International students: coping with transitions
A new place, new people, a new way of working and possibly a new language: the stress involved in change is a reality for any student around the world who has to move - and a common occurrence in Geneva. How does it feel for children who often have to manage changes greater than those faced by their high-flying parents? How are they affected emotionally, socially and academically? Who is there to support them in coping with such challenging situations?
Transitions impact on children emotionally and the consequences are often apparent in school. Children who have left friends behind often crave attention and quality time which, for a while, only their immediate family will be able to provide. They need to feel important, valued and cared for. At school, they struggle to fit in and seek recognition from their peers. Children with learning difficulties typically take longer to adapt and starting over is a cause of added stress.
Leaving familiar surroundings and the stability of routine is as traumatic as arriving in a new place. Making new friends is daunting and may be hard depending on personalities; especially when arriving mid-term. Schools are aware of such traumas and use a variety of strategies to ease a new pupil into school life. The buddy system works well, as the new child has someone appointed to be a ready-made colleague - if not always a friend - and they can latch onto this “buddy” so as not to feel or appear lost and purposeless around the playground at break time.
Preparation is also key and parents need to do their homework, so to speak, in order to minimise academic problems and emotional strain down the line. For children who have already started primary school, the focus should be on language acquisition if it is going to be different. As far as the school programme is concerned, Maths is where there are likely to be issues. Methods vary, as well as the order in which topics are taught, which means some children miss out entirely on basic concepts in Maths and may have to be put back a year or work outside of school to catch up.
In secondary school, teaching and learning styles vary between education systems. A student may take months to adapt to a new environment, teaching style, exam requirements and workload expectations. This causes setbacks which can be managed with a tailored programme of tutor support, in or after school. Older students may also be obliged to cope with gaps in knowledge accumulated over one or more moves in a school career, and tutoring is often the most effective preparation before a move, so that a setback is avoided altogether. Finding a tutor who knows the new curriculum will help close any gaps and adapt to a new teaching culture.
Ideal situations do not exist but preparation for academic transition does decrease stress. The social and emotional aspects form an intricate part of academic performance so support should be provided on all fronts to give a child the tools to manage changes in their school life.
Sabine Hutcheson is a British-trained teacher working for the British School of Geneva, with over a decade’s teaching experience in Switzerland, neighbouring France and in the UK.