School in Switzerland is soon starting!…Parents, get ready, set, go!
For many of us ex-pats in Switzerland the start of the school year, especially for those doing it for the very first time, can be a bit daunting. There is a large number of ex-pats who have decided to have their children attend the Swiss school system. I am one of them, and I believe it is the best option for those staying here for a long or undetermined period of time. This way not only our children can learn another language but also really immerse and learn from another culture and become more citizens of the world, not just nationals of where they came from.
But for parents who are not fluent in the language spoken in the part of Switzerland where they reside it means double the work and more uncertainty as to how the system works, what to expect, and how to proceed. My ex-pat experience is from the German part of Switzerland in Basel. So my remarks to parents embarking in this adventure are unique of my experience in Basel, though I believe what is described bellow could apply anywhere in the country!
- Inform yourself ahead of time as it makes it easier to deal with the unknown, especially if you are not fluent in the local language. The sooner you understand what your child will face the easier it will be for you to assist your kid in their integration journey. Detailed information on the Swiss school structure from Kindergarten all the way to High School can be found on your canton’s website. For every stage of the school system, usually on the previous semester, the Swiss organize a presentation for parents with support of translators on several languages, time for Q&A, printed material before the presentation, and more.
- Take advantage of a system that is organized and information is available. For example, language integration programmes for foreign children via playgroups (Spielgruppe) have become mandatory in some cantons, like Basel Stadt, prior to the children’s attendance in kindergarten. The canton offers a list of Spielgruppe where attendance is mandatory for a minimum of two times a week from 8:30 am – 12:00 pm. The parent can pick which playgroup ‘Spielgruppe’ they wish to register their child in. It is a great integration program as it teaches the little ones in addition to the basics of the German language the cultural habits that will make their social integration in kindergarten a much smoother process. The Swiss school system also provides support via language classes for non native children in order to assist them with their school development.
- Don’t shy away because you don’t know the language many kindergarten and schools promote language groups for parents. Be brave and place yourself out of your comfort zone by participating on play groups that are not in English or in your mother tongue. Spielgruppe for babies and toddlers is a great way for the parents to interact with Swiss and other non Swiss parents and exchange their experiences and practice the local language. Participation in Kindergarten and school activities also helps one practice the language, learn more about Swiss culture, but most important set the example for your little ones that you too make an effort to integrate. Lead by example.
- Be open mined, you will find that many things are done differently than what you may expect or be accustomed to especially if coming from an Anglo Saxon culture. In Switzerland children are encouraged to walk from home to kindergarten alone in order to become independent. That is a tough one for many non Swiss parents, me included. Yes, children use, nails, scissors, hammers, saws, and needles in kindergarten. Some schools will promote Swiss army knife courses for the primary school children. There are nature oriented playgroups where kids spend the entire day outside regardless of the weather. The lunch box restrictions for smaller children can be viewed as OTT and the list goes on. The point is you won’t agree with everything but letting your child give a try to any peculiarity which may seem farfetched to you is an opportunity of discovery for your child.
Ex-pat children are very privileged as they get to experience and grow up with more than one culture. That is a great asset to have in this increasingly small world we live in where the need for multi- cultural understanding and foreign language skills are becoming more and more demanded of adults.
But us parents, must engage and socialize with our kids, be open minded as they look up to us and learn by example. So don’t shy out because you are new to this. The kids will learn and integrate faster than what we imagine. The integration process is a family process and the school environment is the stage where this process takes place.
- Flavia Augusta de Almeida