EMILY MEADOWS, PhD is an alumni of international schools and has worked as a professional educator and counselor across the world, serving children and families in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. She researches inclusive policy and practice for LGBTQ+ students, and holds master’s degrees in the fields of Counseling and Sexual Health. Emily teaches for the George Washington University’s graduate program in LGBT Health Policy & Practice, and is a consultant on gender and sexual diversity and inclusion in international schools: www.emilymeadows.org
This post is the first of a two-part series on coming out.
I presented at the International School Counselor Association 2019 Annual Conference in Brussels earlier this month. The
enthusiastic encouragement of my research on inclusive schools for gender and
sexual minority students (sometimes called LGBTQ) astonished me. It was within
recent memory that colleagues would blush, clear their throats, and look down
at their shoes at mention of my work. However, I was even more surprised by the
number of attendees who turned up for the session. It was right after lunch on
the last day of a busy conference, and I thought it might be just me and a
precious few. I was wrong: 40+ counselors
packed the space to learn how to support gender minority students (sometimes
called transgender, gender non-conforming, gender diverse, non-binary, etc.).
A common question during my trip to Brussels was around the
international element of supporting gender and sexual minority (GSM) children. Surely the recommendations for American
schools aren’t applicable to those of us working in countries where, for
example, homosexuality is criminalized. What can we do then?
I’ve got several answers to that question, but the first is always: keep your students and yourself safe.
You’re no good to anybody if you’ve been thrown out of the school (or the
country). And you must absolutely never put children into a dangerous position.
I try to avoid absolutes like always and never, but this seems an appropriate
circumstance to break that rule.
The second recommendation is to out yourself. I do not mean for GSM
professionals to come out – that’s an entirely personal decision. I am
recommending, however, that you come out as an ally. Evaluate the security of
your role within the school and your community. Reflect on your level of
credibility, and how well you appreciate the context you are working in.
Understand the risks you are taking, and your level of comfort with this
assessment. At that point, consider ways of coming out.
people carry the privilege of not having to worry about coming
out. Cishet (short
for cisgender, heterosexual) people don’t need to correct those who wrongly
assume their gender or sexuality. They don’t have to plan the when/where/how of
their many comings-out (to family, friends, colleagues, new friends, new
colleagues, etc.) Cishet people aren’t burdened with concerns about how others
may react, or what the personal and professional consequences might be when
they reveal that they are bisexual, lesbian, gay, transgender, intersex, or queer.
In contrast to coming out as GSM, outing yourself as an ally is a relatively
minor reveal. Still, safety comes first, and you’ll want to evaluate how and
when to do so. Here are five fairly simple and innocuous suggestions for how to
come out as an ally.
Five Ways to Come Out as an Ally
a safe space poster in your classroom or office. (These
are readily available to print online, in many languages.)
rainbow gear, such as a lanyard or pin, or put rainbow decorations up in your
up for others when you see or hear discrimination. (And refrain from laughing
when people make jokes at the expense of GSM people.)
your ally pride on social media by posting on the topic, liking others’ posts,
or making note of it in your profile.
While many of these gestures are subtle, and may go under the radar for many,
the gender and sexual minority kids in your school will notice, and it can make
a significant difference to them. When GSM students can identify even one supportive
adult at school, they experience improved mental health outcomes and even have better
attendance records. You could be that supportive adult.
How do you show you are an ally for
gender and sexual minority students?
K. L., Forge, N., Walls, N. E., & Bridges, N. (2015). School engagement
among LGBTQ high school students: The roles of safe adults and gay-straight
alliance characteristics. Children and
Youth Services Review, 57, 19-29.
International educators may be particularly aware of the importance of language, seeing as so many of us toggle between multiple languages in our everyday lives, and teach children who do the same. We’re privy to the delight of discovering a useful word with no translation to our first language/s. I still use yella (Arabic for let’s go/come on/hurry up!), though I left Kuwait years ago. Or, we’ve experienced the profound feeling that language, when mastered, can shape even the way that we think, such as when the grammatical gender of nouns, according to different languages, changes how people personify them. Language can also lend validity to our experiences; I remember the unexpected sensation of relief when I acquired the term TCK (Third Culture Kid or Trans-Cultural Kid), and could then put words to an identity I strongly related to, but hadn’t previously been able to articulate. Language, and the ability to use it to reflect our lived experience, matters.
