MNs wisdom please for those relocated abroad with school-age kids - DD (4) miserable in new French school

(25 Posts)
morethanclueless Wed 19-Nov-14 09:09:44


I have posted before and I would love some hand-holding, some suggestions or just positive outcomes from those of you who have been in a similar position - either when you were a kid or with your own children.

My 4 kids have started in French school/creche with no prior knowledge of French. We have moved to a lovely place, but there are no foreigners so we are a bit of an oddity in the school.

My third DD (4) is really suffering. She is by far the most sociable of my kids - very articulate (my elder 2 were less so at her age) and very good fun to be around. Ordinarily she is very confident and sunny and if I am honest I thought that she would find the transition relatively painless and that the language barrier wouldn't prove a problem and that she would just rub along fine with a bit of 'franglais'. I was wrong. She is miserable.

She is in Moyenne Section and each morning she cries her heart out (very unlike her). There are a few activities laid out and she never wants to do any. Again, this surprises me. She just sits in the book corner where she can hide behind a partition wall. The teacher says she cries only for a little time and then stops. I am sure that she is right but although she may stop crying, that doesn't stop her from being unhappy. I think she spends a lot of time alone. I am sure the other kids don't particularly notice her.

I need to have a chat with the teacher to chat through some ideas. I am not sure how receptive she will be but I need to somehow get the teacher to involve my daughter and not to let her squirrel herself away in the book-corner.

I have started playdates etc and my daughter is very keen though I am not sure that is necessarily the done thing here. The thing is when we are out of school and she sees a class-mate, she waves, smiles and is generally very excited. The other kids just seem bemused. Perhaps they are not used to seeing her so animated.

I am finding this very hard. It is breaking my heart. I do think for her that language is the key, but that will take time. Any thoughts?

OP’s posts: |
Pupsiecola Wed 19-Nov-14 09:39:23

My heart goes out to you morethan. We went through similar in 2012 when we moved to Asia, with our 7 year old. Not a language issue as he was at a large international school but it was a world apart from his 90 pupil archetypal village school in the UK and the pressure on the kids and lack of understanding about different types of intelligence/different ways of learning crushed him. He is not academic (although has now caught up beautifully) but like your DD is very sociable and has a high EQ which probably made it even worse.

He did display some of the behaviour that your daughter is - he become very withdrawn and would try to hide, take ages going to the loos etc. He wasn't sleeping and was biting his nails til they bled. In school holidays he was almost back to his old self though even though you could tell there was still a cloud above him.

I don't know anything about the school system in France - is there an alternative? How long are you going to be living there? Is home schooling an option?

It sounds like you're doing all the right things, arranging playdates etc. Is there any way she could have some language tuition outside of school? I think I read somewhere that after 6 months they suddenly get it and she is certainly a good age for picking up a new language.

I don't really have any words of wisdom but I just wanted to send you a virtual hug. Unless you've been through it it is impossible to know how heartbreaking and all consuming it becomes.

morethanclueless Wed 19-Nov-14 10:14:16

Thank you Pupsi. I'm sorry to hear your son had a tough time too. Did it get better? Assuming he is OK now, how long did it take?

We are not here forever, but a local school is our only option as we are not near enough to British/International schools. I knew that it would take time to learn a new language, but I just assumed (stupidly) that she would be happy enough without the language and that would come in its own good time. My other kids don't understand a word either and they do find it hard, but their friendships are more 'sophisticated' and so they get carried along in their friendship groups. One of my daughter's just continues to speak English and as a consequence seems relatively undeterred by the language barrier!

OP’s posts: |
Pupsiecola Wed 19-Nov-14 10:32:37

We actually came back to the UK earlier than planned (after one year instead of two). We were lucky in that we were there under our own steam and DH's company wanted to keep him so they allowed him to join the UK office. School were convinced DS had learning disabilities and wanted us to spend thousands of pounds on dealing with those. We did start off on that track even though we didn't feel it was necessary but we did what they asked. After several months though and having been told DS would need private tuition throughout the 10 week Summer break at a cost of about £4k and then they may consider allowing him to stay on we decided not to continue further as we knew he didn't have issues (and the woman the school sent us to was a money grabbing nutjob). In the end they gave us an ultimatum and we told them to stick it. The two other schools we would have switched to had no spaces and long waiting lists. I looked at home schooling but it wasn't really an option plus DS is very sociable as I said and I worried about that aspect as it was one thing he was doing well (he was very popular at school).

