By Elizabeth Perelstein, President, School Choice International, Inc.
When the Roberts family moved to England for an overseas assignment, the last thing they worried about was finding the right school when returning home. After all, this was the one part of the relocation they knew about. They had worked very hard to choose a school for their children in their home community, and moving was devastating for everyone involved. In the school they were leaving, the children were known, accepted, and successful. The parents were heavily involved with the school community and were major contributors of both time and money. The children were leaving friends who felt like family.
While moving to a new school overseas would be daunting, the family expected that returning to the children's original school would be safe. The parents knew of the quality of teachers, the high academic standards, and the nurturing atmosphere in which their children were known to and cared for by adults. The entire family kept in close contact with friends back home for the duration of their overseas assignment. Whenever they returned for home leave, the children visited their school and friends. They had frequent guests in England; many friends from home took advantage of the family's overseas assignment to travel to London. Inexpensive telephone rates and email made contact even easier.
The years passed quickly, and soon the family was returning home. They had rented their home while abroad, and were now preparing to return to it. They had made sure that places for their children were still available in their former school. Although terribly sad to leave their new life in London, it was with great anticipation that the children returned to their old school. They longed to embrace their friends. They had so many stories to tell and knowledge to share. They had travelled and learned new languages. They had seen the Rosetta stone in the British Museum, had walked on Hadrian's Wall, and wanted to tell everyone of their experiences.
It did not take long for the children to learn that re-entry would not be easy. Nothing was the same as it had been before. Their friends were disinterested in or envious of the experiences they shared. After initially welcoming the returning children, their old friends began to feel they had become snobs. They were shunned rather than embraced for talking about their overseas experiences. Academically, the children also were out of step. They were ahead in certain areas of the curriculum, but behind in others. They were advanced in foreign language, which had been considered far more important in English schools than those in the US. Instead of valuing the contributions the children could make to their classes, foreign language teachers felt threatened by their knowledge. Teachers and administrators did not know how to respond to the children's backgrounds. Instead of fitting in easily, the repatriating children had become extra work for everyone who came into contact with them. It was painful for the children, the parents, and the school.
Although the family and the company had planned carefully for almost every aspect of the move overseas, no one had anticipated the difficulty the children would have in returning to their former school. If choosing a school when repatriating is given the same attention as it is during a move overseas, many of these problems can be avoided.
Choosing Schools When Repatriating
Before returning to a familiar school after an overseas assignment, parents should go through the same kind of analysis that they undertake before moving internationally. During this process, parents should be sure to consider the following points:
Understand your children.
Who were they when you first moved overseas, and who have they become? What kinds of experiences have they had that have changed them, and in what ways have they grown?
What has happened in the school back home when you were away?
Have there been changes in the school environment or has everything stayed as it was? It is important to take note of the number of available children that repatriating children will have to choose from as peers. Be wary of too small a class if your child has grown. However, if your child left his/her home country in primary school and returns to a secondary school in which several primary schools have merged together, s/he will have plenty of new potential friends to choose from if s/he no longer has much in common with old friends.
How common are international students in the school to which your children are returning?
If a school has seldom encountered a child from abroad, your child is likely to have more trouble fitting in. If the environment is one where international children or those who have returned from expatriate assignments are abundant, there will be a larger pool of peers with whom your child can share experiences.
Compare the curriculum in the overseas school to the one to which s/he will be returning.
Where will the repatriating child encounter gaps? If your child has missed a substantial portion of a subject during the years abroad, assume you will need to arrange tutoring before you even return home. If a child is prepared to receive extra help, s/he will not consider it a sign of failure.
Is your child ahead in some areas? Before enrolling your child in a school back home, discuss this with administrators and teachers. How receptive are they to providing additional challenges for your child? Their attitude is more important than an actual plan. If you are viewed as boasting when you describe the skills your child has acquired overseas, the school is unlikely to do anything to accommodate your child's new special needs. However, if teachers and administrators view your child's advanced skills as interesting, and important to address, they will be able to devise a way to challenge him or her. You still need to pay attention to any enrichment programmes put in place for your child. It is critical that they provide more interesting work, rather than more work. No child likes to feel s/he is punished for extra knowledge.
Consider the question of whether or not to accelerate your repatriating child before you begin the school search process.
It is tempting, when your child returns home and is advanced in many subjects, to want him/her to be with intellectual peers rather than age peers. This is a very personal decision, and should not be made under pressure or when considering the academic programme alone. In reflecting on this question, look at your child's maturity, physical size, academic level, and birthdate. Had you ever considered acceleration (or retention) before? If you always have felt that your child belonged in a different grade, the move may be an opportunity to make the switch. But if your child is emotionally immature, this would not be a good decision in the long run. We always advise clients to keep in mind that if a child is accelerated for academic reasons at a young age, s/he will be exposed to teenage drivers, smoking, drugs, alcohol, and sexual activity a year before s/he would have otherwise encountered these issues.
Are there schools you can consider other than the one your child originally attended?
Even if you decide in favour of your original school, it is important to do so as a result of an informed process rather than by assuming that your child can pick up where s/he left off. If you do your homework, you will understand that you are making tradeoffs, rather than sacrifices, if things do not go according to plan.
It is always wise to treat each move, whether overseas or repatriation, as a unique experience. Do not make any assumptions. Evaluate each of your children individually and do your research anew each time. Consider consulting a professional educational advisor if you find the process daunting.
Elizabeth Perelstein, President
School Choice International, Inc
US :+001 914-381-1788
UK: +020 7830 9632
School Choice International works with families to help place children in schools all over the world. The company also offers educational services for employers with relocating employee families, as well as schools looking to develop a more global curriculum. School Choice International has over 12 years of experience in the field of educational consulting.