In the summer of 2015, my husband I pressed go on our long held dream to move our family to Spain for a year. We had no personal connections anywhere in Spain. No idea where specifically in Spain we should live. And we were, generally speaking, almost entirely clueless about the entire process, from immigration formalities to researching good fit cities to finding housing and, most impactful to our kids adaptation, how best to choose a school for our kids in Spain.
With nothing but the internet to guide me, I got down to work. After all, I was a mom who’d spent many hours volunteering in my kids’ classrooms. The mom who went into those parent-teacher conferences armed with questions and ready to advocate for my kids’ unique learning needs. I’d considered myself qualified (enough) to evaluate schools for our year in Spain. Turns out, I didn’t even know the right questions to ask. None of the blog posts I’d read prepared me for the realities of educating my children in a foreign country. These are the X things I wish I knew about choosing a school overseas before we moved as a family to Spain.
- Few things will have a greater impact on your child’s acceptance of their international relocation than their school setting. This will be especially true if your family will be arriving in your new country as complete strangers with no personal connections.
- Choosing a school for your child in a foreign country involves many factors and considerations that are all but irrelevant to choosing schools in your home country. You need to think beyond school day schedules, academic offerings and after school activities. For example, student body demographics (in terms of nationality and native language) are one of many factors that will significantly impact (for better or worse) your child’s academic as well as social success in their new school setting.
- Point number 2 will be even more true if your child has little to none of the local language. Many parents who move abroad, whether by choice for career obligations, typically welcome the opportunity it gives their children to learn a foreign language. Becoming bilingual was one of the driving factors inspiring my husband and I to take the expat leap. But throwing a child above the age of five years old, potentially even three years old, into a completely foreign speaking environment can wreak havoc on both their learning as well as their social and emotional development. Of course, many children work through those challenges and come out thriving. As with so much of parenting in general and expat parenting in particular, the key is awareness and how to manage the potential hazards to ensure a successful outcome for your children.
- The notion of school community and school spirit, as we tend to think about it in the US, is not necessarily the norm in other countries. Not to say it doesn’t exist. Some schools abroad, particularly those catering to large international communities that come and go with a lot of flux, actually do see it as part of their educational offering to foster a greater community for students and their families. (Probably also because it helps parents feel better about those hefty tuition bills.) But generally speaking, don’t expect to find cheerleaders, school dances and gymnasiums full of students cheering their schoolmates’ basketball team on. In fact, don’t necessarily expect your school abroad to have its own basketball team. To be clear, this doesn’t mean you should turn down an otherwise good fit school. What it does mean is that the onus will be on you as parents to help your child create opportunities to cultivate a like-minded community of peers for themselves.
- English likely doesn’t mean English, at least not as you’re thinking about it in the traditional American English Language Arts class sense of the word. Schools that bill themselves bilingually might be teaching half their core curriculum in the English language, but if the majority of students are non native English speakers, your kids English language class will likely be English taught as a second language. Translation: while your kids peers at home are reading Shakespeare and To Kill a Mockingbird, your kids will be completing workbooks where they circle the sentence depicting specific verbs written in the conditional tense. So while your child is unlikely to ever lose their fluency as a native English speaker (assuming English is still the dominant language at home), their reading, writing and vocabulary development in English will all but come to a halt if you don’t manage it properly.
- Speaking of terms that can have multiple layers of meaning and interpretation, “International School,” “Bilingual School,” and even “Local School” can mean a lot of different things across different countries. And even within a given country. In particular, private schools take many different forms in terms of degree offering, curriculum, language of instruction, student body demographics, and much more. Expat and author Carole Hallett Mobbs has written what might be the only book that helps break down expat education related terminology. For a review, click here.
- Finally, just because the school your child is attending overseas offers an internationally recognized diploma, or even the American High School diploma, doesn’t mean that school is preparing your child for higher education in the US. Increasingly, many private schools in Spain, for example, are adding the option of earning the American High School diploma at graduation (in lieu of say, the International Baccalaureate or the Spanish Bachillerato.) But does not mean the school is offering programs and support for your child to take standard American university entrance exams? How about a guidance counselor on staff who can guide your child through the college selection process in the US? The lack of college admissions isn’t in itself a dealbreaker. It’s something you need to be aware of so you can fill in the gaps.
Most of these issues I raise aren’t intended to deter you from from one school or another. I don’t advocate for any one educational path. Public, private. Bilingual, English-based or completely local native. Predominantly international student make or almost exclusively that country’s nationality. There’s no one size fits all answer. In fact, if you have more than one child, you might even find that one child is best suited for one type of school and your other child to a different one. Your children’s unique learning strengths and challenges and personality style, as well as your projected journey as an expat, all contribute to an evolving, shifting educational journey. As parents, your the guide. First and foremost, education yourself. Know what questions to ask. And if you don’t have any choice as to where your kids go to school overseas, then learn best how to support them with what you’ve got available.
For more information on choosing a school overseas with a guided list of questions to ask prospective schools, download the Family Move Abroad Guide to Your Child’s Expat Education.
Jackie Baxa is a mother, yoga teacher, and expat blogger. She writes honestly about the ups, downs, joys and challenges of moving, living and parenting abroad. Through her website, FamilyMoveAbroad.com, she helps families follow their dreams to forge a life in a foreign country. You can follow Jackie on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.