I knew in my heart he would thrive in a UK state school with a little help to allow him to catch up. (He had daily Mandarin lessons in Asia and they wouldn't even let him drop those for extra time on maths/English).

He is doing so well now. Has a really cool young male teacher and loves going to school. He's average across the board with maximum points for effort. It's quite remarkable but in a way we are not surprised.

How long have you been there? Can you speak to the teacher? It's a tricky one isn't it, because it sounds like they aren't used to non French speakers so not like a strong ex pat community where they have strategies in place. Does she like the teacher? IMO that is a huge bonus if the teacher gets the child and vice versa.

beresh Wed 19-Nov-14 16:42:40

My DD at 5 started in a local school without the language and didn't find it easy at first and I was awfully worried about her, I do sympathise! After 6 months or so she really was totally fine, it does take time.
Firstly, I'd check if there's some small specific things that are upsetting her, that perhaps she feels powerless to sort out. For my DD it was a child poking/kicking her whilst she was sitting in the cloakroom before going home/outside to play as she'd been squeezed in where there wasn't much space. I told the teacher and she moved my DD to another place and she was much happier.
The other thing that upset her was children shouting at her when she did not understand them - not unkindly, just repeating things slowly and loudly, but of course it did not help my DD to understand. The teacher also helped with this, by teaching my DD phrases to say when this happened.
Hope that helps!

Imarriedaniceman Sat 22-Nov-14 08:29:05

Hi there

I didn't want to read your post and not reply as I have experienced a similar situation not in France but in Belgium in the French speaking school system.

What to say? Firstly for me it was a big shock as to how different the system was than it was at home (I am Irish). The maternelle child/ teacher ratio is much higher and the children are left to their own devices and don't get as much individual attention. For my children they found this quite overwhelming. They went from a very nurturing pre-school in Ireland to a large classroom which at times felt like they were just left to get on with it. Obviously the language barrier didn't help. I guess this is one of the cultural changes that one has to roll with when you move abroad but I wasn't prepared for it.

My children were 5, 4 and 2 when we moved. From reading posts on here I has assumed the transition would be fairly straightforward as they were so young. It was not. We ended up changing into a method school in the end as I could not countenance some aspects of the French school system which in my opinion is where the UK/Ireland was at 30 years ago.

So all of that to say you are not alone in experiencing difficulties. Funnily enough I think it might be slightly easier for the older children as they don't need as much looking after as a 4 year old during the school day.

What to do? Can she do a shorter day? Can you pick her up and bring her home for lunch so that she just does a half day? I think we underestimate the length of the school day for a child of this age. This is allowed at maternelle even though it may not be encouraged. I did this but not as much as I should have. If I were to go back in time I would have brought them home everyday at lunchtime while they were learning the language as it is very tiring for them initially.

Yes play dates are not the done thing but if I were you I would forge ahead and do them. Some parents will be more open to them and having a friend at school is hugely important. And yes to talking to the teacher but do realise she is viewing the children through a very different cultural lens than you. And lastly I would say from my experience reassure your daughter as much as possible that getting used to school in a new country is hard and give her as much down time away from school as you can. I would try and limit her time at school to when she is in the classroom with the teacher. Lunchtimes can be especially daunting for them when they are being 'looked after' by the garderie staff.

Hopefully as the language starts to come and she gets used to the system, and makes friends, things will get easier. But don't feel alone in this. Lots of us have experienced similar and sometimes we only hear the positive stories on these boards.

Hope this helps somewhat.

pinkhousesarebest Sun 23-Nov-14 09:33:35

My heart goes out to you OP. My dcs both had a hard time in maternelle, despite speaking French before they went. My dd refused to speak at all and kept it up for two long years before finally speaking in the May of MS. I actually went part time so that I was able to get them at lunch time, although the teachers thought that that made things worse by fracturing the day. But looking back I am so glad I did it,
If it makes things any easier, they did thrive in primaire, and are very resilient children now and able to roll with the (many) punches thrown at them, so I don't think the early trauma scarred them in any way.


scouseontheinside Sun 23-Nov-14 12:36:17

Oh OP. That's so hard on all of you.