How do words get past the gatekeepers of our cultural lexicon? In a 2017 interview, Merriam-Webster editor, Kory Stamper, explained that, in order to enter the dictionary, new words must meet three criteria:
This post is a supplement to my submission to Merriam-Webster: I’d like to get the word ‘cisnormative’ added to the dictionary. My definition of cisnormative, based upon Merriam-Webster’s definition of heteronormative is:
Cisnormative (adjective): of, relating to, or based on the attitude that a cisgender identity is the only normal and natural experience of gender
The word cisnormative meets all three of Merriam-Webster’s criteria for entry. It is…
Widespread – Below you’ll see the word used in peer-reviewed, academic texts published across fields as varied as health, parenting, education, religion, law, business, public recreation, and architecture.
Sustained – At least one detailed explanation of the term (with visual diagram, below) dates back to a peer-reviewed journal article from 2009, almost a decade ago.
Meaningful – Discrimination based upon gender identity is deadly and serious; recognizing it by name is meaningful.
From the same interview, Stamper provides an example of a word she chose to add to the dictionary: bodice ripper (it’s a type of romance novel, for those unfamiliar). Other words you can find in Merriam-Webster’s tome: dumpster fire, f-bomb, ginormous, weak sauce, glamping, anyways, and literally (when used in exaggerated emphasis, not actually meaning, well… literally). I’d argue any day that cisnormative is at least as credible a word as these.
A quick search turns up long lists of peer-reviewed academic references to cisnormativity. Here’s a sample:
“Cisnormative assumptions are so prevalent that they are difficult at first to even recognize.”
From the same text, a diagram:
“Cisnormative assumptions can have the effect of rendering the transgender population invisible.”
“‘Cisnormativity’ is the assumption that it is ‘normal’ to be cisgender”
“As with heteronormativity, what is in place with cisnormativity is the powerful categorization of people in opposition to an assumed norm, and the discrimination that is enacted through that power.”
“Systemic discrimination can be challenged by reviewing policies, procedures, protocols and processes to remove conventions and assumptions of cisnormativity.”
“As with heteronormativity, families are among the primary contexts in which cisnormativity is enforced and reproduced.”
“This section will highlight how problematization of (trans)gender identity is an effect of cisnormative power and privilege.”
“The participants oriented to a hetero/cisnormative social context by drawing on normalizing discourses to present their families as ‘just like’ other families and to downplay the significance of their parents’ sexuality/gender identity.”
“Although these studies reveal the existence of transgender religious people, they offer little understanding of transgender religious experience or the construction of religious cisnormativity.”
“What is our expectation of architecture when our cities, buildings – their programs, connections and interfaces – reinforce essentialist and cisnormative notions of gender?”
“Research that has been conducted has been done primarily through a heteronormative and cisnormative lens ignoring the transition to adulthood for those who are LGBTQ.”
“Queer theory is applied to the focus of this paper to investigate how heteronormativity and cisnormativity put GSM [gender and sexual minority] youth at a disadvantage to their peers, specifically with regards to accessing relevant sexual health and relationship information at school.”
“Heteronormative and cisnormative assumptions are predominant in the language (including images) in mainstream breastfeeding literature and the language used by providers.”
I also asked around for some professional and familiar usages from my peers, and was supplied with these examples:
“The dearth of unisex restrooms in public spaces is reflective of the cisnormativity of architects and civil engineers, who provide no option for people with gender fluid or ambiguous appearances to meet a very basic human need without potential harassment.”
-Jessica Holland, MA, MLS
“Queer playwright Kate Bornstein uses empathic characters to confront their audience’s cisnormative assumptions of selfhood in ‘Hidden: A Gender.’”
-Brendon Votipka, Playwright, MFA, Assistant Teaching Professor, Rutgers University
I will be asking Merriam Webster dictionary to consider adding to their tome the word cisnormative (and related word, cisnormativity). I don’t want to see the squiggly red line throughout my Word documents anymore, invalidating the lived experience of transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming children who are marginalized by widespread, sustained, and meaningful cisnormative social norms.
Readers, I invite you to add a sentence using the word cisnormativity in the comments of this post, to include in my submission to Merriam-Webster.
 Segel, E. & Borodistsky, L. (2011). Grammar in art. Frontiers in Psychology, 1, Article 244.
