Last update on July 16, 2019

The expat lifestyle can be challenging for families. But are the effects of living abroad good or bad? Read about 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. 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 the effects of living abroad for international students. 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. 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?

Transience

If you have worked 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 the classroom.

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

Surprisingly, this transience makes the school a welcoming place. Many people know what it is like to be the new kid or to be suddenly living in a completely different context. Everyone wants to make the school feel 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.

Educational Swiss cheese

Some teachers refer to students that change countries quite a bit as Swiss cheese, with the effects of living abroad placing small obstacles on a child’s educational path. This could be a student who had moved 10 times in five years. With each school, these students encounter a new curriculum. Although curricula such as the International Baccalaureate or International Primary Curriculum link 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.

Language

Students in international schools speak many languages. When they arrive at an international school, they are instructed in English, instructed in the language of the local community, 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. In either setting, the local language instruction helps a child immerse into a new cultural context.

Some schools offer excellent mother tongue classes to students. 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, the effects of living abroad affects a student to the extent 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 realize 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.

Single parents

Students sometimes go for long periods of time without seeing one of their parents. This is not to say that students are largely from single-parent homes; there are often more children with two parents living in the same home at an international school.

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. Families such as these have likely hired an au pair to help around the house, with a decidedly different family dynamic than those where two parents are generally around for their children. 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.

Identity: what am I?

In the international education circle, students are dubbed third-culture kids. Many 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 to the country. Oftentimes, it can be difficult to transfer humor from one language or another. Some students can even feel as though their personality changes depending on the language that they speak in.

The effects of living abroad for these children is that they 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 third-culture children, home is difficult to define. Yet this skill of finding home in themselves makes them more resilient. These 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.

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. If they start 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. While writing, they might struggle to find the right word. When someone asks where they are 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. Many former students from these schools seem to agree their exposure to other cultures help them thrive at university. They feel their outlook is much more worldly, rather than local. These students feel more accepting of others, both culturally and personally. They 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. The effects of living abroad can develop students into compassionate, multilingual, world citizens who seek to make this world a better place.