Transitioning for Children | By Helen Booth

Transition in life is normal, but for expat families it can be a way of life. Moving to a new country can be stressful yet the benefits of an expat life are numerous. Travel adventures, cultural experiences, international friendships, house staff and international schools. This can be an exciting time especially when everyone has been prepared for what to expect and is open to the move. Nevertheless, such a move can also bring challenges, especially for children. Cultural differences, language, expectations, accent… every detail can be challenge in the mind of an expat child.

There is no typical length of stay when it comes to expat life. Families sometimes move country on a regular two or three-year rotation or a one-time move. Often the family will be following one parent’s job or career path. Settling into a new country can be hard, especially for children who have to start a new school and construct an entirely new life. There are a range of challenges, some obvious some hidden, however it is possible to minimize trauma for children with considered forward planning.

Preparation is helpful; however each family member is likely to face unique challenges that come with relocation. “Understanding that it is okay to feel unsettled for quite a long period of time can help expats feel ‘normal’ and bring a sense of relief” says Lucinda J. Willshire an Australian-born family therapist and expatriate for over 25 years.


When families are in global transition it is a complicated time, and challenges can occur at all stages of relocation. Homesickness can strike any family member at any time. Children often feel a loss of belonging. They may have been uprooted from extended family, experience friendship loss and even miss their physical home, house staff they have become close to and household pets. All these changes can lead to feelings of anxiety or tension for children. At these times, it can be useful for families to consider contacting a school counsellor or a family therapist to help navigate problem situations. Lucinda says “if you need professional support and help it is healthy, normal and constructive to seek it out.”

Parent Support is crucial

Parents’ practical and emotional support to their children during this tumultuous time is vital. Where possible, make decisions together as a family. Parents should be open with children and acknowledge their feelings, particularly if a child is not in favor of the relocation. Don’t dismiss or diminish how significant this change is to your child. Younger children may not be fully aware of the broader issues but older children are very aware of the implications of moving, of what they are leaving behind and what lies ahead.

There are numerous ways to alleviate some of the concerns a child might have. First, prior to relocating, gather information and talk about your new country of residence with excitement. Include children in selecting their new school, new house etc. Look for entertainment or sporting activities that children or the family already participate in and get involved as soon after arriving. Use the preparation and planning stage to help your child move into their new life equipped with knowledge and things to look forward to with a sense of enthusiasm.

Third Culture Kids

Children of expatriates who have lived a significant part of their developmental years outside of their parents’ country and culture are often referred to as “third culture kids.” They create their own, unique “third” cultures. Lucinda is co-author of a book called “Slurping Soup and Other Confusions” – a book of true stories and activities to help third culture kids during transition. Lucinda explains that “the ideas in the book are based on the foundation that everyone’s needs are equally important and family members need to tune in to each other regularly to stay emotionally healthy.”

While settling in and looking forward are important, keeping in touch with old friends is also important, they will be missing you too. Social media is a great tool for this. Rahman, a grade 9 Student at ISU, kept in touch with her old friends but says “I made an effort to also make new friends.” Other strategies for teens to deal with feelings of loss, may be journaling, writing songs and poetry and using online support community groups for global citizens. Younger children focus more on practical issues such as who will be my teacher, where will I put my bag and who will show me the toilet! Younger children can express their feelings through drawing, play and even keeping a moving house scrap book.

Parents experience issues with transition also

Parents also experience difficulties with relocation which can sometimes impact negatively on children. A family will often be moving because of one parent’s job while the other parent may not work and is a “trailing spouse.” The breadwinner may often work long hours or even travel during the transition phase, however both parents need time to adjust and should play an equal role in the family. Lucinda explains “the trailing spouse may feel stress to a lesser or greater degree at having to re-establish family routines and rituals as well as find time and energy to ‘reinvent’ their role in the new community.”

It is important to prioritize your family when abroad. Lucinda says “It can be tempting to put other things first such as work or travel, or even leave a large part of raising kids to others, but simple things like maintaining family rituals of daily connection, and nurturing fondness and admiration in each other helps create a buffer against the challenges of a global lifestyle.”

Teachers often find that if a child is not coping or finding it hard to adapt, so too is a parent. Emma Norris, Deputy Head of School at Ambrosoli International, says “if parents are calm, kids will be calm.”

Getting involved with the school community is a great way for parents to meet other parents, to get to know the school and to support their children. Join in school social events and activities, opportunities to volunteer such as the Parent Teacher Association or Board, become a classroom parent, anything that enables you to meet other families and to help you settle in to your new surroundings.