 Bauer, G. R., Hammond, R., Travers, R., Kaay, M., Hohenadel, K. M., & Boyce, M. (2009). “I don’t think this is theoretical; this is our lives”: How erasure impacts health care for transgender people. Journal of the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care, 29(5), 348-361.
 Oakleaf, L. & Richmond, L. P. (2017). Dreaming about access: The experiences of transgender individuals in public recreation. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, 35(2), 108-119.
 Worthen, M. G. F. (2016). Hetero-cis-normativity and the gendering of transphobia. International Journal of Transgenderism, 17(1), 31-57.
 Rhodes, C. (2017). Ethical praxis and the business case for LGBT diversity: Political insights from Judith Butler and Emmanuel Levinas. Gender, Work and Organization, 24(5), 533-546.
 Jones, S. M. & Willis, P. (2016). Are you delivering trans positive care? Quality in Ageing and Older Adults, 17(1), 50-59.
 McGuire, J. K., Kuvalanka, K. A., Catalpa, J. M., & Toomey, R. B. (2016). Transfamily theory: How the presence of trans* family members informs gender development in families. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 8, 60-73.
 Sharpe, A. The ethicality of the demand for (trans)parency in sexual relations. Australian Feminist Law Journal, 43(2), 161-183.
 Clarke, V. & Demetriou, E. (2016). ‘Not a big deal’?: Exploring the accounts of adult children of lesbian, gay and trans parents. Psychology & Sexuality, 7(2), 131-148.
 Sumerau, J. E., Cragun, R. T., & Mathers, L. A. B. (2016). Contemporary religion and the cisgendering of reality. Social Currents, 3(3), 293-311.
 Castricum, S. (2017). When program is the enemy of function… Gender-nonconforming experiences of architectural space. Architecture and Culture, 3, 371-381.
 Wagaman, M. A., Keller, M. F., & Cavaliere, S. J. (2014). What does it mean to be a successful adult? Exploring perceptions of the transition into adulthood among LGBTQ emerging adults in a community-based service context. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, 28(2), 140-158.
 Meadows, E. (2018). Sexual health equity in schools: Inclusive sexuality and relationship education for gender and sexual minority students. American Journal of Sexuality Education, 13(3), 356-370.
 Farrow, A. (2015). Lactation support and the LGBTQI community. Journal of Human Lactation, 31(1), 26-28.
It’s true: lesbian teens have higher rates of pregnancy than those who identify as straight. Also, gay males are more likely to be responsible for a pregnancy during their teen years than straight males. It may sound counter-intuitive, but research backs these numbers up.
Earlier this year, I published an article in the American Journal of Sexuality Education entitled “Sexual Health Equity in Schools: Inclusive Sexuality and Relationship Education for Gender and Sexual Minority Students”. In it, I argue that, while researchers do not know for certain why lesbian teens are at higher risk for pregnancy, it likely does not help that the vast majority of school-based sexuality and relationship education programs exclude gender and sexual minorities (GSM) from the curriculum. Indeed, I point out in the piece that a number of issues that sex education aims to address, such as age of first intercourse and number of partners, condom and birth control use, and dating violence disproportionately (and negatively) impact lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth as compared to their heterosexual, cisgender peers.
It is perhaps less surprising that gender and sexual minority teens are not responding to school-based sexuality education when we consider that they are essentially ignored in most programs. Of those that do make mention of anyone other than heterosexual, cisgender people, it is often through messages that are pathologizing (i.e. exaggerating the relationship between sexual orientation and HIV/AIDS), or the ‘information’ is downright inaccurate. A number of U.S. states actually mandate that their schools’ curricula be discriminatory against LGBTQ people. GSM students do not see themselves reflected in most sex education programs, and might simply check out during those lessons, leaving them without the knowledge and skills necessary to nurture their sexual and reproductive health.
As most of the data supporting my article was collected in the United States, it is theoretically possible that other countries are doing a much better job at including GSM students in their sex education programs. This is unlikely, however, given the relatively restrictive legal, political, and social situation for GSM people in many parts of the world. Also, of the few countries that have collected information about GSM students, none has shown that this demographic fares as well as their heterosexual, cisgender peers in outcomes targeted by sex ed.
