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Supporting Stayers To Thrive: Invest in Your Nest

By Dr. Rebecca Bower and Steven Ayling
Supporting Stayers To Thrive: Invest in Your Nest

(Photo source: Dr. Rebecca Bower)

For cross cultural kids, global mobility is an inextricable part of their experience growing up within the international school community. Transitions are inescapable and impact all students. When not managed well, research has shown that mobility can have a negative impact on development, wellbeing, and academic success. As Doug Ota (2014) suggests in his book, Safe Passage, effectively supporting all students experiencing the effects of mobility within an international school setting is integral for creating a “cumulative change that will LAST;” it is necessary to support the Leavers, Arrivers, as well as the STayers.

Mahoney and Barron’s 2020 report, Surveying the Landscape, found that Stayers were being supported in less than 15 percent of international schools. As Leavers flee the nest and Arrivers touch down, the nest can feel lonely, unpredictable, and changed forever for Stayers. Although Stayers are not moving themselves, the world around them undoubtedly is, and supporting them to feel able to manage their new reality successfully is integral for the wellbeing of both the Stayer and those around them. Stayers are the international school stabilizers and, as Ota wrote, “without Stayers who are emotionally ready and willing to connect, the Arrivers have nobody to connect with.”

So how can we support our Stayers? By helping them “invest in their NEST.”

N: Navigate Your RAFT

To manage transitions well, David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken (2009) suggest building a RAFT (reconciliation, affirmation, farewell, think destination), a process that is as equally important for Stayers as it is for Leavers in preparing for change. Repairing ruptures within friendships (reconciliation) is the first step to lessening the emotional burden of damaged relationships and is key to the successful navigation of the RAFT. Acknowledging appreciation of Leavers can take many forms, all of which are founded on expressing gratitude and thanks for being an important part of the Stayer’s life (affirmation). What’s important is that the thank yous are genuine and meaningful, no matter the mode of delivery (conversation, cards, letters, email, etc.). Saying goodbye (for now) is important, knowing when it will happen is empowering, and deciding how to do this makes it meaningful. Farewells may also include places or activities that are important to both the Stayer and Leaver. With the loss of a friend can come significant changes to the social landscape for Stayers. At a time when the nest feels empty and shaken, think destination, or perhaps think ahead, is about Stayers taking steps to prepare for this change by staying connected and remaining open to what comes next.

E: Express Emotions

The best gift for any Stayer is a “license to feel.” With loss comes grief and that’s just as true for Stayers as it is for Leavers. Mixed emotions (excitement, anger, helplessness, isolation, relief, sadness, shock, rejection, curiosity, fear, loneliness, and jealousy, to name a few) can feel messy and overwhelming, yet are completely natural and understandable responses to transitions. What’s more, the Stayers’ journey of mixed emotions often doesn’t end when connections are formed and life feels more on track, as this is when feelings of guilt for making new friends and “moving on” might start to manifest. Stayers need not only a “license to feel” but also permission to express both positive and difficult feelings in an adaptive and healthy way.

Helping Stayers to identify who their trusted adults are from the outset is important for their ongoing support. Talking through feelings with a trusted adult or for older students, a trusted friend, allows the Stayer to understand their emotions, and to feel heard and understood by those around them. Hugs, a listening ear, supportive words, and a safe space to unpack feelings can go a long way in validating the emotional experience of Stayers. As Ota suggests, it is important to establish how Stayers feel about their friend leaving, forming new connections and friendships, and about their life in the school and wider community. Of course, there are many and varied ways to express emotions in a healthy way, whether this is through journaling, music, letter writing, art, physical activity, tears, etc. Having healthy and adaptive ways to express emotions is key to managing them well.

S: Stay Connected

There are three main areas for connection: with the Leaver, with those in the Stayer’s current community, and with themselves. First, for Stayers, knowing how they will keep in touch with friends who are leaving the nest is reassuring, whether it’s through social media, video calls, emails, or good old-fashioned snail mail. Exchanging contact details and building realistic expectations of what communication will look like in the future creates predictability and comfort. Secondly, maintaining a connection with Leavers, whilst keeping balance and space for nourishing and establishing new connections, is crucial in building a sense of belonging for Stayers. An important step towards strengthening existing connections and forming new ones is remaining open to their potential. This involves active engagement and investment in creating and embracing opportunities to explore friendships with others, through after school activities and clubs as well as playdates, sleepovers, and gatherings. The international community also presents a helpful opportunity for Stayers to get involved in welcoming and supporting new students (Arrivers) as a new student buddy. If your school does not have this established, it’s worth speaking to an administrator, counselor, or admissions personnel to see if this can be implemented. Thanks to the innate kindness and goodwill of children, there is rarely a shortage of volunteers for such a program. Last, and perhaps most important, is for Stayers to be in tune with themselves by considering what’s important to them. Striving to stay connected to these values by making choices that are in alignment with them will positively impact connections with others.

T: Trust Your Toolbox

Supporting Stayers to identify, build, and refine a set of adaptive strategies that work for them is something that can begin from the moment they arrive. For Stayers, the intention is for this toolbox to become a personal set of healthy “go-to” strategies which they can rely upon when experiencing difficult emotions. These are some tried and tested tools that are known to activate a helpful interaction between the three pathways (thoughts, feelings, and actions) that Ota describes as essential in successfully managing the transition cycle.

Stayers are their very own best resource. Recognizing, celebrating, and utilizing the best aspects of their personality, also known as their character strengths, can positively impact and guide how Stayers feel, think, and choose to act while managing loss and change. Identifying what is important to the Stayer, i.e., their individual values, can guide the Stayer to act in ways that will be meaningful and impactful to them. Setting short-term goals (e.g., introducing themselves to a new student, attending tryouts for a sports team, rehearsing for a school play, beginning a new musical instrument, etc.) can help them to be actively involved in their school and community.

In times when emotions feel overwhelming and too much, it is important that Stayers are able to regulate their emotions using their toolbox. This might involve using distraction techniques, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, taking a break, seeking support, or engaging in activities that are enjoyable to the Stayer. Managing difficult feelings is hard enough without the Stayer becoming their own self-critic; instead, Stayers can be encouraged to practice a compassionate and kind pattern of self-talk.

It can be easy for Stayers to focus their attention on how things were (the past) or to get lost in worries about how things will be (the future). We can support Stayers to live in the present moment by supporting them to develop a daily gratitude habit. Pausing to reflect and be thankful can take many forms, including quiet moments, journaling, gratitude jars, or a family share of three things you’re grateful for. In this way, we encourage Stayers to remain open-minded about what lies ahead and to take each day at a time. Where thoughts become unhelpful and begin to detrimentally impact feelings, equipping Stayers with a framework for modifying their thoughts, such as the three Cs (catch your thought, check for evidence, change your thinking), can also be invaluable in shaping Stayers to cultivate balanced thinking.

NESTing is an important ongoing process for all Stayers. We believe that by carefully considering these steps we can support the students we care about to thrive where they are now. NESTers are not only students; we would suggest that nurturing the same four elements is equally as important for families and faculty in the wider international school community. After all, NESTing takes a village.

Dr. Rebecca Bower and Steven Ayling are school counselors at the International School of Basel, Switzerland, and co-authors of The RAFT That Soared; A Story and Transition Journal for Cross Cultural Kids (out soon).

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @isbaselofficial, @ISBasel, #ISBasel

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