My children are Third Culture Kids. This means they are being raised outside their parents’ passport country: American from Minnesota, living in Djibouti where their dad works at the University. We have also lived in Somalia, Kenya, a few months in France, and the United States. So they have spent most of their school years in Africa. But not all their school years and not all in the same type of school. They have gone to a Minnesota public school, a Somalia government school, three Djiboutian French schools, a French public school, an American boarding school in Kenya, and we have done additional homeschool for American history and English reading and writing.
All of these school options had their strengths and weaknesses but, surprisingly enough, the hardest for my kids (and myself) to navigate was the American public school.
The school was a French immersion Minneapolis public school — perfect for us since we were spending just one year in Minnesota and since my kids’ entire education up to that point had been in French.
During orientation, I experienced severe culture shock. People spoke English, with some thickly accented and broken French. Signs were in English. Most of the people looked and dressed like me. Teachers spoke to the children instead of the parents. The hallways were decorated and felt claustrophobic. Posters, announcements, art projects, decorations. Stimulation galore.
My kids experienced culture shock too. I know because my son started speaking to me in Somali, something he had never done before. But as he struggled to process the experience, he needed to escape, and language was the only option in that moment. Later, he told me when he needed to take a break from “America,” he spoke to himself in French.
My kids didn’t know how to sign up for or take the school bus. They didn’t know what to do in the cafeteria. They didn’t know how to raise their hands in the American way or how to ask to use the toilet. They didn’t know the games at recess or the songs on the bus. They didn’t know the homework expectations. They knew more than anyone needs to know about Louis the Fourteenth, but almost nothing about the American Revolution. They didn’t know how to use a Bunsen burner or how to take notes on a lecture or where to keep their supplies.
No one knew to help them, and furthermore, no one knew to help me.
When I asked for help with school lunch tickets, many parents didn’t know what to say. They knew how to navigate the school but explaining how to navigate it was entirely different. They didn’t know how they knew what they knew.
Plus, my kids looked American. They spoke English (mostly). They dressed like Americans (mostly). But they are barely American. Nothing about them announced what was true about them: they were essentially foreign exchange students. They needed to be treated like foreign exchange students, or like immigrants. They were hidden immigrants.
Ruth Van Reken and David Pollock, authors of Third Culture Kids, describe a hidden immigrant as someone who looks alike but thinks differently.
Hidden immigrant kids come to school with unique needs that most often remain hidden beneath a thin veneer of blending in. It is vital to address those needs as early as possible in the school experience. But how?
12 things parents can do to help children navigate school as hidden immigrants:
1. Explain to the teacher that your child looks like the other students but doesn’t think like them.
Explain the concept of a hidden immigrant, a third culture kid returning to their passport country.
2. Ask your child if there is something they don’t understand from class.
Set the pattern of the freedom to ask questions. Make your home a safe place to voice a question or concern. Then either help them ask it in school or ask for them.
3. Help your child recognize their strengths, the things they do know.
They might not know about George Washington, but they know about Menelik of Ethiopia (they even sat on his throne). This is not to encourage arrogance but to give them confidence and perspective. And then encourage them to learn about George Washington. Learn together. If other parents are like me they could use the refresher.
4. Encourage and model courage.
You will also probably not understand everything yourself. Ask questions and don’t be afraid of looking foolish.
5. Explain to people that you have not lived here for many years, that you don’t understand how things work.
You might be surprised by who else has questions, or might make a new friend.
6. Share your own stories of awkward cultural moments in a way that helps your child not feel alone.
7. Be proactive in finding help.
For example, if the previous school didn’t cover the same math concepts and your child is lost, find a tutor before they fall too far behind.
8. Seek out a family with children close in age to your own.
Arrange a play date before starting classes so your kids can begin interacting with ‘regular’ American children. It will be beneficial for them to know someone on their first day.
9. Ask that family’s advice about kids’ clothing, what kinds of snacks to bring, and school supplies.
10. Find out what recess games are popular.
For example, one of the friends I asked said kids at the school we chose played Frisbee. Before school started, our family played a lot of Frisbee.
11. Help your children own and be proud of where they came from.
They don’t need to conform, and possibly don’t want to, in every way.
12. But at the same time, help your children be excited about, interested in, and involved with where they are now.
Do you have other suggestions on helping kids transition to school in their passport country?
Top image via Denizen and Elaina Natario.