Changing schools does not have to be a stressful process for parents or children

krisCris Kristofits has been an expat for thirteen years and is considered one of the “go to” experts in Barcelona on expat family life.  As the co-organizer of three events on raising multilingual children in Barcelona and moderator of a panel discussion on expat family life in Barcelona, she’s come in contact with many different expat families and experts. She spends her time volunteering as the VP-Community Liaison of PWN Barcelona (Professional Women’s Network) in preparation for returning to her career.  She is the mother of a nine-year-old daughter who switched international schools in third grade.

Changing schools has two distinct phases: the decision-making process and preparation. For many families, both phases can be stressful, even if a relocation isn’t driving the change. Regardless of the reason, doing your homework can make the change a little easier on everyone.

We’ve asked Cris, to share both her personal experience about changing schools as well as talk about experiences that other expat families have shared with her when she was working on various projects about raising multilingual children in Barcelona.


What are some of the reasons that families switch schools?

Families change schools for various reasons besides relocation.  I’ve met many families that send their children to public schools for financial reasons or geography. They then switch once the child reaches high school so that the student can have a more international education or so that the student can be part of the International Baccalaureate program.

In other cases, the family isn’t a right fit for the school:  they were expecting or promised one thing, and once they got to the new school, the reality was something else.  An expat mom I know started her children off in their neighborhood school, but she felt that it was too local and the children were sitting through basic English classes.  She then moved the children to an international private school. Her children were still in an English class below their level but now she was paying a lot of money in school fees.  She quickly moved the children out of that situation and found a concertado (a school that receives public subsidizing) which had a higher than usual concentration of expats. It seemed to be the right mix of locals and native speakers.  In her words “it seemed to be filled with families more like us.

Rarely have parents told me they switched upon learning a year or two later that their “first choice” school had an opening.  In fact, parents have been more likely to comment that with their child settled in a different school, they don’t want to move them again.
In some unfortunate cases, families move the children from one school to another because of bullying.  The majority of the families in this situation that I have encountered tell me that they left because they didn’t feel the school reacted properly or implemented a follow up plan to ensure that things were back on track.

Do you think there is an ideal age to switch schools?

Many parents tell me that switching in the early years is much easier than later.  Kids don’t want to leave their friends. It’s natural that even the best of friends will grow apart once they no longer go to the same school. As they get older children have more doubts.  They worry more about what others think of them.  Having friends becomes more important as well.  In some cases, families tell me the decision felt like “now or never.”

Also, a point to consider is that if you change between preschool and primary, children might think that their old school was all play and the new school is all work.  Remind them that if they had stayed at the other school they’d also be doing more work.

What should parents consider before changing schools?

– Weigh up the pros and the cons
Know the items about which you’re not willing to compromise. Is there something that you’ll lose by switching?  In our case, the new school didn’t have a swim team.  We found a solution.  We enrolled our daughter in swim club outside of school.  What will you gain? For us, we feel like the new school has more native teachers and there are other native speakers in our daughter’s class.  She has friends over and they speak in English together.  Each family has to ask themselves:  do the gains make up for the losses?

– Dig into the details
When we first explored P3 school options for our daughter, we didn’t ask about the ratio of international students per class. We just assumed that there would be other native speakers at an international school.  However, that is often not the case. We were told by the first school our daughter attended that the school used a phonics program. Later we learned the program finished in P5. During our search for a different school, we asked to see the materials that our daughter would use not only in third grade, but also in later years.

– Where does native language rank in your criteria?
Many schools will tell you that most of the teachers giving instruction in English are native or almost native speakers.  Probe more if that point is essential to you.  I didn’t mind that my daughter’s gym teacher wasn’t a native speaker, but it was important to me that the English teacher was a native speaker.

– Include your child in the decision making process if possible
What does your child have to say about the school options? We allowed our daughter to cast a vote.  This empowerment helped her feel good about making the change.  You will have your list of pros and cons, and your child will have theirs. Participating in the consideration process helps them set realistic expectations around changing schools.

– Set a policy of honesty
Tell your child that there will be some things they like less.  But, try to focus on the aspects that are improvements, that they will like more.

– Take them to the open house
Seeing our daughter playing with the other kids reinforced our decision to pay the registration fee at the new school.  One of the other moms even commented, “It’s as if she has always been here.”

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What cautionary items would you advise families to consider?

– Buyer beware
If a promise is made by a school, ask for it in writing.  What would happen if the person who made a verbal agreement wasn’t employed at the school the next term?  If a special program or exception is offered, it is very different starting a new program than incorporating someone into an existing program.  Is there a guarantee that resources to run this new program will continue after one year?

– Take advice with a grain of salt
When we were searching for an alternative for our daughter, we heard a lot of opinions, including conflicting opinions,  about the same school. While one family loved a particular school, another family hated that same school.  The thing to remember is that every child is different, every family is different. Don’t base your decisions solely by what you read on Facebook. Base your decision on a range of input. Talk to the schools, knowing that they have a financial interest in enrolling students, but also to other parents who have children in that school. Consider the source of these opinions but also your priorities. When my daughter was enrolling in P3, I asked for feedback from local families. For the next search,  I tended to listen more to other expat moms, as they seemed to have the same priorities as our family.

