Updated: Jul 2, 2019
I had been teaching 10-year-old ‘Johnny’ for three years when he returned from the winter holidays, threw open the classroom door and cheerfully announced that his family was moving in July. Johnny had been diagnosed with Autism at a young age and saw most of the world in black and white. For Johnny, finding out his family was moving meant that he should cut off all friendships and need not focus on his school work for the next six months. Why not? They were moving!
Quite the opposite situation occurred in my special education classroom with 15-year-old ‘Joey’ just a few months later. Joey’s family was returning to their passport country after having been away for most of his school career. I knew about the impending move but was asked to withhold the plans from Joey to avoid upsetting him. His parents decided to tell him about the move just three days before leaving. Though many tears, questions, and disbelief, Joey had to endure stunted last minute goodbyes to friends he had worked so hard to make.
In my 20 years of teaching, I have observed many student transitions, both positive and negative. I’ve compiled 10 practical tips that can help make the transition a more positive experience for everyone involved.
1. Look at pictures of the new city, school, home, parks, places of interest for your child.
The internet is a wonderland of photos that can be shared with your child once you know where you are moving. Photos help create a mental image of what may seem like a very abstract place. I have found that walking through Google Earth can also be an amazing resource!
2. If you are going on a house hunting trip, take the opportunity to document the travel process and make a photo book.
Take photos of the airport entrance, check-in, security line, gate, plane, baggage pick up, train/bus/car to the new home, etc. Even if your child is an experienced traveler, being able to review the travel process can help settle nerves. Children tend to ask repetitive questions when they feel worried as they find reassurance in hearing the same comforting answer. A photo book can serve the same comforting purpose.
3. Ease school worries with pictures and schedules.
Similar to creating a travel book, having pictures of your child’s future school can help ease their concerns or anxiety. Explore the school’s website together to find pictures of the campus, classrooms, as well as the administrative staff. For children who appreciate knowing the classroom schedule, procuring a copy of the school’s timetable can be invaluable. Quite often getting pictures and names of your child’s future classmates makes entering the classroom for the first time a little less daunting.
4. Give your child enough time to process, but not so long that they cut off friendships long before the move occurs.
Please keep in mind ‘Johnny’s’ situation if your child is a literal thinker. David C. Pollock, the forefather of explaining the expatriate child’s experience, defined four steps that everyone should go through when moving. He used the acronym RAFT: Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewells, Thinking Destination.
You know your child best and know if he/she needs more or less time to process. There must be a happy medium between ‘Johnny’ and ‘Joey’!
5. Create a schedule for the upcoming moving events. Sometimes having dates to circle on the calendar is enough to provide comfort.
Put a schedule on your child’s wall which includes important dates that change will occur in your home: Taking items to donate, movers/packing day, moving to a hotel, flying, etc. A paper chain, which is made by fixing together rings of construction paper to represent the number of days until your move, can also serve as a visual reminder for how much time will pass until changes will occur. At the end of each day, your child can rip off a piece of the paper chain to visualize moving one step closer to moving day. Talk through what those days will entail ensuring that your expectations match your child’s.
6. Help your child create a sensory kit.
Sensory kits include items that will help your child self-calm during moments of stress during the transition. Your child can choose and pack the kit him/herself and practice using it during typical stressful moments at home. In this way, when stressful times occur during the move, the kit won’t be a foreign concept. Tip: Always have a few novel items that your child has not seen to present during especially difficult occasion or 7 hours into a long-haul flight.
7. Write social stories to help explain the process of moving.
Carol Gray is the pioneer of Social Stories. She was a teacher of students with Autism, but those of us working with students with additional needs understand that social stories can work for anyone. Social stories are short, simple text and illustrations that describe a personalized situation. A social story can illustrate steps for staying calm about whichever part of the move you find your child is most worried. Many premade social stories can be found with an easy internet search.
8. Let your children see your positive and difficult emotions during the moving process.
One of the best ways to help children understand the emotions of moving is to freely demonstrate your emotions. Explaining your emotions as they occur will feel more spontaneous and natural. Why are you crying? Why are you sad? Why are you excited? Why is it ok that we feel these emotions while moving?
9. Keep routines as similar as possible as soon as arriving.
If your child requires a strict routine, returning to the familiar as quickly as possible will help ease nerves. If that means not getting as many boxes unpacked, so be it. The routine should come first to create stability and a sense of security.
10. Let your child be a part of the packing.
Give a task such as sweeping out each room, putting tape/labels on boxes, etc. to have your child experience the process. Find something that he/she can developmentally complete and feel successful. I also suggest not entering an empty house if your child was not part of the moving process. This can be traumatic as it may not have been something pictured in his/her mind.
Exploring new places, learning new languages, and making worldwide friendships are things that make an expatriate experience valuable for families.
However, it is understandable that moving when you have a child with additional needs can be extra stressful. Thankfully, with some thoughtful pre-planning and tricks up your sleeve, you have the power to ease the transition.
April Remfrey is passionate educator that has a proven track record as a student and family advocate. Remfrey Educational Consulting is the next step in assisting schools and families through the educational relocation process.