When we moved to France (at rather short notice) in March last year, we threw our two girls, aged 7 and 9, into the local school.
Our experience was one of learning. This article aims to pass on some of our experiences, and lists my tips for smoothing the way in a new school, new language, new culture.
It was a learning experience for all of us and I hope others can learn from it.This article covers:
* A bit about our experience
* Words of wisdom from an integration specialist, with my own tips added
There are headings to help you shortcut if you want to!
We arrived in France in March 2017 and the girls started at the local mountain school after Easter. Miss 7 was a little nervous, but for the first few days we dropped them off and they went in pretty quietly. I was amazed at Miss 9’s nonechalance, and felt proud and confident.
Oh fool me!
Within a week Miss 7 was showing her fear. Crying at the school gate, clingy behaviour. Her teacher seemed lovely though, and would come and take her hand and lead her into the building.
French schools have a two-hour lunch break. We agreed that for the first few weeks we’d give the girls a break in the middle of the day and pick them up for lunch. This was a good decision, as was putting a set time limit on it. That way there was a plan we could stick to. I felt it was important for the children to enter into as much school life as possible, as soon as possible. Again Miss 7 was particularly nervous about the canteen, and again her lovely teacher stepped in, allowing her to lunch with her sister. This support was really valuable while they got used to how things ran in French school and found their way around.
How French School Works
Before arriving we had been put in touch with an English support teacher at the school. This was invaluable and I’d recommend anyone moving to a new country and putting their children in a new school to try to find a contact there who is either English, or who speaks reasonable English.
I had no idea how French school works, and there wasn’t a briefing for parents. It was one of those ‘I don’t know what I don’t know’ situations. I had no idea what to ask! With hindsight that sounds a little silly now, but at the time there was a lot going on and I just didn’t think…
I knew the bell rang at 8.30. From the children I gathered there was a morning play time. (‘recce’, short for recreation) They break for lunch at 11.30 and the bell goes again at 13.30 (you’d better get used to the 24-hour clock and learn your French numbers!). Even writing this I realise I’m not 100% sure whether they have a short afternoon play (note to self to ask the girls later). Lessons finish more or less at 3.30pm. Then at our school it’s time for TAP. This is a post-lesson activity session that lasts until 4.30pm. Given we live up the mountain where you’d expect options to be more limited, I am really impressed with the choices our girls get for TAP. Things like carpentry, Chinese shadow puppets, chocolate making, cooking, sewing, film-making, games club… They sign up for the term, for three days a week. One day they have lessons until 4.30, and Wednesdays are a half day.
If you work longer hours, there are school-based options for childcare including homework club and various extra-curricular activities that take place in the school building, among other options.
Too far into the term I became aware, from rummaging through my eldest’s back pack, that she had homework. We hadn’t done a bit! No one had mentioned it. How was I meant to know this?! The school has a great system where there’s something called a Cahier de Liaison into which any communications home are written or glued. Parents can write a response, or question for the teacher etc and as long as the child remembers to show the teacher at the appropriate time in the morning routine, communication is a go-go. There had been nothing in this book about homework. I found another ‘cahier’ (exercise book) called the ‘Agenda’ into which was written things that looked like homework. I felt a bit silly, but also befuddled as to why the teacher hadn’t mentioned this.
“Oh, I don’t think I have to do that,” said Miss 9, “because I don’t understand it.”
Alarm bells started ringing. How was my child going to learn the language, and be accepted as part of the group, if the teacher was excluding her from homework for starters?
Then Miss 9 started coming home and showing me drawings she’d done that day.
“When did you do this?” I asked
“While the others were doing something the teacher said I wouldn’t understand.”
“You should have a go at everything darling,” I encouraged, “it’ll help you learn.”
“Well, the teacher didn’t give it to me so I did drawing instead.”
Just learn the language
I told the girls that I didn’t care whether they learnt anything at school other than French. “Don’t worry about maths and things like that,” I’d said, “just do your best to understand and learn French. Everything else we can catch up on.”
In fact it was quite clear that the girls, just by dint of the difference in UK and French curricula, were reasonably ahead academically, which was great!
Read on to find out more about how exclusion affected our children, and what we did about it.
We signed our girls up for TAP activities. I felt that this would be valuable to their integration in the school. They chose things that they could easily join in without too much language requirement, and things that would be a relaxing and enjoyable end to a busy day. Going to a new school is exhausting enough, without the added complication of trying to absorb a new language. It’s double school, or more, and I was aware of trying to balance integration with time out and rest. For that reason we didn’t sign the girls up for any additional activities after TAP during the week in the first term. It was a good decision.