– Investigate the facts
El Mundo publishes a list of the top 100 schools in Spain. I find the list interesting.  But what I find more interesting is accessing the data over several years and seeing a school that once didn’t make the list and now appears. That sends the message that they are implementing new and innovative programs.  Likewise, a school with a higher ranking that has dropped down in ranking is something to take note.  If a school made the list, then fell off, that might be a caution flag.  Each detailed account includes a list of the number of students.  A school that lost a large number of students might also send up a red flag.  Why are so many families leaving?

The perfect school doesn’t exist.  Trust me it doesn’t.  If it did, I would have found it.  I had spoken with many families before switching my child.  Every school has its strengths and its weaknesses. Like I said earlier, the important part is to know what is important to you.

Once you’ve made the decision to switch, what are the next actions to take?

– Enrolment
Obviously, you’ll need to ensure that you have your child enrolled in the new school.  If it is a private school, many having waiting lists.  Some have a selection process and the school might ask the student to demonstrate a minimum level of knowledge of a specific language or schedule an evaluation with the school psychologist.

– Be prepared
Key to success at the new school is being prepared. Take time to evaluate the major differences between your child’s old school and the new one. What subjects will be new to your child?  Will he/she have missed material?  In our case, when we took a look at the academic program, our child started two years later than her peers in three subjects.  One of those subjects was French. We spent a few days that summer working on French so that while she wasn’t at the level of her peers on her first day, she could introduce herself and feel more confident.  We asked for the name of the book that they had used and bought it.  She listened to the CD over the summer and very quickly picked up the content. By anticipating the help a student might need and working on it before the new school term starts the student will feel a boost to his/her confidence level.

Consider the routine and pace of the new school. If your child is moving from a public school to a private, consider the fact that at most private schools, students cannot go home to have lunch.  One way of preparing children for this change, might be to begin leaving them a few days a week at school, so that it isn’t a shock. Likewise, the pace may be different.  Private schools require children to stay at lunch because the break is shorter and there are more hours in the classroom per day. Consider how this will affect your child.  Maybe you’ll want to reduce the hours of extra-curricular activities.  If you are transferring out of a private school, maybe you’ll want to beef up the after-school activities to maintain the rhythm.

Also consider what language each subject is taught in as well.  A native speaker may not know all the names of the bones in the body, a topic that the other students learned last year.  You Tube videos are great resources for material like this.

– Pay attention to details
Do your parental homework and make an effort to get it right. What uniform do they need to wear? If there isn’t a school uniform, look at pictures on the blog. How did the other students usually dress? What do they need to bring? Are there rules about backpacks? Is there a ban on backpacks with wheels? Imagine how insecure the child will feel if everyone points out that the backpack they have is against regulation. Not to mention the expense you’ll have if you need to buy another one.

Know the school calendar
Especially important for those who are relocating.  Nothing worse than being the new kid on day two.  They’ll have missed out on all the class rules and orientation.  Try to keep the hurdles that they have to overcome to a minimum.

– Attend a summer camp
Many schools run summer day camps on campus.  In July and in some cases in early September.  This is a great chance for your child to make a few friends before classes start in September.

What are some things that you should ask the school to provide you with even if they don’t offer it?

– Summer homework
When returning students turned in their summer homework on the first day of school, so did our daughter.  She turned in the same workbooks that everyone else did.  She was the same as everyone else.  For many kids, little things like that ease the stress of being the new kid in the class, especially if that year they are the only one.

– Buddy system
Many schools assign the new students a buddy in the class.  If you already know someone in the same grade, don’t be afraid to ask if the child can be placed in the same class.  That student can become an advocate for your child.  In our case, this student made sure that our child wasn’t alone at the playground and that she knew where the bathrooms were.  If you don’t know anyone, ask if the school can assign your child a buddy.

– Contact another family
Is there a Parent’s Association?  If not, perhaps the school can introduce you to a family in your area. Or maybe there is a Facebook group that you can reach out for support.  Maybe you can arrange a play date before school starts.  Day one is so much easier if there is a friend on the other side.

Any additional advice you’d offer families that are preparing for the change?

– Arm your child with ideas
Not every kid finds it easy to make new friends.  Give them a few ideas on how to connect with others.  “Hey, I really like your backpack!” is a great icebreaker for a pre-teen.  Or “Can I play too?” is a great way to join in the fun at recess for a younger child.  Prepare them that the other person might not engage and tell them that it might take a few times before it works.  Look to the other new kids as well.  They are probably feeling the same thing that they are.  “Hey, you are new too” is a great way to make friends with someone in the same boat as you.

– Communication
Meet with the teacher.  Ask for his/her email address.  Communicate what you are seeing at home and ask for help if you feel there is a potential problem. Keep the channels of communication open. Thank the school for any extra efforts. When teachers go above and beyond make a point to say thank you.  Support is a two-way street.

– Don’t let setbacks bring you down
Remember what I said before, about the perfect school not existing.  There will be some bumps in the road.  A few bad days.  Best thing is to keep a positive attitude and focus on what is going well.  Overcoming change issues while keeping a positive attitude is a skill that your child will use throughout life.  They are lucky to master it the early years.

They are only the new kid for one year.  This year, my daughter was no longer the new kid on the block.  On day one, she hugged her friends and talked about what they each had done over the summer.  And, when she saw this year’s new girl crying, she went up to her and said, “Don’t worry.  It’ll be okay.  Last year I was you and I have lots of friends now.


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