Want to do better for your students? Consider adopting the K-12 Sexuality Education Standards published by the public health organization, the Future of Sex Education. The content of these standards is accurate, evidence-informed, developmentally and age-appropriate, and designed to be relevant to a diverse student body. These standards are being used to some degree in 32 states in the U.S., so international schools following an American curriculum in particular will appreciate staying up to speed with current best practice. Adopting an inclusive sexual health and relationship curriculum is one step toward a more just and fair education for all students.
How does your school ensure that gender and sexual minority students have access to sexual health and relationship information?
 Charlton, B. M., Roberts, A. L., Rosario, M., Katz-Wise, S. L., Calzo, J. P., Spiegelman, D., & Bryn Austin, S. (2018). Teen pregnancy risk factors among young women of diverse sexual orientations. Pediatrics, 14(4).
 Institute of Medicine. (2011). The health of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people: Building a foundation for better understanding. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
 Meadows, E. (2018). Sexual health equity in schools: Inclusive sexuality and relationship education for gender and sexual minority students. American Journal of Sexuality Education. doi: 10.1080/15546128.2018.1431988
 Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). (2017). State Profiles.
 Carroll, A. & Mendos, L. R. (2017). State-sponsored homophobia: A world survey of sexual orientation laws: Criminalization, protection and recognition. International Lesbian and Gay Association.
 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). (2016). Out in the open: Education sector responses to violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. Paris, France: UNESCO.
Choir kids will relate: our beloved music teacher from high school is battling cancer, and we wanted to show our support. She wasn’t up for lots of visits, so we pulled together to create a video of us singing one of her favourite songs: “Seasons of Love” from Rent. It was a simple gesture, but one we hoped would cheer and comfort a person who’s impacted so many.
Turns out, not only choir kids can relate: shortly after sharing it with the school district (who shared it on Facebook), Good Morning America featured us on their website. Next, the story got picked up by Ashton Kutcher’s media company, A Plus. Then, the local National Public Radio station did a piece on us. After that, the newspaper printed an article. The story gained so much traction that Good Morning America decided to feature it on their national broadcast. They flew Mama Lu, as we affectionately refer her, out to New York for an interview. More than 40 of Mama Lu’s former students also made it to NYC (most paying their own way), and surprised her on set, along with original Rent stars Tracie Thoms and Anthony Rapp, who traveled from England and LA to be there. The video clip of the performance, posted online, has almost 400,000 views already, and hundreds of touching comments.
Mama Lu has been interviewed for each of these stories, and continues to emphasize how touched she is that we took time from our personal lives for her. Fellow educators will not be surprised to hear that Mama Lu gave countless weekends, evenings, and weekend evenings to us – rehearsing, performing, and making music together. Time from our personal lives? This is nothing compared to what she invested in her students over the course of a dedicated career.
Every child should have the opportunity to learn from educators whose positive impact sticks with them for years.
A quote from Mama Lu: “I think it proves that with teaching you really don’t know what kind of an influence you’re going to have 20 years later. So, you just do your best.”
A reminder that what you do, as educators, matters.
Brett Kavanaugh, now United States Supreme Court justice, is the latest in a string of men publicly demonstrating that there are no good guys.
Hang onto your #notallmen comebacks. There are no good guys – and there are no bad guys.
This type of binary thinking (good vs. bad) is problematic. Whether considering the sexual abuse epidemic in the Catholic church, or the extraordinary number of stories from the #metoo movement, a common theme is that people accused of assault are rarely pure villains. Someone out there is usually willing to vouch for their character, even to summon a respectable letter from the community attesting to their wholesomeness and good deeds. To take this as evidence that they have never once behaved inappropriately, however, is a logical fallacy with potentially serious consequences.
If a child understands that the adults in their life believe a religious leader/neighbour/doctor/family member/teacher is a ‘good guy’, and we’ve taught children to internalize people as being on one side or another of a good/bad binary, how might that impact their interpretation of a sexual assault? How might that influence their likelihood of reporting the ‘good guy’, or seeking help?
As educators, we can support children to see people as nuanced, and work to dismantle this simplistic good vs. bad misconception. Doing so may also encourage a healthier self-concept by giving little ones the chance to recover from mistakes that inevitably accompany learning. Otherwise, when a child uses binary thinking to judge themself, a simple misstep may create unnecessary internal conflict. Educators who cultivate a growth mindset with students will recognize this approach.
