Last update on March 11, 2019

The expat lifestyle can be challenging on international families – but is that good or bad? Read why everyone should consider moving their family abroad.

‘New beginnings’ around the world typically mean people flooding gyms in search of a healthier lifestyle, others scour websites in search of new job opportunities, or for those teachers looking to work in schools abroad, the job fair season begins.

This led international educator Kathleen Ralf to consider the differences between what public school students experience in the United States compared to the challenges – and benefits – of what international students experience from a life abroad. Would you consider moving your family to live abroad? Is that a positive or negative decision for your family?

The effects of living abroad for families

An international school student’s life can be quite challenging and it’s important to identify these challenges and how they can affect their success in the classroom. But behind these challenges lie many great opportunities, too. Should you consider an international lifestyle or education for your child?

  1. Transience

If you have worked in the US in an agricultural area you most likely have experienced a bit of seasonal flux in your classrooms due to migrant students. As the temperatures changed, so did the students in my classroom.

In an international school the flux has no season. Children enter, and children leave, at all times of the year. Most students stay for a few years, then their parents are moved to a new location or bureau. Most students do not return to us once they have left.

Surprisingly, this transience makes the school a welcoming place. Everyone knows what it is like to be ‘the new kid’. Everyone wants to make the school welcoming. But every kid is also dealing with the loss of a best friend. They make friends and they leave them behind, or their friends leave them behind. These students are constantly dealing with moving on, never quite getting time to mourn.

  1. Educational ‘Swiss cheese’

A colleague of mine once dubbed one of her students as ‘Swiss cheese’. The girl in question was a student who had moved 10 times in five years. With each school the student encountered a new curriculum. Although the International Baccalaureate and the IGCSE links many schools with common objectives, these programs don’t necessarily dictate what should be taught when. So a student could move around enough to miss being exposed to topics like ratios, Ancient Greece, Romeo and Juliet or the reproductive system.

  1. Language

Students in international schools speak many languages. When they arrive at an international school like ours, they are instructed in English, instructed in the language of the community (German), and then they must choose one other language to study. This may be the language of their home country or it might be another language from the region.

Some schools are equipped to give excellent mother tongue classes to students but sadly some schools cannot find qualified teachers for all languages. For instance, a school might have three Dutch students in need of a Dutch teacher, but with only three students they only need a teacher for three hours a week. This can be done, but often that highly qualified Dutch teacher is working full-time at a school with a number of Dutch students. Now imagine you are a new student coming from Bhutan? It is difficult for any school to find a teachers for all languages that might enter their school.

Sometimes we have students who have moved so much that no language is fully developed. These students are difficult to spot. They can speak what seems to be perfect English, converse with school friends in German, and yell across the room to their friends in Mandarin. But then they might make a student cry; when you ask, “What happened?” you realise they might be harassing them in yet another language. It is not until these students are writing that you discover they are struggling to find the words. One girl once wanted my help with a word and I offered suggestions to help her brain get going. Finally she said, “It’s no use, Mrs. Ralf. In my head I have this feeling about what I want to say about this character, but I have no words, in any language, to describe that feeling.”

  1. ‘Single’ parents

Students sometimes go for long periods of time without seeing one of their parents. This is not to say that my students are largely from single parent homes. In my experience, I would say there are more kids in my school with two parents living in the same home.

But there are students who live in situations where, for part of the year, they are home with only one parent for a variety of reasons. Some students have a parent stationed locally and others have a parent who is often sent on extended trips away. Many students have parents who work for multinational companies with locations around the world – and naturally involves a good deal of travel. These students also live far away from extended family, and when grandma or grandpa get sick one parent may have to fly ‘home’ to take care of the sick family member.

  1. Identity: What am I?

In the international education circle students are dubbed ‘Third Culture Kids’ (TCK). Many of our students come from multiple places and have been exposed to multiple cultures; some may even identify more with the culture they are currently living in rather than with the nationality indicated by their passport. A student might be Japanese, yet have never lived in Japan. A student might be German but only recently have moved into the country.

One of my German students once said, “I’m just not funny in German. I can be funny in English but for some reason I just can’t be as funny in my mother tongue.“ Much of his upbringing was in the US. He had learned to be funny in another language and when he tried to transfer jokes from one culture to another it didn’t work. Another of my students said that when he speaks different languages, his personality changes.

Our kids often can’t describe what home means in the geographical sense. Home is where their family is. Home is the happy place in their mind, where they go in times of distress. But for most TCKs, home is difficult to define. Yet this skill of finding home in themselves makes them more resilient. My students who are now in college often say they are excited for where their future careers might take them; they want to travel and are seeking opportunities that will take them to new places.

  1. They can overcome it

Most students are adaptable. They arrive, they are welcomed, they adjust and they thrive. But at any given moment, one of these challenges might be affecting their ability to succeed. When they find out they are moving or their best friend is moving, they may struggle to concentrate in class. When starting a new project, they might feel they are the only one in class unfamiliar with the topic. When one parent is away, the other might not be so good at helping with math, for example. When they are writing, they might struggle to find the right word. When someone asks ‘where are you from?’ they might not know how to answer.

Most international schools do their best to support students through pastoral programs. These programs educate the student on how to deal with challenges they are facing. A framework is set up within the school to give students a sense of community, even though they may only be a part of this community for a short period of time.

Recently I asked some former students how they felt about their experiences at international schools. They all seemed to agree their exposure to other cultures helped them thrive at university. They felt their outlook was much more worldly, rather than local. They felt they were more accepting of others both culturally and personally. And all of them said they can see themselves, in the future, applying for jobs all over the globe because they do not fear the new or different.

The challenges of these students can end up being their strengths. They become compassionate, multilingual, world citizens who seek to make this world a better place.