International Schools in Kampala

There are many excellent international schools in Kampala to choose from, offering an array of international standard education models. The International School of Uganda (ISU) in Lubowa has a sprawling campus and offers the International Baccalaureate (IB) World School program. Kampala International School Uganda (KISU) has a modern well-designed campus located in Bukoto and offers a curriculum based upon the English National Curriculum (ENC), IGCSEs (Cambridge) and the IB Diploma for years 11 and 12. The French School located on Lugogo Bypass offers a full French education program while several small to medium sized community-based schools such as Ambrosoli International in Bugolobi have strong parent involvement. Kampala offers several faith-based schools such as Acacia International School, an independent Christian school based in Muyenga, and Heritage International School, an accredited school with Association of Christian Schools International in Kiwafu Cresent. Several schools offer the British National Curriculum such as GEMS Cambridge International School in Luzira or the Cambridge International Curriculum such as Galaxy International School located in Lubowa and Rainbow International School Uganda which also offers boarding.

International schools usually transition between 25-33% of students in and out per year. Caroline Jacoby, ISU’s Head of School, says that “research is showing that taking time to transition kids out is also important, as there is loss but also a sense of looking forward”. In an international school setting it not only affects the students leaving and coming in. Caroline goes on to say that “this type of variation in a classroom changes the dynamics of the whole class,” and “remaining kids are also going through a transition, potentially losing their whole friendship group.”

Choosing the right school for your child

Given the array and diversity of international schools available in Kampala it is important to take your time when selecting a school. “It’s extremely important to get the right fit for the child and the family” explains Steve Lang , Head of School at KISU and suggests families “understand the ethos of the school and keep an open mind and be flexible when selecting a school. Every child is different and a school should be selected on a case-by-case basis.” Emma Norris Deputy Head of School at Ambrosoli International agrees– “when choosing an international school, do your research beforehand.” Look at school websites, contact current students or parents for advice. Caroline suggests “getting your child involved, have them look at the website and identify what looks exciting about the school.” If at all feasible visit the schools beforehand. Take a campus tour or have your child attend a day of school. Caroline encourages a trial day to “meet some kids and buddy up before school starts.”

Settling in – First Days of School

Caroline states “wherever possible students should start school on day one, otherwise they miss the important first day’s orientation and making connections with other new and current students.” Bo Min, a grade 5 Student at ISU, agrees. “We arrived in Uganda just five days before school started and I would have liked more time to settle into Uganda before starting school, I was still jetlagged!” Try to arrive in country one to two weeks before schools starts. Children who are fresh and have had some time to adjust to their surroundings will do considerably better. Uchechi, a grade 9 Student at ISU, was able to spend the day at ISU, three months prior to school commencing. She says “I made contact with kids and was able to stay in touch and became friends via email before starting school.” Likewise, Teena, a Year 8 Student at KISU, was lucky enough to come for a “look-see” from Dubai and found it a really positive experience.

Schools offer a number of different programs and strategies to assist kids and parents in the initial stages of transition. Try to attend orientation sessions as a family. School management and Parent Teacher Associations run a host of activities both social and informative, throughout the school year for new and departing families.

Most schools have a “buddy” system whereby new students are matched with a classmate with similar interests or nationality. Buddies are instant friends and able to help new students with practical support such as finding their classroom, the bathroom, the play area and cafeteria etc. Many “best friends” were made during orientation days. Angel, a year 4 Student at Ambrosoli International, remembers two girls showing her around the school and she felt more confident after the first day.

Some students arrive with little or no English. Many students expressed this as a major source of anxiety. Pierre, a Year 8 student at KISU, came from the French schooling system. His buddy was also a French speaker helping Pierre settle in. Similarly, Jules, a Year 4 Student at Ambrosoli International, came from the Netherlands and was matched with a Dutch boy. English as an Additional Language (EAL) specialists offer students on-going English language assistance with intense fast-track English to get them up to speed as soon as possible.

School Counsellors are very involved with new students individually and in groups which helps students see they’re not the only ones going through transition. If a child is not settling in well, teachers and school counsellors can usually tell quite quickly and look out for a student who is withdrawn, lacks social interaction or has a poor attendance rate. Suzanne Duerr, a Counsellor at ISU, explains that “teachers are like Counsellors, they are constantly transitioning kids in and out of school and up to the next grade or year level and know what to look out for.”

Schools encourage joining after-school activities such as sport or music as it is a great way to meet other kids and to channel your passions while settling in. This helps students feel less like an outsider and will provide them access to children who are also new or have similar interests. Rahmah and Uchechi felt strongly that as new students they should participate in as many activities as possible to make friends and to fit in.

New students will often experience a performance dip in their studies in the first term or two according to Steve who says “kids focus on friendships and fitting in and it is quite normal for their grades to dip in the beginning, but once they’ve adjusted and settled in, grades go back up.”

Moving to a new country brings both opportunities and challenges for all family members. International school communities are ideally placed to help new families settle in as existing staff, teachers and parents have all experienced relocation and can identify with new families’ excitement and concerns about transitioning to a new country.