Moving with children of different ages
There's no one correct answer to the question, “What's the right age for children to move abroad?” It's something parents are bound to ask themselves, and it becomes even more complicated when families have children of different ages to settle into school.
Generally, younger children are more adaptable and open to change, and find it easier to settle after a move overseas. Older children may be more resistant to the idea of moving to another country because it means leaving friends, and there are more complicated issues in terms of education. On the other hand, they will understand a great deal more about different cultures, retain far more, and can gain much more from their experience. Of course, no one knows their children as well as a parent, but certain approaches and advice may help you to support all your children during the transition.
Whenever you make an overseas move, children will react differently to the change, depending on their personality as well as their age. There are some patterns that apply to different age groups, however, and parents will find themselves administering different kinds of support to their children according to their needs.
“Very young children will just need the support of their immediate family and the familiarity of their regular routines,” says teacher and education expert Joanna Poole. “Once they start at their new nursery or primary school, there may be a few wobbles, but young children, who live so much in the present, will soon enjoy new friendships and feel comfortable in their new surroundings.”
Children of eight and older can take longer to come round to the idea of a move overseas as well as to settle in. “Children of this age need more of a sense of ‘ownership’ about the move,” says Joanna. “They can help pack their rooms up and take charge of which special things they’ll keep with them as they travel as well as organise a farewell party with their friends.”
And pre-teens and teens are more likely to protest loudly about a big move even though, ironically, they may be the ones to gain the most from the experience of living overseas. “They'll have many friends at school and there's a chance that they may resent you for taking them away from everything they know and love. Make sure you are always honest and open with them, and encourage them to ask anything they like about the move overseas. Involve them in decisions, such as how they will decorate their room and what subjects they want to take at school,” advises Joanna.
Finding the right school
It's entirely possible that you’ll be looking for two, three or even more schools in your new home location to suit the ages and needs of your different children. If your children are spread over large age gaps, if you have a preference for single-sex education and have children of both sexes, or if one or more of your children has additional learning needs or a special talent in some field, you could be faced with a real challenge. Add in the possibility of schools that appeal to you but are full in the year group one of your children requires, and some difficult decisions may have to be made.
“Schools will usually do their best to accommodate families,” says Joanna. “So even if initially it looks like one of the year groups your family requires is full, a bit of negotiation or some flexibility on the part of the school may fix the problem. Sometimes, though, schools are extremely over-subscribed and simply can’t take more children. You should then work with the school and within the family to decide if you want to send your children to different schools, depending on where places are available. It's worth remembering, though, that having a sibling already at the school can move a child up the waiting list if they hoped to join later on when a place becomes available.”
Some parents may choose a school wholly on the basis that it can accommodate all of their children, no matter what their age – many international schools go right through from nursery classes to 18 years of age. This can bring a sense of togetherness and belonging to a family far from home. Others, however, may only have access to nursery, primary and secondary schools that are separate and potentially in very different locations. “Treat this as a chance to immerse yourself in different communities in your new home,” says Joanna. “There are advantages and disadvantages to all set-ups.”
Once children reach the latter years of secondary school, they usually become committed to a system and moving them during courses that are spread over two years (like GCSEs, A Levels or the International Baccalaureate Diploma) can be disruptive, though it is not insurmountable. Once you factor in different children in your family and the ages they will reach during one of your deployments abroad, you can find that there is no ideal time to move. If you’re following the UK system of GCSEs and A Levels, for example, and you have children in consecutive school years, you’ll find that for a period of five years either one child or the other will be in the middle of a two-year course, making a transition difficult.
"...involve your young adult in all decisions at this stage of their lives..."
Relocation coach and owner of Jumpoverseas.com Susanna Reay points out that academic concerns may not be the only thing to think about. “With teenagers, there may be a huge kickback to you for upsetting their social lives,” she says. “Girlfriends and boyfriends now enter the equation as well as the friends they leave behind, but they are mature enough to understand the opportunities that can lie ahead with an adventure overseas.
“Teens may ask to stay behind, and it's worth considering if this is the case. It is very important to involve your young adult in all decisions at this stage of their lives. At no point present them with a decision in which they have not had significant involvement.”
Parents Anthony and Natalie Byatt have three children, aged 15, 12 and 8. After several overseas postings within the Foreign Office, which they took up as a family of five with all the children attending international schools, they decided to leave their elder daughter in the UK for the most recent move. “Because Annabel was starting her GCSE years, and we knew we’d be spending chunks of time both in the UK and overseas for the forthcoming four or five years, we found her a place at a boarding school in the English town where we have a base,” explains Anthony. “It means that when we’re in the UK she’s at the ‘local’ school, but when my wife is posted overseas, Annabel will experience the continuity of being at one school during these important years.”
The family’s younger children, however, continue to live abroad with their parents and attend international schools. “Annabel joins us for her long school holidays,” says Anthony, “so she’s still getting the chance to experience the countries we’re living in, but without any disruption to her studies. The younger ones relish showing her all that they’ve learned about where we’re living when she arrives for her holidays.”
Please see Changing schools during GCSE years for further information and advice.