I do not mean to equivocate minor childhood gaffes with actual crimes, and this is not to say that someone who commits sexual assault in high school (allegedly) should be excused their behaviour and rewarded with a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court of the United States. Certainly we must face consequences for our choices. But, is Brett Kavanaugh entirely evil? Plenty of supporters would say no, and I agree: nobody is completely good or completely bad.
Other teachable moments from the Kavanaugh hearings:
Sexual assault is not normal teen behaviour – it is violent behaviour. Let’s keep saying this loud and clear, and teaching children about consent early and often.
Binge drinking is not normal teen behaviour; less than 1 in 3 American teens report drinking at all, and only 13% report binge drinking (defined as 4-5 beers in a row). Let us not normalize underage drinking.
If a yearbook quote can follow you to a job interview in your 50’s, so can a social media post. Take care with online footprints.
If the recent U.S. Supreme Court nomination process came up with your students, how were you able to use it as a teachable moment?
 2017. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/yrbs/results.htm
I woke up at 3am every morning the week leading up to our last day in Hong Kong. If someone had peeked into our flat while I was organizing and sorting and packing and planning, they may have grown concerned. I’m sure I looked a bit wild.
We traveled for 20 hours with our toddler. I continued to wake at 3am after the arrival, because jet lag and baby jet lag. Everything was new.
Since June, we have been living with a total of four forks for our family of three, and other similar shortages, as we wait for our shipment to arrive in the Netherlands. We make due. We employ flexibility and resourcefulness and resilience. We accept that this is part of a relocation, and compensate with the many marvels of our new home.
Moving as international educators is hard. But, really, it’s not that hard.
Hard would be absconding under cover of night, without farewells.
Hard would be leaving behind our memories and possessions, barely packing at all.
Hard would be trekking across deserts, riding dilapidated boats through the sea.
Hard would be an arrival without welcome, without provision, without safety and security.
Hard would be forced separation from my child. My baby in a cage.
When we arrived in our new home, we were welcomed. When we arrived, we were provided for. When we arrived, we were perhaps disoriented, but we were safe and secure.
I do not mean to discount the difficulties that many international ed folks face when making a move; we must honour these, too. There is true pain in leaving a place, and real challenge in adjusting to a new context. But for me, personally, when I am washing those four forks – again – so we have something to eat our next meal with, I consider how very little actual flexibility, resourcefulness, and resilience have been asked of me during this move. I carry privilege, and my moves are not hard.
I grew up as a child in international schools, so I’ve done it. I’ve said good-bye to so many people, so many times. I’ve made my career in international education. More farewells. The process isn’t necessarily easy, but I am accustomed to it. When my husband and I decided to leave Hong Kong, we knew the hardest part would be separating from the people who’ve made our seven years here so memorable, but we also knew we could handle it.
What I didn’t consider was that our baby, now a toddler, would be left behind.
Of course I don’t mean literally. He’s booked in a seat sandwiched between ours as we rack up the last of our Cathay Pacific airline miles, for now. But, he was born here, and spent his infancy here. And we can’t take that with us.
When we fly into Amsterdam airport later this month, we will be leaving behind the sweet little crew of munchkins that have become his tribe. We rotate group play dates at one another’s homes every Friday, swim in the community pool together every Tuesday, and bop around with maracas and plastic leis (don’t ask) at “dance class” every Wednesday. More afternoons than not, my child spends an hour or two on the playground with these babes, learning how to negotiate, to take risks, to show compassion, to have fun. We hosted the play group a couple of week ago, and he cried a little when the children left. “I miss my friends”, he said.
Hong Kong is where I gripped the edge of his car seat, instructing the taxi driver to slow down, as we wound down Mount Kellett Road, heading home from the hospital where he was born. Hong Kong is where he, inspired by his older/wiser/more experienced buddy (born 2.5 months before him) took his first steps across the brightly-coloured, vinyl-covered indoor play room where we passed so many hours in monsoon weather or to escape the air pollution. Hong Kong is where he used to pitch pieces of very expensive, organic pears imported from Italy onto the dining room floor because he was learning how to eat, but also learning about gravity, which was more fun. Hong Kong is where he was a baby.
Parenting adds a new – often unexpected – dimension to virtually every aspect of life, and this is no different. My husband and I have begun to bid farewell to friends, but we also know that we will be able to stay in touch with them, and there are certainly people we intend to see again. Those relationships will change with distance, but they will not disappear.
