Starting at a new school can be both exciting and terrifying for any student. Whether it’s your child’s first, fourth or fifteenth move, switching to a new school is never easy. With so many unknowns, silent questions play on the minds of new students in the lead up to that first day. For Third Culture Kids* (TCK) moving from one culture to another, there is often the added unknown of cultural differences and expectations, which can shake their self-confidence and make walking into the new school even more daunting.
As an educator and youth intercultural transition specialist currently based in Australia, I have the privilege of equipping and supporting students and their families as they navigate the triumphs and trials of transition to new cultures across the globe. I’m regularly asked questions about the new educational culture into which they are about to venture. The questions asked by students vary from those on the minds of their parents. Students rarely ask about subjects offered or how many kids are in a class nor the facilities provided or location of the school. Curious to know what they do ask?
It’s all about socialization – what they need to know in order to avoid ‘social suicide’ (their word, not mine) so they can fast track their integration into the new school culture and feel a sense of belonging. All of this is vital before any learning can and will take place.
Top Ten Questions Asked by Students Starting at a New School:
What do they wear and how do they wear it?
Sadly, first impressions count so the questions I’m most often asked are related to outward appearances. Uniform or no uniform?
You would think that attending a school that requires their students to wear a uniform would make life easy, right? Wrong. Are their shirts tucked in or left out? Do they wear their socks up or down? Up to the knee, mid-calf or folded over at the ankle? What color are the school shoes? Do they have laces, buckles or Velcro? Are they pointy, square or round toed? Are the heels flat or high? What brands? What about sports shoes? What brands?
Attending a new school where there is no uniform at all can be even more stressful. Apart from how to wear their clothes, new students also ask questions such as, do the kids wear jeans, shorts or sweatpants? What style? What colors? What brands? Collared shirts, polo shirts or tee shirts? What brands? Hoodies or sweaters? What brands? Skater shoes, basketball boots, sneakers or flat shoes? What brands?
Notice a theme? Brands are very important to new students because they want to belong.
Do they really say ‘G’day Mate’?
“Language is essential for communication,” says Ruth van Reken, co-author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Amongst Worlds and founder of Families in Global Transition. In the schoolyard, language and colloquialisms either unite or divide. Knowing them means you can understand what is being said, communicate with others and have a sense of belonging. Not knowing them makes a new student feel alone, reinforcing that they do not yet belong in this new environment.
Just for the record, kids at school in Australia rarely say “G’day Mate” when greeting each other but just as in other countries, there are a plethora of alternative greetings (and fist pumps, handshakes and unique hello and goodbye ‘maneuvers’), which vary from suburb to suburb and school to school.
What’s for lunch?
“Food says so much about where you’ve come from, where you’ve decided to go and the lessons you’ve learned. It’s geography, politics, tradition, belief and so much more,” says Kat Kinsman, senior food and drinks editor at CNN’s Eatocracy. I agree. My Dad was Italian so from the moment I could eat solid food, I was munching on such delicacies as salami, olives and pecorino cheese. The schoolyard quickly taught me, however, that not everyone ate this delicious fare nor appreciated the smell that exuded from my lunchbox. Salami sandwiches were not a great way to win friends and influence people!
I am always asked the most obvious question – what do they eat for lunch? Other questions high on the radar include is there a cafeteria or canteen? Do most kids buy their lunch at school or bring it from home? In a lunchbox or bag? What brands of lunchbox or bag?
There’s that ‘brands’ word again.
How do students store their school notes?
In the 21st Century, many schools are experimenting with different methods of recording and storing student’s note taking. Each school I visit has their own preferred way and the cool kids might have their own way too.
Can I BYOD (Bring Your Own Device)? Does their IT Support Team prefer Apple or Windows? Do they use binders, notebooks or display folders for hard copies? One for each subject or one for all subjects?
Backpack, satchel or school bag?
According to many of my students, your school bag of choice (if you have a choice) says a lot about you.
What do kids use to carry their school ‘stuff’ (yes, this is the word used to describe all their school resources that you have just purchased at great expense)? Do they use these to carry their stuff between classes or just to and from school? What brands?
More of that word -‘brands.’
What does a ‘good student’ look like?
“Due to differences in cultures and educational traditions, teachers and students from different countries present different classroom behaviors,” says Yuqin Zhao, researcher at Harbin Institute of Technology, China.
Students want to know what is valued by the teachers – in the classroom, with regard to book standards, assessment benchmarks and homework expectations. Does the teacher value quiet independent workers, students who call out the answers or those who take a risk to try something new? Do they want me to know the facts or are they more interested in my ways of thinking? Is the due date really the due date?
How do I participate in class?