A new country, a new language, a new culture
There is so much to learn about a new country. It’s not just about language, but culture too. That means what’s eaten, when; how people say hello and goodbye to each other; social expectation; behavioural expectation; the ‘norms’. Everything is new. From observing the children at school and hearing what the girls told me at home, it was really clear that the feel of school here in France was different indeed to their UK school. To me it seemed rougher, less friendly, a bit edgy. I realised how ‘cosy’ their English school had been. Perhaps a little too cosy. While cosy is easy, supportive and comfortable – was it preparing them for life? Secondary school could be a shock to child who’d only been in an environment like that. There were things about the French school I wasn’t sure about, but on the other hand perhaps it would prepare them better for ‘real life’.
Either way, school and life in a new country is more than different food for lunch and a new language. And appreciating how much my children had to get to grips with helped me to cope. It helped me to have empathy and sympathy at the end of a hard day, and choose the best way to help them, support them and boost them up.
Television is good!
We are reasonably strict with TV time and choices in our home. Not crazy, but I like to keep it in check. This changed when the girls started French school. My husband was schooled in Rome for three years as a child and attended an English international school. Still, he absorbed Italian like the sponge children are. He is convinced, as is his mother, that this was mainly from watching Italian cartoons! So the TV monitoring gloves were loosened. If our shattered kids wanted to veg out in front of French cartoons for a bit after school, all to the good! The rule became French TV only during the week, English allowed a bit at the weekends. I am convinced this all helped with their language acquisition.
Quite probably due to her supportive teacher, Miss 7’s fears subsided. Although her teacher expressed some frustration that my youngest didn’t appear to have any ‘envie’ (desire) to learn French, she was reasonably pleased with how she was settling in.
In contrast, Miss 9’s life started to become awful. And as a result our mornings became awful too. She wouldn’t get out of bed. She felt sick, had stomach aches, cried, started throwing tantrums. She complained of not being able to concentrate at school – she’s always been a bit of a daydreamer, to say the least, but we’d never had any problems with school.
A quirky girl, she had quirky, lovely friends in her English school. She has always been happy in her own company too, and has always needed time on her own, but now I sensed loneliness. No friends. Feeling excluded and sad. Finding herself ‘frozen’ in class so that she didn’t hear what was going on and couldn’t participate.
Things escalated until on a few occasions I felt I simply couldn’t take her to school. One day I forced her to the school gates, where the teacher monitoring the entrance for people dashing up at the last minute (it has been a huge effort to get out of the door) advised me to take her home – she was screaming and miserable. The poker-faced parking police chap had no sympathy whatsoever as he told me off for leaving my car where it was, with the engine running. I was a mess!
My daughter was unhappy; I was unhappy. When I was called to school one day to collect her (another mystery illness), her teacher handed her over with no sympathy or empathy whatsoever. It was clear she was fed up with her and just thought she should toughen up. I felt furious and was way too emotional to deal with it. Fortunately I chose to quietly take my daughter and leave.
After asking around some friends I decided to consult a UK-based Occupational Therapist for help with Miss 9. Most advertised school and home visits to assess the child – no good to me. But I found one lady based in our old town in the UK who ran a practice where she assessed children in her own place. She sounded great, and sent me an in-depth questionnaire, suggesting an initial Skype call when she’d looked through it. Gold! She threw light on Miss 9’s symptoms and their causes. Everything made sense. She gave me simple, easy strategies for dealing with her.
Miss 9 is a bright spark and I sat down with her and told her about the lady I’d spoken to, what she’d said and what might be going on inside her own head. I reassured her that it wasn’t her fault, but encouraged her that she could take control of things, and that we were going to help her. Wow. Eight months later I still return to those techniques when I spot symptoms rearing their head again. It was money and time brilliantly spent.
(Caveat: Some of Miss 9’s symptoms, while showing themselves due to the massive change afoot, had their roots in earlier happenings in her young life. So don’t panic that by putting your child in a new school you’ll have the same experiences we did. If it hadn’t been this, something else probably would have triggered some of these issues for Miss 9.)
School had mentioned that there was an integration expert around whose catchment area extended to our town. At the time our plan wasn’t to stay in France for long, and school were understandably unsure about engaging the help of this lady if we weren’t going to stay. But the fact that she was around, and that they’d mentioned it (not unsurprisingly, it was Miss 7’s teacher who raised it), was hopeful.
Apparently it’s been the norm for French teachers to tell you and you children what they’re getting wrong, not boost them up with positivity and supportive pastoral care. This is, according to what I’ve heard, on the change. I wish I’d known before my husband and I had end-of-term meetings with the children’s teachers. First up was Miss 9’s teacher. All bad. She was doing all sorts of things wrong and needed to get better. Not a single word of positivity. We were totally unprepared for it, and even my helpfully (relatively) dispassionate husband didn’t come up with anything in response! We left in shock feeling even more negative about the teacher.
Next up was Miss 7’s progressively supportive teacher. Whole other experience. Yes, she expressed the ongoing frustration with our daughter’s lack of acquisition of French. But she showed us how her handwriting had improved, told us how well she could read, what a friendly, popular girl she was…
Our arrival in March until that early July break-up for the summer holidays meant the girls had only four months in French school before the long summer break. We spent most of our summer elsewhere, and the girls were not exposed to a lot of French. When they returned to school in September the immediately reported that things felt easier. Each was with the same teacher. I had some misgivings about this for Miss nearly-10, but she was happier, she said, to at least have a teacher she knew.
