When I was young, I changed schools a lot. It was always difficult. The first day at a new school is inherently dramatic and frightening. As often as I moved, however, I cannot imagine what it must be like to start at a new school in a new country where you don’t speak the local language. This is exactly the situation my son found himself in upon starting kindergarten in China this year. Below are eight things we learned — often the hard way — about navigating Chinese kindergarten with a non-Chinese child.
Photo: Stephen Andrews
Most foreigners in China live where they do for work-related reasons. Many expats I know are at least as concerned about the city and province in which their job is situated as they are with the role itself. So, in most cases, looking for a kindergarten for your child means looking within your city or even your immediate neighborhood.
This is exactly what my wife and I did. We chose where we wanted to live and trusted that we would find several suitable facilities nearby. If you’re living in a city where you feel this might be difficult, flip the order and choose a kindergarten before deciding where to live.
You’ll likely find, once you start looking, that there are more options than you initially thought. So, how do you choose? The answer depends on what specifically you’d like your child to gain from the experience. My son spent the first four years of his life in the US. He speaks English but not Chinese. For this reason we narrowed our selection to more traditional Chinese kindergartens where he would only be exposed to Mandarin and therefore will hopefully acquire the language through sheer necessity.
There are of course numerous international kindergartens in China, which may be the better choice if you want your child attain a more global perspective, albeit through a Chinese lens. There is often, but not always, more English spoken at international facilities. Which brings us to the next point.
In our experience, most Chinese kindergartens are excited by the prospect of a new foreign student and will be very happy to show you around. Go to the school, check out the facilities, resources, and safety practices, and talk to teachers and other parents. When possible, read online reviews and don’t be afraid to ask any questions on your mind.
Again, most schools are more than happy to spend time addressing any concerns you may have and letting your child explore the grounds. For our son that meant exploring the playgrounds and ignoring everything else. Priorities!
It’s important to keep in mind that kindergartens in China are run more like businesses compared to those in the West. Be sure you know what the tuition is and how often payment is expected. If you get the impression that the kindergarten is too business like at the expense of quality staff and learning resources, you may want to look elsewhere.
The facility we ultimately chose is a popular chain of kindergartens in China. It’s not uncommon for a private school to be either a chain or a subsidiary of some enormous conglomerate. It’s just the nature of the beast in China.
It’s well known that Chinese schools are more demanding than most of their Western counterparts. The days start earlier and end later, the workload is much higher, and the teachers are often very strict.
In Chinese kindergartens this is less of an issue, but the comparison between East and West can still be quite stark. Maybe you think your child would benefit from a bit of discipline. If not, look for an international kindergarten that values independent learning.
Children handle change differently. I’m continually amazed by how my son lets major changes roll off his back, and yet throws a fit if the shirt he wants is still in the wash. Going to a new school is hard. Going to a new school in a new country while trying to learn a new language is a tremendous adjustment.
We did not know how he would handle it. We tried to prepare him as best we could, but there’s really no way to know until they’re there. For the most part, my son likes his teachers and new friends, but he is often frustrated by the language barrier. As a parent, you need to be prepared for an inevitable increase in mood swings and neediness.
Don’t be alarmed if your child’s transition to a Chinese school is a bit bumpy. I’m sure this is the norm for most parents in this situation. We’ve found that staying involved in the school and attending school sponsored events and outings has helped. We’ve also gotten to know some of our son’s friends and their parents, as it’s a small neighborhood kindergarten and everyone lives nearby.
A word of warning about becoming too involved, however. My wife teaches at my son’s kindergarten. When she was hired we thought it would be great if she was on hand for if and when the cultural and linguistic barriers were getting to be too much for our son. Instead, she spends a lot of time pleading with him to go back to his classroom. Knowing that she’s in the building is too much of a temptation.Don’t be afraid to get it wrong
It’s been several months since my son started at his new kindergarten. We’re still not entirely sure that we made the right choice, but most schools offer prorated tuition, meaning you won’t need to keep paying should you decide to leave. Our school’s policy is to pay back money that parents have already paid for upcoming months if they decide to leave. Of course, check with your kindergarten first.
At the end of the day, it’s going to be a big adjustment, no matter how well you research and prepare. That adjustment period could last for weeks or even months. If you find that the kindergarten you’ve chosen is not meeting your expectations, cut your losses and keep looking. Once you know what to avoid, you’ll be able to make a better informed decision next time.
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Keywords: Chinese kindergarten with a non-Chinese child
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