin a new school term is at the start of the school year. During this time schools devote considerable resources to support new students and families. If you’re new to international or Department of Defense schools, one of the first realities you’ll come to understand is that these communities are transient. As such, kids and families move in and out of schools at a higher rate than one finds in their home country. It’s not uncommon for 25 percent or more of students to be new each year. Knowing that many peers are new may be comforting (I’m not the only new kid.) to your child. As a general rule, if you are able to finish out the school year in your current post do so before moving on.

3. How can I help prepare my kids for the move?
Going online and searching out the school, post, country, and culture are good starting points. Look at the school website, courses, schedule, graduation requirements, etc. Many schools have YouTube videos of the school and community. If you have an opportunity to visit the school, putting together a video for the kids may also be helpful. Photos of prospective houses, activities, eateries, and outside activities should also be included. The key is creating a context for the new setting.

4. What sorts of school records will my child’s new school require?
Most schools will want to review the last three years of academic records (if your child is older). You can gather these from your child’s current school. Schools keep a running record of a student’s academic progress, often known as a cumulative folder. Quarter, semester, and final marks, along with teacher comments and any standardized assessments, are particularly important. Also, if your child has had any psycho-educational assessments, or is presently receiving academic support (I.E.P or 504 plans), it will be important to have current (within the last two years) copies of these documents. Many schools do not have extensive academic support programs. As such, they will need to review your child’s case history to determine if they can accommodate his/her academic-social emotional needs. Sadly, some parents knowingly withhold this information in order to gain admission. When the schools find out (and they will) they may resend the offer of admission. Parents, be honest with this information. It does your child no good to be in a school that does not offer the services and supports they need to be successful. 

5. My child was doing academically well at their previous school, but now they are struggling, what’s going on here?
Allowances should be made for kids who appear out-of-sink academically, at least during the first quarter (nine weeks) of school. It’s also important to understand the demographics of the school population your child is now a part of. In their previous school, they may have indeed been a good student, but by international standards, they may be academically average. Generally speaking, overseas student bodies tend to be skewed. Many parents are highly educated, from intact families, middle to upper class, and have stable family supports. As such, academic rigor is a foundational part of the makeup of these families and schools they attend. If your child was/is an average student based on standardized measures, they may be below average compared to peers at their international school. If they were above average they may be average compared to peers at their new international school. This isn’t to suggest that they won’t graduate or get into the right fit college. In fact, the overwhelming majority will. 

If your child is not making consistent progress speak with their teacher(s). Having them provide a context for your child’s performance. Also, make sure you speak with your child’s electives teachers as well (physical education, music, art, etc.). They can provide a great deal of information related to social-emotional aspects of your child’s life and adjustment.

6. Should we keep our current home?
A life lived out of a suitcase for eight weeks during school holidays becomes tiring. There are many international families who have purchased homes that they return to during extended school breaks. The investment in a home should not be thought of as purely financial. Great if you can rent the place while you’re abroad, but in many cases, this may not be possible. My advice, take the financial loss for the gain in connectedness and community, especially if you are uncertain how long you will be out of the country. Most posting is two-three year terms. Knowing this, many families plan on returning home. If this is not your case, then selling and deciding to buy somewhere else may be a better option. I would suggest, however, that you not be reactive. Take some time to investigate the area(s) where you are planning on spending your holidays/school breaks.

7. In order to convince my child to move, I had to promise that we would go back to visit the place we are currently living during the midterm break. Was this a good idea?
Yes…and No. If your kids are well adjusted and have come to understand that transitions are a natural part of the international experience then offering them the opportunity to reconnect with old friends can be a great demonstration of your recognition of the importance of friends in your child’s life. However, if the kids are refusing to connect with new peers this can be a real drain on families. In some cases, kids begin to settle into the routine of living in a new post only to start this process all over again after they visit with their old friends. Each family is unique and parents will need to keep in mind how their kids handle transitions before making concessions.

8. Why isn’t my child connecting/engaging with peers?
When kids enter a new environment they look for what’s familiar. Kids thrive, as do adults, on routine, predictability, and relationships. When they don’t find these it often sets in motion a host of negative emotional and physiological responses. For example, when a colleague of mine who had a six-year-old son moved to a new posting, they didn’t take their helper/maid who had worked with the family for six years. For the child, the helper was a family member, a third parent in effect, who was no longer there. This resulted in a regression of behavior, including bed-wetting. This lasted for several weeks until the child mourned through the loss.

Transitions may affect children in a myriad of ways: withdrawal, rebelliousness, anxiety, clinginess, night terrors, regression of academic progress, low physical activity, etc. To some degree, these sorts of experiences are to be expected. The difficulty occurs when these become persistent (typically more than nine weeks in duration). In such cases, it is vitally important to speak with your child’s teacher or counselor and explain the specifics of what you are noting. Depending on the child, adjustment to a new post can take anywhere from 18-36 weeks; however, the overwhelming majorities of kids make the necessary adjustments and return to a normal or higher level of functioning. Again, I want to emphasize the importance of routine. This can’t be overstated. Establish a routine as soon as you can with the kids. This includes mealtime, bedtimes, school, sports, and other extracurricular activities. 

What’s important to keep in mind is that what they are experiencing is by and large normal and part of the transition process.

Note: I am indebted to David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken for their seminal work on understanding the transition process: Third Culture Kids: Growing up Among Worlds. A must read for international families.

In part three of Moving In, Setting Up, Settling Down, Dr. Jeff Devens shares more questions and answers to help parents as they transition into a new culture, school, and country.

  • counseling
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  • high school
  • transition



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