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Local school to international school?


Hi all,

I'm wondering if there any more seasoned expats out there who could possibly shed some light on our situation (surely not a unique one). We came here feeling very committed to staying in the local school system, even knowing it wouldn't be easy given the language and cultural adjustment. But we are now considering switching to an international school for a variety of reasons.

Our first grader is simply not thriving where he is. He complains of stomach aches almost daily. While the kids in his class are trying, he doesn't really have any friends yet. At this point we are reluctant to introduce him to any extracurricular activities because he is pretty beat after a long day of school in a new language, and yet he gets very little art, music, or team sport (he does do gym and swimming) during his regular school day.

Basically, we are just starting to question if we all might be happier in a more international setting. My husband speaks no French, so currently cannot be involved at all in the day-to-day aspect of schooling. The option that best fits us seems like it would be more enriching for our son on many levels. But of course he would not be getting the language advantage. It also feels a little like retreating to a bubble rather than having a local cultural experience.

I'm wondering if anyone else has had similar concerns and what they decided to do. We are reluctant to switch too early, to go through the tough months and then not see the benefit of sticking it out. But we also don't want to make everyone in our household miserable!

Please also feel free to email me directly at hruskova [at] mac [dot] com.

Thank you!!


I'd go & talk to the teacher for starters. See if you can work out what's wrong. If he's not thriving in this environment, he may well not thrive in another either.

How did he do last year in 3rd Maternelle? Was it the same school?

If it's a French speaking school, go and discuss with the PMS. They may be able to help.

Beware of the "but he doesn't speak the same language at home as at school" - that almost invariably comes from a monoglot, and that is not the problem.

Arts and music are part of the official education system, but not so much within school. Our kids go to the local music and arts academies. Our youngest in particular is more positive and enthusiastic the more he does, and otherwise goes grumpy and lethargic.

Basically, I'd work out the problem here before considering a change. A child that is going to thrive ought to thrive in any school environment. If that's not working, I wouldn't expect a change of school to help much.

Nov 8, 2013 12:46

We moved this summer, so this is his first year in school in Belgium. We are in close contact with his teacher, and doing what he can.

I'm sure there are some children out there who could slip into a new school in a new country and new language with no difficulties. But to suggest that a child having a considerably harder time making this adjustment won't thrive anywhere is simply ridiculous (and totally inaccurate in this case). All children are different.

Nov 8, 2013 15:00

I don't think the first answer is saying your son can't thrive anywhere at all. Speaking from experience... Giving only a few months to adjust is not really anything especially for his age. If you can afford the International school then surely you can afford or maybe already having him in private lessons after school for language or at the weekend. There are several very fun teachers out there.
And also from experience - the extra curricular activities are where our kids learned the most. They made friends, they tried and they learned. It was the single best thing we did for them. We also put them in stages every chance we got. We had made the decision the evaluate at the end of the first year and by that time, though we doubted the first 6 months, all was good.
Maybe Dad and son could do french course together on the weekend for 1 hour...the teacher could practice your sons homework with them both...
Have you tried enrolling him in any clubs in his native language that way he makes friends and feels connected. It could give him more confidence at school.
Have you tried having some kids over to your place and moderating...maybe invite the moms too?
We found horse riding in Overjise very therapeutic for our kids at the beginning and the classes can really be international.
Good luck and this too shall pass. 2 months since the start of the school year is very little time for adjustment.

Nov 8, 2013 15:39

Thank you, Siomah. These are all good suggestions. And it's also very helpful to be reminded that it hasn't really been that long (though it's felt like it)!

Our son's teacher had suggested that supplementary French classes might be too much for him at this point. But if there were a way to make it fun, I think some added confidence could be a huge help. Can you recommend any specific teachers? Or a certain language center? Thanks so much.

Nov 8, 2013 16:25

I do think it is bit early to consider change yet. Start of the school is a big change already. Add to that the move to a new country and new home, new language; I find it normal that your son is taking time to adapt. It has been only 2 months after all. Solely getting confident with the language will take several months even with small kids. Also other things like, was your son at home/day care/school before starting here, how big are the cultural differences compared to your home country, difference in weather (the long dark autumn does take the spirit out of you) etc. have their effect on time he'll need to adapt.

I would however have further talks with the school to see how they perceive the situation. It might be that what you see at home (all first graders tend to be very tired after the long school days) is not the full picture. Adding some support on the language learning would probably also help. Try inviting some of the class mates on play dates in the weekends / Wednesday afternoons. If he goes to school in Brussels it is very unlikely he is the only foreigner in the school and it could help him to have further contacts with the other foreign kids. Also those kids parents might have good tips for you.