Our baby’s relationships will essentially disappear. So much happens in a child’s development that it’s not possible for them to keep up with others without real contact. In a year from now, his little crew won’t know him anymore. He was a baby with them, and they won’t be babies anymore. Perhaps that’s why, despite the cost of shipping to our new home in the Netherlands, I’m bringing along a box full of clothes that definitely do not fit him anymore.
As international parents, there is a definitive finality to moving. When we leave Hong Kong, we will do so with a full-fledged toddler. Our baby will stay behind.
How do you carry on memories of a place with young children?
Inclusive education is, “not limited to the inclusion of those children or young people with disabilities. Inclusion is inclusion of all regardless of race, ethnicity, disability, gender, sexual orientation, language, socio-economic status, and any other aspect of an individual’s identity that might be perceived as different” . As educators, how do we tackle this goal in countries or regions with a history of excluding certain groups? For example, is it our obligation to improve inclusive education for gender and sexual minority students in countries where homosexuality is considered a crime?
When it comes to rights and justice in education, I am tempted to take a purist approach: insist on full equity, anything short of this is unacceptable. In reality, the concept of equity is subjective, complex, and extremely difficult to measure, so this mentality is practically inoperable. Additionally, as a visitor in countries abroad, I am compelled to position myself as the learner (rather than the teacher), to value diversity (rather than assume my perspective is superior), and to respect local traditions (even if I do not practice them).
Still, those who do not have access to the privileges of a dominant group need and deserve allies and advocates. To ignore disparity is to be complicit in discrimination. In countries and regions where inclusive policy and practice is discouraged, whether by social norm or legal position, this is particularly salient. What is our role, as international educators, when local cultural traditions marginalize certain students? Are we overstepping our reach to demand equitable education when we are guests on foreign ground? On these questions, we can take guidance from international human rights agreements, such as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that, “Everyone has the right to education”.
While the large multi-national cohorts that initiate human rights agreements have been critiqued for slanting toward Western ideology, these benchmarks are still preferable to leaning on one individual country’s interpretation of who deserves to attend a school that is relevant, safe, and inclusive. Human rights are more important than culture and tradition. So, discriminatory practices such as keeping young girls home to do the housework while their brothers go to school, are not acceptable. Marginalizing gender and sexual minority students from the full educational experience for any reason, including cultural or religious objection, is also intolerable.
To implement policies stating as much is easier said than done. These types of shifts must be carried out sensitively, carefully, and sometimes slower than we like. Heavy-handed, hasty, top-down mandates (even with benevolent intentions) may prove counter-productive, causing backlash and a staking of camps. International education policy-makers, then, must be people with a deep understanding of the culture where they are working, a strong background in relevant policy, and a commitment to the well-being of all children, particularly those who have been historically disadvantaged.
How do you exercise cultural humility as a guest abroad, while also working toward inclusive education for all of your students?
 Polat, F. (2011). Inclusion in education: A step towards social justice. International Journal of Educational Development, 31, p. 50-58.
 For the record, my answer to this question is a firm: yes.
 Wiseman, A. W. (2008). A Culture of (in)equality?: A cross-national study of gender parity and gender segregation in national school systems. Research in Comparative and International Education, 3(2), 179-201.
 Déquanne, B. (2017, February 9). Stronger Together [blog post]. The International Educator Online.
 Fully aware, here, that my own country of citizenship (the United States) has a well-documented history of denying equitable access to education; this is not a ‘foreign problem’.
 Lewis, M. & Lockheed, M. (2007). Inexcusable absence: Why 60 million girls still aren’t in school and what to do about it. Washington, DC: Center for Global Development.
 Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Giga, N. M., Villenas, C., & Danieschewski, D. J. (2016). The 2015 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth in our nation’s schools. New York: GLSEN.
It can be tempting to put off telling children about a move, as it will undoubtedly induce some level of stress. Still, there are healthier ways to support our little ones than by keeping them in the dark. As a professional international school counselor, I’ve worked with countless families to facilitate their successful transition to a new home. It can absolutely be done well! These tips will enhance your experience of a big move:
Maintain routine – While some of the thrill of moving is in the newness, remember that children thrive on routine. Keep certain limits the same, such as bedtimes and mealtime expectations, in order to provide your child with a sense of security. There will need to be flexibility at times, of course, but keep the basic structure of their day as consistent as possible.
