This year, in the Adaptation Program at our French bilingual and international school in Paris, we welcomed 68 new students from second through ninth grade who were either new to the French language, new to the French school system, or both. Families in this cohort represent 37 nationalities, have arrived from 23 countries, and speak 16 languages at home other than French or English. Their backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives are extremely diverse, yet some constants have begun to emerge, as every new cohort brings new lessons and insights into understanding the needs of internationally mobile students. In my fifth year as Head of Adaptation Programs, I finally feel like the contours of our transitions care policies and practices are coming into clearer focus. Here is what I've learned so far:
Every experience will be different.
This goes without saying, but bears repeating. Wouldn't it be nice if we could come up with a magic formula, to be able to say to families, "If x, y, and z are true, everything will fall smoothly into place"? The truth is that there are so many factors contributing to a child's happy transition into a new environment, that we must make space for each individual experience to be different, and sometimes unpredictable, and meet each child and family where they are.
Resilience and growth mindset are important.
While multiple factors are at play, confidence in one's own ability to live through and overcome challenging situations, to make mistakes and learn from them, and to be open to new and sometimes conflicting ways of thinking and doing, goes a long way in helping to navigate the bumpy road ahead. A child's first experience of major change and upheaval will always be the hardest.
Personal motivation is key.
They have to want to be here and want things to go well, which is not always the case. A teenager who has moved every three years and has already lived in three different countries has likely built up a certain resilience and a repertoire of adaptive behaviors. By now they know how to make new friends and quickly figure out the expectations of their new teachers. But they might be sick of it, tired of the cycle of leaving and arriving, and simply not have it in them to do it again.
Adaptive parents help make adaptive kids.
The parents in each new Adaptation cohort are almost always thrilled to be here. After all, for them, moving to Paris often represents a personal achievement, or the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. However, they need to remember the reminders above, and make space for their children to have different feelings. An international move is a huge change, representing multiple losses, to which there is bound to be some resistance. The question is, how long will each phase of the mourning and acceptance process take? There will be moments of refusal or disgust, sadness, anger, surprise, fear… and joy! Children in transition need help naming their emotions and recognizing that all of these are normal and okay and might even all bubble up at once. At the same time, they will be looking to their parents for cues on what to do. Parents who actively reach out to make new connections, display curiosity and openness to cultural differences, ask questions and seek to learn about their new environment are providing a positive model of adaptive behavior that will help their children settle in as well.
Cultivating belonging begins before day one and must include the entire family.
Whether it's their first move or their fifth, families need help understanding how best to accompany their children through the transition process. As early as possible, we must establish a partnership focused on protecting and fostering the wellbeing of each child. In our school, families have expressed gratitude for an onboarding process that begins even before the summer holidays, as families are preparing to say goodbye to their current homes and schools. Our first Zoom meeting in June aims to accomplish two critical goals:
- For arriving families from around the world to meet each other virtually and begin the process of creating new connections, and
- To put their minds at ease by removing some of the unknowns that can be a source of anxiety for both children and parents.
A five-day preparation week mid-August continues this process of bonding, building confidence, and developing (inter)cultural awareness for the students. A final orientation meeting for parents, followed by multiple welcome events sponsored by our vibrant parent association, helps to continue the process of cultivating belonging for the entire family throughout the first weeks of school. Student welcome guides and peer mentors, and a parent coffee circle for families arriving or returning to France, take over from there to continue to provide new families with a support network they can depend on as they begin to build their new life.
Is it possible for kids to adapt successfully to new environments without all of this extra attention from their new school? I'm sure it happens. Again, every individual experience is different. However, human nature works against us. Without intervention - and sometimes even with - the phases of refusal and resistance to this change may extend long into the first year of school or beyond, impeding their ability to settle and to learn. Schools can help families shorten these difficult phases through thoughtful planning around the diverse needs of each whole child, intentional programming to shepherd students and families through the process, and open communication between administrators, teachers, and families. Together, we can help each student learn to approach their new situation with curiosity, openness, respect for cultural differences, and a willingness to take risks and learn from their mistakes as they adapt to new expectations and community norms.
In turn, each school must work to create an inclusive and supportive environment that welcomes new students from a wide range of cultures and backgrounds with open, caring arms, meeting them where they are and embracing their differences.
Important Reading for Facilitating International Transitions:
Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides, by Geoffrey Cohen
The Culture Map, by Erin Meyer
Raising Up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids, by Lauren Wells
Safe Passage, by Doug Ota
Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
Third Culture Kids, 3rd ed., by Ruth E. Van Reken and Michael Pollack
Lyn Thompson Lemaire is the Head of Adaptation Programs at Ecole Jeannine Manuel in Paris, France.