School very soon asked if we’d like to meet the integration expert. Yes, we very much would like to! In a meeting with both teachers and the expert she suggested strategies to help the girls at home, and we all agreed that instead of one TAP session after school the girls would be given French tuition and support. Amazing. I sensed a change in attitude from Miss 9’s teacher and mentally blessed Miss 7’s for moving things in a positive direction. Perhaps she’d mellowed over the summer holidays too.
Seeking more help
I reached out to our small but growing local network and got a recommendation for an after-school tutor too. After a session to find out their level, she recommended an hour each a week. A trained teacher and tutor by profession, she tutored French children as well as new kids from other countries (usually English). She would base her teaching around the level the children were expected to be at in their academic year. She seemed good. She turned out to be amazing and the girls really enjoyed being with her, as well as learning a lot and gaining confidence hugely. Her approach was absolutely right and again, money and time very well spent.
Around October/November time we started to notice that that children were clicking with French, and sounding more settled in school generally. In fact on a family trip to the UK in October my husband and I were sitting with his mum in her dining room, the children playing together in the adjoining living room. Suddenly my husband signalled to me and his mum to be quiet and listen – the girls were speaking French in their play. SOUND THE TRUMPETS!
Since then things have just got better. Miss 9’s teacher was a sea change this academic year. Perhaps something was going on with her last year, but since the summer it’s been like dealing with a different person. I asked for meetings with each teacher before the October holidays and went armed with questions that would prompt Miss 9’s teacher to say something, anything, positive about my hard-working, sparky girl. No need! This time my husband and I left the room with smiles of shock on our face. Who was this woman?! Our relationship with her has flourished since and we’ve embraced it – don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
With the school’s support and the girls’ out-of-school tutor their confidence increased, and as it did, the French came. And as the French came, they became better integrated into the school. And…they became more relaxed and happy.
A year on both teachers are full of praise not only for the children’s French progress, but for their academic work too. Family life is more relaxed. No more morning tantrums! If ever the old symptoms raise their heads I have tools to deal with it. In general life is good.
An expert suggests…
Kathryn Kashyap is a UK integration consultant who works in inner city schools to assist families from overseas with children integrating into English state schools. Currently writing up her pHd entitled “Not left behind: An exploration of learner identity negotiations at the intersection of gender, refugee and SEND”. I got in touch and asked her for three key pointers for people wanting to help their children integrate into school in a new language.
Tip 1 – Positive news
“I would take someone with me who can speak the language and tell the teachers everything positive about my child and their learning so they are hopefully not seen as a blank sheet and unable.”
While you’re there, Kathryn suggests –
"Ask for/ find out survival language to make sure your child can navigate the school rules and the stresses of being new e.g. please can I go to the toilet? I'm sorry I don't understand.”
My further suggestions:
* Ask how the school day runs. Is there some quiet time, or a quiet place children are allowed to go during lunch / break time if they wish?
* Where is homework recorded, can the teacher please check that your child has written it down correctly while they are still learning the language.
* Ask that your child be included in EVERYTHING – whether or not they understand.
* Is there a ‘buddy’ system for new students? How will the teacher(s) help your child integrate socially?
Tip 2 – Engage with homework
“Ask for homework to be sent home that you can do with your child – if you don't know the language, image based vocabulary work Is great- and even if you do that is a good place to start.
Ask them to tell you in advance what topics are going to be studied so you can look them up in English with your child and learn some simple key vocab with them. The more you are engaged in bilingual school work with them at home the better."
My further suggestions:
* Keep it relaxed and fun. Join in. Try to make a game out of learning the new vocabulary if you can.
* Add in day-to-day vocab bit by bit. e.g. for two weeks focus on the bathroom. Write basic phrases with drawings and stick them on the wall. Make chatting about the bathroom the main topic in your new language for that two weeks, until everyone has those phrases down pat. Then move on to another subject.
Tip 3 – Keep learning in your native tongue
“Keep going with academic learning in your home language – reading, writing, maths maybe so that cognitively your children are challenged and they have some less stressful learning time.
Reading is easier to manage, but if they are set a writing task in the new language get them to do it in their home language first and then work out a few simple phrases they can write in the new language. Have some maths books so they can do the same topic in English where needed – particularly for word questions that are always tricky."
My further suggestions:
* Still keep it relaxed and fun. It’s tiring enough for your child for the first three to six months, and you can catch up on academic work with tutoring later. Help them enough that they can start to feel more included, but don’t push too hard.
I hope you’ve found this article helpful. Although I currently live in France and will be posting about life in France, a lot of what I write will be relevant to settling in any new country.
Until next time – happy settling in.