Carlie: Welcome to another episode of the Expat Focus Podcast. I’m your host Carlie, an Australian expat living in France, and today on the program we’re talking education planning for the kids when you move abroad.
Now, it’s such an amazing opportunity to immerse your child in other cultures and show them the world, but how do you do this while also providing them with the right schooling environment? How can you make sure they’re going to thrive in the classroom, whatever their needs are and wherever you are in the world? And what about all the other things that go along with school life – friendships, activities, planning for exams and further education? How do you give your child the best options abroad and know that they’re the right ones?
Joining me today to talk through all of this is Rebecca Grappo. She’s the founder of RNG International Educational Consultants, and she’s been working with expat families for decades. Rebecca, welcome to the show.
Rebecca: Thank you for having me.
Carlie: So Rebecca, you’ve worked in education for a long time. What led you to consult with international students and their families?
Rebecca: Well, first of all, my own family background is that of being the expat family on the move, so I combined my career in education with our family’s expat adventure, and eventually ended up working for the US Department of State. And there I was the Education and Youth officer, and I was helping American diplomatic families figure out how to move around the world with their children. So that gave me a lot of great experience with all kinds of settings, situations, schools, needs, crises, all kinds of things that pop up in expat life.
When I left the State Department, I started thinking, “You know, there are a lot of people out there who also are on the expat circuit, who have similar questions. Where do they turn?” So that’s why I decided when I started my practice, that it would really be focused on working with international and expat families. Because I just saw that there was a big need for it.
Carlie: Rebecca, when you had your own experience living abroad and bringing up your children overseas, what were some of the difficulties that you faced?
Rebecca: Our family had its share of ups and downs as well, and in some regards it was an amazing experience for our children. When we went to Jordan, our children were at the American community school there, I also was on the faculty and I was teaching there, and it was a great experience. They had academic challenge, they made friends, they had activities that they enjoyed, they felt like they connected with the community, and it was a very positive experience.
But the next move was more difficult. It was great for two out of three of our children, but it wasn’t great for the third child. So it was just circumstances, it was the composition of the class that she was in, it was a new school, there were some problems with it being a startup. And she was at that age in high school where she just needed more. So we had to make the difficult decision – what were we going to do? And she ended up going to boarding school – which was an amazing opportunity for her, and now, coincidentally, we also work with families in very similar situations and we do boarding school placements.
So I can say, from the point of view of not only an educator, an expat, but also a mother, that sometimes, in the middle of your assignment, even when you have planned everything, sometimes it just doesn’t go as well as you hope it will, and then you have to be flexible, because you want your children to have all the opportunities that they need at that developmental stage of their lives, and you want them to have the educational opportunities as well.
Carlie: Rebecca, what are the typical schooling options, I suppose, when families do move overseas? What do they commonly have to choose from?
Rebecca: Well, obviously local schools – some families do choose to put their children into local schools. And then there are, a lot of times, international schools, which will have a more international curriculum. What we see a lot of right now are schools that have the international baccalaureate curriculum, and with that comes the primary years program, the middle years program, and then, eventually, the IB diploma program.
Sometimes, we have national schools outside of their home countries. You might find an Australian school, or a British school, French, German, American, and those are schools that remain true to their home country’s curriculum and the way that it would be taught in the course sequence.
And then, I’ve seen some families that have decided that they’re going to homeschool their children. This is a movement that has gained a lot of traction over the years, and so there are some who do online schooling or home schooling.
And then, sometimes the option overseas is not a good option for children, especially when there are special learning needs involved. And then, in that case – and I wouldn’t say only in that case, but in many cases – really, it is a good idea for us to consider boarding school.
Carlie: That’s a lot more choice than I expected parents to have actually. How on earth do you decide? From the outset, my initial thought would be I’m coming to a new country, I’d like to give my child the chance to be immersed in the language in the culture, so maybe send them to a local school. But I suppose that has implications if you are going to move again.
Rebecca: It certainly does, and I think that there are a lot of things – I think you have to really know your child. There are some children who have been immersed in local schools, and it’s been a great experience for them. But what I tell families is: be thinking about the big picture here. First of all, language – do the children speak the language that is going to be the language used in that particular school?
Another issue, I think though, that people need to think about, especially as the kids get older, is what about the curriculum? Is it the same curriculum and are they going to be there long enough to be able to complete what they’ve started? If so, that could work out fine, but if they need to move again, then yeah, as they get older and start to prepare for university, then yes, it is important to think about consistency and graduation requirements, and also meeting university requirements for whatever country they plan to be studying in next.
Another thing though, as I tell parents – be sure to look at the culture of the school, the leadership, the teachers, their training, the way they discipline students. There’s a lot of things about a culture of a school that’s going to be really important as well. So make sure that whatever it is, that it’s going to be compatible with your family’s values as well. That could be a really positive thing, and then I’ve also seen some situations where it wasn’t going well, and there were some really dramatic differences between the culture of the school and the values that the family held as well. So think about things like that.