“When teachers and students from different cultures come into one classroom, they expect the other to behave in the way that is valued in their own culture,” says Yuqin Zhao. Many a child educated in an Eastern culture, has received a report card from a Western educated teacher with the comment “…needs to participate more in class discussion.”
Do the teachers value personal success over group achievement? Will I have to contribute to group work, class discussions or answer questions in front of my peers? May I express my own opinion? Can I ask questions of the teacher?
How do I address the teacher?
Some schools require their staff to be addressed formally whilst others are less formal. This also applies for how students are addressed by staff.
Do I call my teachers by their first name, Mr/Mrs/Ms/Dr and surname, Sir/Ma’am, Teacher? Will the teachers refer to me by my first name or my full name? Can I use my birth name or do I have to use an English name?
Who or what is cool?
Now we’re dealing with the really important issues for students starting at a new school, particularly adolescent students.
What music do they listen to? Who are the most popular music artists, film and TV stars? What sports do they play? Which sporting teams do they support? What do they do in their spare time? What are kids talking about right now?
How do kids connect out of school?
Obviously, social media is the main way adolescent kids connect in this 21st century, however, they also want to know what kids do to meet up after school or on the weekend.
Do they go to friends’ homes or hang out at the mall, play sport or dance, ride their bicycles or grind at the skate park, head to the beach or go to Homework Club?
Now you know what’s possibly on your child’s mind as they think about starting at their new school, what can you do to equip them with the answers?
Look beyond the Admissions Registrar, Counselor or the Schoolteacher. If your new school has a comprehensive transitions program, they will have already put you in touch with at least one family. If the school has not done this, ask to be put in contact with other families who have children in your child’s grade. Many schools have a class or grade parent co-ordinator. Make use of the I Am A Triangle Community by asking if anyone has a contact at your child’s new school. The global network is an amazing thing.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Use these people as a resource. They have probably walked a mile in your shoes before so will be happy to answer even the most mundane of questions such as, where do I buy those particular school shoes? Try to organize a face-to-face meeting or social event before your child’s first day so they know at least one person and can get the lowdown on how things work at their new school from a peer perspective.
Moving to a new culture can have you and your family feeling like aliens – either you’ve come from or arrived on another planet. I’m reminded of Buzz Lightyear, in the movie Toy Story, arriving in Andy’s bedroom. Standing at the foot of Andy’s bed, he confidently proclaims, “To Infinity and Beyond,” prior to launching himself into the unknown (Andy’s bedroom). High into the air he flies ahead of bouncing on a beach ball, riding a roller coaster up, down, around and around, catapulting himself onto the airplane mobile before landing safely on the bed amongst Andy’s favorite toys. With the notable exception of Woody, they warmly welcome him into their toy community.
Just as Buzz Lightyear experienced ups and downs in his new environment of Andy’s bedroom, TCKs experience good days and bad days as they learn about and adjust to their new school culture. As parents, we want to place our children in a position to succeed and make the most of the incredible opportunities afforded to them as they live and learn amongst different cultures. By providing answers to the questions above, along with any other questions you may learn from your conversations with them, you will be able to launch your TCK into their new school with confidence. Knowing they are armed with enough information about the social nuances to avoid committing ‘social suicide,’ they too can stand at the foot of their bed and confidently proclaim, “To Infinity and Beyond” before taking flight into their new school and the exciting world that awaits them.
*Third Culture Kid definition: “A person who has spent a significant part of his or her first eighteen years of life accompanying parents into a country outside either/both parents’ passport country(ries) due to the parent’s choice of work or advanced training.” Ruth van Reken 2017
See also: Third Culture Kids, Globally Grounded
Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, David C. Pollock and Ruth E. van Reken, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2009
Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds (3rd Edition), David C. Pollock, Ruth E. van Reken and Michael V. Pollock, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2017
Cultural Conflicts in an Intercultural Classroom Discourse and Interpretations from a Cultural Perspective, Yuqin Zhao, Intercultural Communication Studies XVI:1, 2007
The Kid With The Stinky Lunch, Kat Kinsman, 2011,
Toy Story, Disney/Pixar; Burbank, CA, 2005. To Infinity and Beyond Clip
Author: Jane Barron
Jane Barron is a youth intercultural transition specialist, educator, writer and speaker driven to improve emotional, social and educational outcomes for students crossing cultures, their families and those who educate them. Her work is informed by her experience as an educator of 24 years in both international and local schools, a parent of two cross-cultural children, a child of a domestically mobile family and now, a repatriate to Australia. She has seen and understands the impact of moving across cultures upon individuals. Founder of Globally Grounded, Jane’s writing has been published in International Teacher Magazine, International School Magazine and The International Educator and she blogs at www.globallygrounded.com