I don't really have an answer, but did want to offer some words of comfort! Look, it will be tough for at least 3 months. After that point, she'll start to speak and understand a little better. With that will come communication on her part. As a poster above said, the 6 month mark is where it will really take off.

Is there any chance there is a Guides group in the area? I've been a volunteer for a number of years and I know that there are groups in France.

What about having a secondary school/university student come round to teach French in a safe environment. You would phrase it as "babysitting" and the student could just play games with DD in French. I actually speak French myself, and I taught a french child some basic english this way! His father was english speaking, but had never taught his children. The parents were amazed that after refusing all attempts at english previously, we was happily singing songs that he had learnt in english class, and parroting words back to me!

What about social stories? There are bound to be some good books on such transitions. Can you make one specifically for her?

Just give it time OP. It's heartbreaking whilst it's happening, but in time she will learn French and be fine.

LaChatte Sun 23-Nov-14 16:22:11

Give it time and the French system will squeeze out any pleasure any of your children might have had in a school environment.

It really is a crappy country in which to be brought up in, no room for creativity or personal developement.

There are alternative schools, but they are few and far between, and usually cost an arm and a leg.

Probably not really what you wanted to hear, sorry.


tb Sun 23-Nov-14 18:33:41

DD was just 9 when we moved. We calculated that including the odd long weekend and annual holidays she'd been to France 20 times before we moved.

We moved at the end of November, and they'd already stopped putting children into a class suitable to their level of French and she went into CM1/CM2.

Just before she was 4, she started babbling in French sounds on holiday, and it was such a shame we couldn't stay at that point.

18 months after we moved, she passed to go up to collège without any problem and is now in terminale at lycée.

The head teacher was brilliant, and sent her home with a Titeuf book from the school library. At first I used to do her homework and explain it to her, and she then progressed to doing it herself but with a crib sheet if necessary. There was 1 other English child in her class who helped her a little at first.

When we came, she knew the odd word of French, but not a lot. The Christmas holidays were only 5 weeks after we arrived, and we made the decision to send her to a holiday club, and they were really good and even bought an English/French dictionary.

She occasionally spent some time in the garderie after school as she didn't have a bus pass to get home to our village and the lady that did the cleaning and ran the garderie talked to her loads as did the school dinner lady, as they were both pleased to have an English child that wanted to communicate.

It wasn't without its difficulties - the constant battles over homework, and the all out strike when we found that the Corrèze still had Saturday morning school despite we read on a forum that it had been abolished! She'd been a school-refuser, too, so we were really worried.

At college, the principal was new the year she went there, and she had a morning of FLE lessons until all her other teachers complained that she was missing out on her other subjects.

I think that the babysitting idea is a good one, another would be to find a French nounou who is kind and maybe she could go there on a Wednesday for a bit more individual attention.

Children's TV will also help - I can remember DD watching Charmed and Scooby Doo in French - and being amazed that they had her favourite programmes in France, too.

kitkatsfordinner Sun 23-Nov-14 20:09:41

Hello, so I have some experience of this from the other side, and I am currently doing this to my own daughter (just moved to Switzerland) so it's really making my heart twinge.

My own parents moved to Belgium when I was 3 years old, and like you we lived in a Brussels suburb where there were no foreigners so I was a complete mystery to everyone there.

I've started writing this about 10 times and a deleted it because if I started recounting my whole experience I'd be writing a novel, so as brief as possible...

I learnt French within a year perfectly, and other than the flamboyant mother with a really strong English accent, and the fact I had red hair, I could have passed as a Belgian child. However, I was made to feel like it was an issue that I wasn't Belgian and I dedicated my life to fitting in.

I don't remember my years at school particularly fondly, although I had lots of friends and academically did very well.

I sort of agree with La Chatte I think the education system in the French speaking world is archaic and a bit miserable. (It may have changed but not convinced).

I think things that would have helped me would have been;
- being picked up a lunch time to make the day a bit shorter and sort of recharge batteries
- not taking the tests / class points / league tables / homework too seriously. I have a very competitive mother who dedicated her existence to making me 'premiere de class'. She was successful but at the end I was an academic genius with no confidence / interests / creativity / common sense ...
- It's difficult but maybe accepting that she may not fit it - maybe talk about the weird habits of the kids in the class - make a bit of joke about it. Especially if you aren't there long term. I used to love it when my Dad spoke 'faux french' like 'merci buckets'...
- Forge ahead with play dates, especially for long summer holidays.
- Maybe get her enrolled in a group sports / arts extracurricular activity where she can interact with kids outside school (appreciate this is difficult when you have other kids to schedule in!)

