Can My Kid Cope with French Schools?

ImageQ: I am moving from the States to Paris in the fall with my 6-year-old son who will attend a French public school. Since he doesn’t speak any French I worry that he’ll be traumatized when he realizes he can neither understand a thing, nor make himself understood. How can I make the transition easier for him? A: Children learn languages faster than their parents. They are far less self-conscious about making mistakes than adults are, and make frequent use of body language that is pretty much similar across cultures. Still, to help the process along, here are a few suggestions.

  • Preparation before the move will help to ease the shock. You should probably start trying to engage your son now by buying picture books and videos about Paris so as to familiarize him with landmarks. Through the Internet, you can acquire French language kiddie cartoons so that he can hear the language spoken. Use your creativity to make the process fun and exciting for him rather than a chore he has to do.
  • As soon as school starts make an effort to meet with both the school director and your son’s teacher. You should bone up on how the French school system and school culture differ from what you’re used to, because certain aspects are bound to shock you.
  • Identify a couple of potential French playmates for your son and invite them over. Enroll your child in one or two extra-curricular activities such as tennis, pony riding or gymnastics where he will meet other children – again to build pleasure into the language learning process.
  • Explore the Internet for expat websites. There are many of them, and most of them include forums and discussion groups for expatriate parents. There you can find both resources and support for yourself: // is an excellent place to start. Through it, you may be able to find other English-speaking families in the area where you plan to live.

Here are some things to watch out for: When unable to communicate or otherwise frustrated, children tend either to withdraw into passivity and resignation, or to become hyperactive and aggressive. In the latter case, there’s every chance that they’ll “act out” at school, even hitting other children. If your son should show either type of behavior, you shouldn’t hesitate to ask for professional advice. At 6, French children start learning to read, and teachers are very focussed on that. This fact may present special problems for you son at the outset, making it important that you find a school setting in which the teaching staff is understanding and will be patient with a foreign child. A resource in Paris, the Association of American Wives of Europeans, has published an excellent guide to education that you will surely find very useful.

Jill Bourdais is a psychotherapist practicing in Paris both privately and in a hospital setting. A specialist in couple/family problems, she organizes workshops dealing with improving relationship skills and building self-esteem.