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New horizons: Helping children get the best out of expat life

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When change is the only constant, how do we help kids reap the benefits of expat life? Suveera Sharma reports.

Looking out of the window staring at the South China Sea and the lights of the city at a distance, slowly falling asleep to the sounds of the waves, I think, “What’s not to love?” Hong Kong, specifically Discovery Bay, is now home.

Most of us in DB are living the expat dream. We live in an exotic location, boasting great views and all the first-world facilities, added to which there’s the secure environment that the resort provides. However, there is a non-glamourous aspect of expat life which is just as real. Moving to a new place, with a new culture, new people and new challenges, is not always a smooth transition. It involves expanding your comfort zone, starting afresh and undertaking new projects.

The challenge is not limited to newcomers. Hong Kong is a very transient place. It changes frequently even for people who have lived here for years and made it their home. In an expat community, with people constantly moving out, and new ones coming in, forming lasting friendships and deep connections can be difficult. It is a harsh reality of expat life – nothing ever stays the same. This can be very traumatic, particularly for children.

Moving to a new city, or even a new school within the city, or experiencing a dear friend moving away is often a child’s first realisation of how unpredictable and temporary life can be. So, how do we make these transitions easier, a bit more worry-free and smooth?

School selection

Children spend a large part of their day at school, hence it is essential that they feel happy and settled there. Once a child is happy in school, half the battle is won.

As the director of ITS Education Asia, Anne Murphy Cohen assists families in finding the ‘right’ school placements. Speaking of the anxiety parents and children experience when relocating and looking for a new school, she says: “My term for this is ‘educational anxiety.’ Families are constantly stressed. Recently, I had a conversation with a dad who said to me, “Anne, choosing a new school for my child has been more stressful than buying our family home back in Scotland.”

One of the reasons for this is that waitlists at international schools have inflated exponentially in the past few years. Parents are so nervous their children will miss out on the right placement that many have put their names down at multiple schools, to hedge their bets.

One has to realise that choices are often a compromise, Anne advises. “How a child will succeed at school ultimately rests with how we as parents interact with their education,” she adds. “Both the things they do at school, and the environment at home, are equally important.”

expat families

The role of the school

Stephanie Stiernon, who has recently moved to DB with her family, agrees that a good school can play

a big role in helping children deal with change: “When we moved from Switzerland, my eldest son Arthur, 7, could not speak much English at all. The inclusion department at Discovery Bay International School really helped by providing lessons at his pace and slowly inching him towards fluency. The teachers were very supportive and positive.”

Anne points out that international schools are particularly well-equipped to accommodate newcomers because there is always a steady flow of expats coming in and out. “Such schools usually have a support system in place,” she says. “For example, teachers are assigned to welcome new students and provide support, there are celebrations geared towards international families, and even buddy systems, where a senior student is assigned as a buddy for the new child.”

Natalie Regazzonia, the owner of DB playgroup Woodentots, sees on a regular basis how kids deal with change. “Younger kids take less time [to adapt], when they move to a new school or when a friend moves away. They do remember their friends, but since they do not have a very strong concept of time, they adjust fast and are more flexible. However, as they grow older, you start to see more resistance to new schools, and hence more complaints.”

Natalie recently moved her 10-yearold son Charlie to a new school [Hong Kong International Learning Academy], which was challenging for the whole family. “There was dissent every day initially,” she says. “It sometimes still is a challenge to motivate him to go to school each morning. But the good part is that it is improving. It gets better with time. As Charlie makes new friends and gets comfortable, it is slowly becoming easier.”

Getting involved in local life

Many people choose to live in DB for its family-friendly vibe and tranquil environment, and newcomers need not be shy about getting involved in local life. It’s important for parents to be relaxed about the new situation – if they show confidence, children sense it and take it on.

“Take your kids to the playground, go to the common places where people hangout, take the club memberships,” Stephanie advises. “I remember that I made my very first friend at the Discovery Bay Recreation Club pool. Introduce your kids to different activities and encourage them to make new friends. They need to have a sense of belonging. As soon as children feel included, they will relax and grow. Enrol in sports and other activities as a family. It really helps in making new friends and adjusting and fitting in.”

With this in mind, Natalie stresses how important it is to arrange plenty of playdates when children are in a new place. “It gives them an opportunity to make new friends,” she says. “Encourage them to have a close group of friends but then also branch out into other groups.”

Anne agrees. “Children are more adaptable than we think. Once they start school and get into the swing of a new routine and a new learning environment, all the rest will follow. They become more comfortable and at ease, and before you know it, they have made a new best friend.”

Natalie’s final word of advice is to try and provide a constant in the child’s life, be that a trusted adult mentor, who can counsel and guide without judging, or a sibling. “Encourage your child to have a strong bond with his/ her siblings,” she stresses. “Siblings provide stability and support at home when it might be missing outside.”

What’s important is that the whole family enjoys the process of adjustment, by going with the flow rather than overthinking or obsessing. It’s true that if we embrace hardships and keep going, things fall into place. As history has shown, many new destinations are discovered after getting lost.

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