Carlie: It’s definitely one of those things where it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. How can you prepare your child to give their international school a chance, or their local school, or whatever schooling option you’d like them to have a go at first, when they’re overseas?
Rebecca: That’s a great question. Because I think that basically, what families are really worried about is “Is my child going to transition well? And if there are bumps in the road, will my child be resilient? And what can I do to build resiliency in my own child?” So I think that before you go, first of all, if it’s a new language and they’re going to be educated in a different language, give them some language lessons before they go. At least get them exposed to the language before they go. Academically, what is the approach going to be? Is it going to be really different from the approach that they’ve had before? And try to manage some of their expectations about what might be different. Are there going to be gaps in their knowledge? If you know about it ahead of time, maybe you could help tutor them to make sure that they’re close to their peers when they start a new year.
But I think that it’s important to give them some space to make mistakes too. I once had a student – when I was in the classroom – who came to our classroom, in an American school, with an American atmosphere, culture, ethos etc, but he had come from an Indian school. And in the Indian school, when the teacher addresses you, you stand up and respond to the teacher, as a show of respect. But that’s not how you do it in an American school. You sit when you’re called on, and you wait to be called on. And so, for a young, elementary student, he faced embarrassment. But I said, “It’s okay,” and actually, he contacted me on Facebook, not long ago, a couple of years ago, and he’s all grown up now, and we had a nice, wonderful chat, and he said, “You made me feel safe.” And that really… I was very emotional when he said that.
And I think it’s really important that we give kids the freedom and the space to feel emotionally safe, and also emotionally safe if they make a mistake. Maybe that will be at school, maybe that will be among peers, but that’s where the family is so important. So that when children do come home from school, whether they’re children or adolescents, the family is the safe zone, and they know that they can talk about it with their family. It doesn’t mean that families are always going to excuse every little thing that happens, but at least give them some empathy and understanding before they give them some encouragement to move on.
If things are really not going well, I think the parents also have to be ready to advocate for their children and be ready to go down and work through some of those issues that might come. And even, some schools may not be as receptive to the parents being actively involved. So these are all things to think about.
Carlie: What if you know that your child is going to need a little bit of extra help? Maybe it’s a learning difficulty or maybe they’re just a personality where you know there could be environments that are going to be a bit too abrasive for them. How do you navigate how schools are going to going to best look after your child?
Rebecca: That’s such a critical question. I think that it’s really important. I know that parents often think about academics, but I think it’s also very important that they look for the social fit and for a place where their child will be taken care of, nurtured, mentored, protected, and emotionally safe. So if it’s going to be a situation in which those children are not going to be in an emotionally safe school, I think that parents really need to pull back and think about it again.
When it comes to special learning needs, this is probably one of the very biggest challenges that we see, working with kids who are moving around the world. And that’s because not all schools are able to meet the different kinds of learning challenges that some children come with, or teenagers come with. And that’s when we get really involved, and that’s how we got really involved in boarding schools actually. Because we realized that there are a lot of students around the world that are in schools that are really not able to meet the learning needs of their children. And therefore, to be in a place where you go to school every day and you feel like you’re unsuccessful, it’s not a happy place for any student to be in.
And especially what worries us is when you take global mobility and learning challenges, and have a place that’s not fitting and not working out well, then we often see a by-product of that is lowered self-esteem, self-confidence in the child. And then sometimes we even see mental health issues as a result – depression and anxiety, for example.
So it’s probably important that we stay attuned to what our children are experiencing.
Carlie: What are some of the benefits of an international education, Rebecca? It sounds like there’s so much to consider and so much to sort out and investigate, but surely it’s all worth the effort.
Rebecca: I think in the majority of cases it’s worth it in the end. I think that we have to be realistic, so that we’re not just talking about “Isn’t this going to be great?” Because it can be great, and then, sometimes, for some kids, it’s not so great. So we have to really be thinking about it all the time, and doing our best to help our kids adjust and be resilient.
But what are some of the great advantages? I can say this because I work with all kinds of students, and some of the students that we work with are superstars. They’re the poster-children for everything that’s gone right from having been exposed to a variety of countries, cultures, languages, experiences, travel. And it makes them into, I think, not only more interesting people, but people who are more interested than the rest of the world as well. First of all, a three-dimensional view of the world. You see that real people and problems exist that are not just from a newspaper story. You really see the full implication of this.
It also can make them very flexible. It can teach them how to be resilient, it can teach them how to make friends and new relationships. Tolerance is a huge one – when you go to school with people who are different from yourself, it allows you to have a lens that’s different from the one that you might have had before, to have more empathy and understanding towards a different point of view or someone with a background different from yourself.
And all these are skills that employers are looking for in their workforce as well. So when we talked with adult TCKs or adult third culture kids who have grown up like this, they’re able to successfully translate a lot of these skills into the workplace, and it makes them more effective employees. And I think probably the most important thing is it just enriches one’s life, it makes life more interesting for all of us.