It is true that the arts and music and not really part of the school program here (they do have a lot of sports though). The extra curricular programs built into the school days are however usually good, bit depending on the school, and since they take place during Wednesdays and/or lunch breaks they don't add on the length of the day. The program on these courses is more relaxed than in the school classes and they would probably help your son to develop friendships.

If however you are convinced that the local school is not the right choice for your family, go ahead with the change independent of your sons situation. Children pick up these things very easily and parents attitude will show through, even if they try to hide it.

Nov 8, 2013 16:32

I sort of read into your question that you'd been here a bit longer.

Stick at it until the end of the school year before you make a decision. Be positive, and help as you can. If you do that, I'm 95% certain that you'll keep him in the local schooling system next year. It's tough, but it's worth it. (that's from 2 generations personal experience with this). The remaining 5%, you just can't account for anyway - every child is different.

Changing to international may be an option later, but the other way round is much more difficult.

Nov 8, 2013 17:22

Ok, thanks all. Sounds like consensus is we're being hasty. And when I think about it, I suppose we are. Two months is not a long time.

We will try some of the suggestions here. If anyone has recommendations about fun French teachers or classes, I'd love to hear.

J, thanks for the encouragement. I do think we would regret if we gave up so easily.

Nov 8, 2013 17:49

I know many children in the international system in exactly the same position of finding it hard to settle, some already speak English, some don't.

I threw my kids directly into extra-curricular activities, to me they had to learn that there is life outside school, there are other places to make friends, it was something not academic.

Are you in a school with a high number of other international children? It often makes a big difference, if there are other children in the same situation, even better if there are some children speaking the same home language.

I'd not go for any additional language classes, other than from perhaps a teacher at the same school who can go through the school work. Our kids had an extra 2 hours after school each week, the teacher was their French as second language teacher and her English is perfect too, so she took their class work, talked them through it, as well as continuing the work she was giving them funded by the French Community for those who are French second language - our school has 2 teachers now in primaire to cover the 12 primaire classes where every year the school must get at least 20 new non French speakers. But really for enhancing French, some friends invited home can be just as or even more effective, plus doing activities with friends from school such as dancing, music.

Nov 8, 2013 19:47

The other point to consider is how long you're going to be here. If you know that you're only here temporarily, then at their age, a year in a foreign language isn't going to really make any long term impact, and you may have problems re-integrating back into your "english" school environment when you move on at quite an important time in their educational development.

On the other hand, if you're going to be here for a couple of years or even longer, then the opportunity to learn a new language, and have it "imprinted" at an early age is a real gift that you shouldn't give up easily.

Our experience with our 3 kids brought up here in a English speaking environment at home, but then put into French speaking maternelle & school when they were old enough, is that it took at least 6 months for them to really start being comfortable.

Getting a friend is probably the most important thing, as that way they'll begin using the language, even if it's gibberish at first, it'll be a start.

Nov 8, 2013 20:05

On the subject of friends inside the school, well it really is a good point that even a single friend can make a difference.

I was watching this week a new child in school, had a single other person out of 150 in the school who spoke the same language, spent weeks absolutely miserable in the playground (it's not a local school), never really made friends with that child who shares the same language, used simply to communicate, breakthrough has been finding 2 friends, they all speak different languages at home and all now at different levels of the school language, this child has gone from miserable to beaming in the space of 2 weeks, all because of friendship with the other 2. So through no fault of the school, the child spent the first 6 or 7 weeks at their new school crying an awful lot of the time, now finally happy and now already speaking some of the school language.

If you can try and manipulate friendships, this might take the co-operation of the class teacher to guess a good match or pick up on some pointers in class as to emerging relationships with other children. Ask the teacher if they can suggest who to invite home, if you get a positive reply from the parent(s), then try out doing an activity where the children do not have to talk to much. Then if it works, see if there are extra-curricular activities your son could do with the new friends.

My kids have ended up heavily into Scouting here, do dancing, gymnastics, horse riding, all due to recommendations from friends.

It took my 6 year old 6 months before reasonably competent in French too, despite one parent being quite fluent and the other almost fluent, so we were able to help with homework and do the research to find suitable after-school activities. It took a year before she was top of the class despite being youngest. On 1st September, I hadn't even taught her "bonjour".

Nov 8, 2013 21:43