Set an example – Your child will notice your lead when it comes to embracing something different from what you’re used to. Involve your family in the process of showing curiosity and exploring this new place (even from afar, through photos and discussions about how it will be there). Openly model resilience and a positive attitude when faced with challenge or disappointment about the transition.
Build connections – Support your child in getting to know the new community. Consider taking a trip to visit the campus and town during a vacation break before the move date. Reach out to the school counselor before you arrive – most international schools will have a system for integrating new students. Find out if anybody in your housing compound or neighborhood-to-be has children around the same age, and strike up an email or Facebook dialogue with them. Even one personal relationship can go a long way in helping your child to feel more at ease about the new place.
Listen – Children will have their own feelings about your plan to move. Listen empathically and, though you may not agree, honor your child’s experience and encourage them to share it with you. Create a safe space for them to express and work through their feelings. Validate that big changes can induce big emotions.
Play – Children (yes, even high school students) need to play! Uprooting can be difficult, and wrapping-up is invariably busy. Make it a priority to carve out play time together as a family. Documenting ‘lasts’ at the old locale, and creating fun memories to cherish when you look back, is an essential component to making the international move experience one that you and your child can weather – even embrace -together.
What tips do you recommend for international families transitioning to a new home?
With the flurry of recruiting season beginning to diminish, many international teachers are now standing, new contract in hand, preparing to pack up and start a new chapter someplace else in a few short months Aside from the logistics of moving, there is also the emotional management of bidding farewell. These good-byes are particularly complicated when we are not only professional educators, but also parents. This is the first of a two-part post about easing the transition of a big move for your child.
Be careful of how you break the news
Parents know that big changes can create anxiety, and we all have the best intentions to shield our children from discomfort. A family I once supported as a school counsellor decided to move their child to a different school nearby. They knew this might be upsetting so, to try to make the transition fun and quick, the idea was to surprise the child with cupcakes on their last day at our school and, at the impromptu good-bye party, break the news that they would be attending someplace else the following day. I managed to talk the parents out of that plan, but have seen various (less extreme) versions of attempting to conceal from children that they’re in for a major shift in scenery. Put your child’s needs at the forefront, and think carefully and sensitively about how to tell them that you’re moving.
Tell them now
Maybe not right this very second, but tell them soon. Here’s why:
They already know. Maybe they don’t know the details, but kids are so dialled in to their parents, it’s hard to keep major family secrets for long. My guess is that they already know something’s up, and could be worrying about it anyway.
They will find out soon. If you haven’t told them yet, they are going to learn about it in short time. International communities (sometimes called bubbles or fish bowls, for good reason) are close-knit, and exciting news gets around quickly. You want to be the one to share this information at the time and place of your choice, not have your child accidentally find out at a play date or in the hallways of school.
They need to prepare. Children will benefit from having time to process the idea of a move, as well as to wrap up at the current locale, and get excited for your new place. Basically, they want to know for the same reasons you’d want to know: they need to get ready.
It will cause less anxiety in the long run. Moving is hard. It can be positive and exciting too, but it’s always hard. There’s no getting around this, and cutting your child out of the conversation won’t make the shift any less difficult. Accept that there will be some aches associated with the process; don’t put it off like a trip to the dentist.
Full disclosure and special circumstances
We are actually moving ourselves. After seven incredible years in Hong Kong, we’ll be starting a new adventure in The Hague this summer. I’m feeling a bit hypocritical as I write this because we haven’t told our babe yet. He’s two, though, and June is a very abstract concept for him. We’ll make sure to give him plenty of notice as we near the departure date.
Every family is different, and you know your child best. There may be a good reason to temporarily hold off on telling them about an upcoming move, such as one parent is on an extended trip, and you want to share the news together. Or, perhaps your child is facing a different, significant challenge at the moment, and you need to focus on that. However, consider what your reason is for delaying the conversation, and whether waiting will actually address the issue. Kids are resilient, and bringing them into the family discussion about your transition now (even if it’s difficult) could be better for them in the long run.
If you’re not quite sure how to prepare your child for an upcoming move, stay tuned… My next post will offer tips on how to ease this perennial transition so associated with international teaching life.
What tips do you have about sharing the news of a move with your child?
Sharing stories, expertise, and experiences from international educators around the world