Carlie: The concept of a third culture kid is something I only found out about actually maybe a year ago, following someone on YouTube, who had grown up in a family that moved overseas a lot, and it was only in her adult life that she actually connected with the United States, where her parents were from, but she hadn’t really had a US upbringing. What sort of challenges can they face coming home or coming back to their parents’ place of birth after being educated an brought up primarily overseas?
Rebecca: I think there are a lot of things that can play out later in life. I actually was having a conversation with a therapist this morning, who’s working with a young adult third culture kid, and this is someone that is a young person that we’re working with. But what she mentioned in her conversation just this morning was that he realizes that he has a lot of superficial relationships that he calls “level one” and that he sometimes struggles to find that level two relationship, which is something that’s more deep and a deeper sense of connection. And he mentioned the fact that it’s been difficult for him ever since he came back from overseas.
So when he was overseas, he found it easy to connect and make friends, and the students or the friends that he had were from all these other different nationalities. When he repatriated – and this is not an American phenomenon, this could be any country in the world – when kids go home again, to whatever their country of passport, a lot of times they don’t fit in any more. And their same age peers, who haven’t had a similar experience may not understand, you may not have a place to tell your stories, or you might try to tell your story and people look at you as if you’re bragging or showing off, because your story took place in a different setting. And so a lot of times we see students who don’t want to talk about it anymore; or they want to talk about it but they don’t find an audience to talk about.
So I think sometimes that can be a hard and lonely place for some of these young people. And what we know about TCKs is that they generally tend to gravitate towards other people who’ve had a similar experience. So when one TCK meets another, no matter what stage in life, there is that connection of “Aha! You get it! You know what this is like.”
Carlie: Sounds like a really nice club to be in, despite the challenges.
Rebecca: It is a great club to be in, [laughs] despite the challenges.
Carlie: Rebecca, you’ve educated your own kids in more than one overseas country. If you’re a parent that knows that your child is going to have an education that spans multiple countries, how do you strike that balance between providing them with unique opportunities that living overseas provides but also some stability and continuity in their education and in the offshoots of their education, in their social life that stems from school and in the activities?
Rebecca: Well, one of the things I encourage families to do is to think about what Dr Robert Brooks calls islands of competence. He’s a psychologist who is very well known for his work in resilience in young people. And I think that that idea of islands of competence is really important.
So what are some things that are portable skills that a young person can have, that they can take from school to school to school, especially if it allows them an entrée into a sub-group within schools? So are they an athlete, are they good in drama, are they good in music, are they good in art, good in debate? Whatever it is, find something that you can take with you wherever you go, so that it’s easier to plug into a new community.
Carlie: And how easy is it to make the change from school to school in different countries, or you’ve finished your junior school and you’re going to senior school in a completely new country – is there a lot of homework that parents need to do? Is there a typical path that parents will choose?
Rebecca: I think it’s really important for parents at this stage of the game, especially as the kids are in their teenage years, to really be thinking about curriculum consistency. So it’s very hard to change between, for example, a British curriculum and an American curriculum, or a British curriculum and the IB curriculum, or a national curriculum… any of these interchangeable parts. Graduation requirements are different, instructional styles might be different, the foundation of what kids have already had at a particular age might be different.
And then, again, you have to be looking ahead to university applications, and what is it that universities are looking for, and are they looking for a particular diploma, are they looking for particular standardized test scores? What are the things that these kids are going to have to be able to accomplish in order to be able to continue on with their education?
I’ve seen some families not take this seriously enough, and move their kids from one system to a dramatically different system at a crucial stage of their young person’s education. And I’m not saying that you can never recover from it. Of course, there’s always another chance. But I think it’s something that can be very, very difficult.
We were fortunate in our own family situation, in that wherever we went, we had an American international school that was quite strong… well, no, that’s not true. Not every assignment we had… But as the kids got older, one of the things that we looked for in the next assignment was whether or not there would be adequate schooling, before we even accepted the assignment.
Carlie: Rebecca, where’s the best place for families to gain the right insights and advice into this?
Rebecca: Well, obviously I would love for people to call us. [laughs] So that’s one place to start. But I think that there are a lot of other… what’s really exploded in the world today is the use of technology for good. And so there are a lot of online forums. There is wonderful podcasts, for example, just like your podcast, the Expat Focus. And then there’s also organizations like Families in Global Transition, there are online Facebook pages. Also, talking to the school, talking to people who are already in a particular setting, in a particular country is really helpful as well.
One other piece of advice I would give families is that when you move to a new country and you find out the school that everybody seems to be sending their kids to, that might be a really great piece of information and make life so much easier for you, because now you know which one is the really great school. But then again, to keep in mind that it might be really great for their kids, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be great for your child. And so, to think about that a little bit deeper, at a deeper level, before you just blindly follow the herd.
Carlie: Rebecca, thanks so much for your time today.
Rebecca: It was really a pleasure. Thank you for asking me.
Carlie: Well, that’s it for today. If you’d like to discuss this episode, please head over to expatfocus.com and follow the links to our forums or Facebook groups. Also, remember to check out our previous episodes at expatfocus.com/podcast or on iTunes, and I’ll catch you next time.