It's so difficult. We've just moved to Switzerland so I'm about to plunge my daughter into the same thing and it fills me with fear. However, I keep thinking that depending on the school / the kids she could be miserable in a UK school too. I don't think many people would choose to relive their school years, it's such a difficult time.

Now if everyone replies saying I went to school in the UK and I loved it, they were the best years of my life - I will move back immediately!

Best of luck, it would be breaking my heart too...

Booboostoo Sun 23-Nov-14 20:49:03

My DD is 3.5yo and has started petite section this year. She speaks English at home and had just spent 5 months in Greece before coming back to France (where she used to go to crèche), so she had forgotten all her French. At the beginning she was very stressed about not being able to speak, she was worried she would not understand her teacher, would not be able to ask for the toilet, etc. However her teacher has been great, speaking to her in English, doing activities in English and generally looking after her. A month in and her teacher is speaking to her in French which she seems to understand, she still replies in English but that seems to work out fine.

Do any of your DD's teachers speak English? A lot of French people do speak a bit of English but seem very timid about giving it a go. Could you arrange for someone who does speak a little but of English to give your DD some one to one attention at school? I would agree with mornings only if possible, if your DD is feeling overwhelmed a shorter day might be easier for her.

I didn't know anyone when we moved here and I fell pregnant and in many ways it's difficult to make friends in France as an outsider. I set up a coffee afternoon once a month (Wednesdays are a good day for this) and invited everyone I met to it, from my pregnant vet to anyone who appeared vaguely friendly. Different people came each time, but slowly some of them became friends and some of the children bonded with DD.

pebblestack Sun 23-Nov-14 21:10:14

We moved back to France when my girls were 6 and 4. The 6 yo was fine but my 4yo in grande section reacted just like your DD. She had loved nursery in the UK but at her new school (the 'alternative' kind - chosen because my eldest had had a bad experience in petite section before) she cried daily and didn't speak a word for 6 months.

It all changed when she felt confident enough to speak. She made a friend and after that it all took off socially and academically and there were no worries after that.

I do agree with LaChatte to a certain extent though. School here just isn't as creative or stimulating as in the UK, particularly mainstream schools, and a lot of it is about fitting every child into the same mould.

morethanclueless Mon 24-Nov-14 09:19:03

Thank you for all your replies. It is always good to hear of other's experiences.

I took her in today and she seemed considerably calmer. I left her doing some drawing which is definite improvement from hiding in the book corner. I guess we will have some good days and some less good ones, hopefully the former displacing the latter as the weeks pass. The teachers, although a little lost as to what to do, are aware that drop-off is awkward and they do try appear encouraging with her. I do think the language barrier is the real issue for her (as well as tiredness as she isn't used to long days) . She is very chatty in English and so is lost that now she can't communicate as it is something that she is normally very good at.

As of about a fortnight ago, we have a nice French lady (from my son's creche) who comes to 'play' with her on a Wednesday afternoon at our house. My DD is pretty much mute the whole time, but I think she is beginning to relax a little. I occasionally hear a giggle!

OP’s posts: |
chloeb2002 Mon 24-Nov-14 19:13:39

Out of interest... What do French kids do if there are no play dates? Sleepovers etc? Are there lots of clubs?

Booboostoo Mon 24-Nov-14 19:49:55

We are in the rural south so things may be different elsewhere. Here there are activities but they are very difficult to find. Nothing is listed on the internet, there are millions of different services and none of them know what the others are doing. After much searching I found a parent young child group but it was run by the social centre, was very regimented and you had to fill in a five page form to join. The local ludo might be worth exploring although ours is open for very few hours and can often be closed even during those hours for no discernible reason (and with no warning - I gave up on ours after finding it closed for the fifth time in a row).

Your school or aire des loisirs may have an activities club but you usually have to pay quite a bit for this.

