Imagine this Scenario:
You moved a family with three children to London at the start of the academic year. As a result of the recession, you are moving the assignee home next week. The family of 5 was transferred on an expat package. You are not prepared to continue paying the expat allowance until the school year is completed. The parents are distressed because of their children. The spouse, who was reluctant to move at the outset because she feared her children's transitions, is at a loss.
Repatriation and Children: The Social Experience
It is commonly known that repatriation is difficult. And, while not often recognized, repatriation for children may be as hard, if not harder than it is for adults. Just as for their parents, children have changed as a result of their time abroad, and so have their friends back home, so fitting in with the old group isn't easy, and, in fact, may not be possible. Expectations of the return home are typically high. For many children, the entire assignment has been spent waiting for this date. Invariably, hopes are shattered, and the former community doesn't meet a child's expectations.
My own daughter wrote the following poem on the plane home anticipating her return:
As thoughts wander in and out of my head
I decide that the best thing to pass the time would be to sleep
Though these aren't exactly first class seats
they're good enough to view the clouds and the miniatures below me
Only two hours left here
But at the same time knowing how this story would end
Excitement circulates throughout my body
knowing that within time
I will be with my heart
Though I haven't been for what seems like forever
but only for the lapse of time
But for myself too to answer
Have they changed?
Too much thinking
Taking my own advice
I decide to let
whatever happens happen
Nothing now could ruin my mood
as we descend
down, to the place I once knew
and hope to again
know as home
This piece too descends to its conclusion. (Sarah Perelstein)
Imagine her disappointment when she found that she had nothing in common with her former friends, her former world felt provincial, and it was "not cool to be smart" in her old school. My daughter's experiences, unfortunately, were quite common among children who repatriate to their former home.
Repatriation and Children: The Academic Experience
Among children who repatriate, whether or not they return to their previous town or city, curriculum rarely matches, courses may be taught in a different sequence, and students may find that they lack prerequisites for classes they are about to take. Other children find that they have already read the books on their reading list, or may be ahead in foreign language. Teachers at home may be threatened by their advanced levels of knowledge or simply may not know how to teach a child who is out of step with his or her classmates. For high school students, meeting exit requirements for graduation may not be possible, or may require significant negotiation or manipulation.
The Current Climate:
The present economic climate has caused companies to look carefully at every expenditure, and expatriate packages are easy targets. Families are being moved home earlier than had been planned, or transferred to local status.
"In recent months, companies have begun recalling expats from multiyear assignments up to 12 months early… The CEO of a Pacific Northwest manufacturer who requested his publicly traded company's name not be used is pulling his European division manager home after only eight months of a two-year assignment because the business can't continue to foot the $500,000 annual bill for his salary and living expenses."*
*Workforce.com, March 5, 2009
These corporate decisions have a huge impact on families with children who have expected to complete an academic year in one location, or had not applied to desired private schools within the necessary timetable. In addition to the typical challenges that repatriating children face, children moved home abruptly may have even a more difficult time getting into private or specialized public schools that do not offer mid-year admissions. They may not have the ability to participate on sports teams or in plays or musical groups because these roles already have been filled. They may lack knowledge or prerequisites to thrive in classes in a different country where a different curriculum is studied. Even able children who may succeed without a foundation in a given subject may not be allowed to enter a class mid-year if placement testing is required.
While changing curriculum is a challenge for any repatriating child, adequate time gives a family the opportunity to tutor and otherwise prepare children for their new academic program, as well as to seek out alternative school options where the discrepancies may not be as great. And time is a luxury that sudden repatriations do not permit.
From an emotional standpoint, there are complications involved when repatriation is unexpected as well. Children may experience shame that the story they told friends when they moved abroad is no longer true. And, if not prepared carefully, they may feel responsible in some way for the departure.
Got to Go, What to Know:
If you must move a family on short notice mid-year, providing them with an education departure toolkit goes a long way towards relieving anxiety for them, and retaining their loyalty to you. A toolkit should prepare parents and children with what to expect, and give them an approach for entering their new school environment.
Tips for Emotional Departure Success:
Tips for Academic Departure Success:
- Say goodbye well;
- Take lots of pictures;
- Revisit favorite places;
- Get all important email addresses;
- Have a party.
Tips for Academic Success on Arrival:
- Identify key supporters at school and obtain contact details in case family needs anything after leaving;
- Take hard copies of transcripts and know how to obtain soft copies;
- Ask school to write up basis for grading if appropriate;
- Get teacher recommendations while still familiar to teachers;
- Talk to teachers about types of school where child would thrive in new home;
- Bring description of curriculum by subject;
- Gather awards, certificates, or physical evidence of qualifications achieved;
- Bring medical certificates in hand luggage.
- Have any documents translated;
- Find out health requirements for new school (more than one day before starting) and plan for medical exam in new home;
- Understand age/grade relationships as well as schoolwork/grade relationships;
- Discuss relative merits of age vs. schoolwork for grade placement with head of school;
- Understand curriculum;
- Learn application process and deadlines;
- Advocate for child about entering sports and other extracurricular programs mid-year.
Most of all, parents must understand and take the time to explain to their children that they have done nothing to cause the premature move. Children have to be able to save face in front of their friends. Families might develop a script, explaining that economic circumstances have affected everyone worldwide, and for different people, the consequences have played out in different ways. In some cases, parents have lost jobs, others have moved to new houses, and their family has moved home early.
If a company recognizes the impact of its decisions and policies on families, and provides minimal support during this abrupt transition period, the impact on employee morale and productivity will have a significant impact for a long time to come.