Round here children socialise with relatives and friends of their parents'. If you find someone to introduce you into the circle you are really welcomed otherwise I didn't know how people 'break in' to established groups.

alteredimages Thu 27-Nov-14 17:12:56

Sorry to hear your DD isn't having an easy time morethan. sad I commented on your previous threads, so my advice might have been crap, but from my own DD's experience it is still early days. Things got going language wise for her after the Christmas break and she wasn't communicating well until easter. DD consistently blanked all her classmates she met outside school until Christmas. Now, 6 months after we left France she still talks about them and misses them.

As far as play dates etc go there does seem to be more focus on activities etc but around easter everything slotted into place and DD got invited to lots of birthdays and play dates all at once. It does take a bit of time. Until then we moved into the local park and made a lot of casual acquaintances that way, which helped as a stopgap.

I am glad things seem to be getting a bit better. The French babysitter is a great idea, as is the kids' tv. DD loved watching the stuff on M6 before school and also loves Boris and Petit Ours Brun.

Longtime Thu 27-Nov-14 23:24:26

Sorry to hear this. We're in Belgium and I hate the Belgian school system with a passion (well most bits of it). Like LaChatte says, it will squeeze any creativity or pleasure out of your children and they are teaching like it is still the 1950s. Most of my Belgian friends don't feel this way. Maybe all of their children are particularly bright but my three struggled (third one still struggling). Mine are now 26, 23 and 15. We moved the elder two to finish their education in English (now living in Scotland and England) but will most probably leave dd in the system as her school is easier than the boys was plus they offer art as an option!!!!!! Unbelievable. Sorry morethanclueless. I hope he eventually settles in.

Bonsoir Mon 01-Dec-14 01:29:20

I think that French (and probably Belgian) parents are used to methods that seem dull/long-winded, tolerant of them and supportive of their DCs' struggles with them. Whereas British parents rage (at least internally) against them and are less well equipped and prepared to support their DCs' school work.

Bonsoir Mon 01-Dec-14 01:33:06

Anecdotally, my French DSS1 was at a summer school in London this year, full of bright 17-23 year olds from all over the world. He said - quite casually - that the British participants squirmed with embarrassment at how much less well educated than most others...

meerkate Mon 01-Dec-14 12:10:07

morethan - this was me age 5 - chucked into the deep end into a local Belgian primary school in the mid-70s when we moved over there from the UK. I wept every morning for weeks and still remember the bewilderment I felt. BUT IT GOT BETTER smile I was fine within about 3 months, speaking well by then, and fluently by the time another few months had gone by. I still remember how we had to keep our backs ramrod straight and our arms straight in front of us on the desks!! So, no, not the ideal nurturing and creative environment grin but I got on with it and had friends and was happy - honest. GOOD LUCK - hang in there!

LaChatte Mon 01-Dec-14 14:39:24

I forot to mention that I'm a teacher in France grin

morethanclueless Mon 01-Dec-14 21:42:59

I do think things are getting gradually better. My DD seems quite relaxed at school drop off (since last week!) and is far happier at home too (I am guessing that she was tired after a long day and therefore tearful when she got home). I do need to remind myself that she would have been starting Reception if we were still in the UK and although I think she would have taken to 'big' school like a duck to water, she would have still been tired and out of sorts.

Thanks again for all your messages - the positive and the not-so. It all helps. It is tricky to keep a balanced mind on things when everything is new and unfamiliar.

Meerket - I thought my school was reasonably strict, but your experience sounds like something else!

OP’s posts: |
meerkate Mon 01-Dec-14 22:41:57

Ah - it wasn't so bad...just standard for the times, I guess! My first teacher was very kind, I recall. I had a little piece of paper my mum had written out for me with all the key phrases on it to show her in times of need (Ou sont les toilettes SVP?', that sort of thing!) 'Twas a bit of a nightmare for a few weeks, I can well remember - the friendless mute girl in the corner, that was me, along with a poor Polish boy equally devoid of French! But then I could speak, a few months in, not sure how that happened, really, and I was perfectly happy. Sounds like your DD is already starting to adapt - hurray! smile

Twinchaos1 Thu 04-Dec-14 18:25:50

My pair where four when I put them in a Spanish speaking school, everyone said "oh it's so easy for small kids". It isn't easy it took my pair six months. A Spanish tutor a couple of times a week to help with language and ways of studying helped. Two years later they are fluent, happy and have good social networks but the first months were hard. Good luck.

Join the discussion

To comment on this thread you need to create a Mumsnet account.

Join Mumsnet

Already have a Mumsnet account? Log in