South China Morning Post: Ready to jump aboard?

Dec 7 2014 As global competition to get into a top university intensifies, more and more parents want to secure a head start for their children by having them educated at a well-known high school, usually in the UK, US, Canada or Australia. This often means getting them into a boarding school at an early age, which is no mean feat in itself, due to the ever-growing number of applications for such school places.


Boarding school experience can be very useful, but parents need to prepare their children well for the years they will spend apart from their family, with the phone and social media as the only channels for parental support. This preparation starts with the child's upbringing. 


"To prepare the child, give them independence within boundaries, such as taking care of themselves in little things, handling money, maybe [having their own] bank account, managing their own time table, learning how to protect themselves," says Christine Ma-Lau, principal of Junior Excellent Members of Society (JEMS), a tutorial school that aims to develop children's character and values. The educator admits that this takes time on the parents' side, as they need to explain that certain things are not allowed, rather than simply requiring the child to follow orders. However, it is time well spent to prevent problems and reduce anxiety later on, she says. 


Unavoidably, parents will worry about whether their child will come under peer pressure at boarding school to pick up bad habits, such as drinking, smoking, clubbing and even drugs. "They should have their values formed and their moral compass built up before they go. There is usually some negative influence and they need to know what they stand for," Ma-Lau says. 


KK Ip, chief executive and senior advisor to education consultancy GR Talent, who put his own children through boarding school, suggests that some family holidays be spent doing volunteer work to see how children cope outside their comfort zone. "Try to get the child to see the other side of society, un-privileged people, remote areas, a rough environment and different cultures," he says. 


It is also a good idea to send the child to summer camps organised locally or overseas - even at one of the schools on your list - to learn independence and get used to time spent apart from the family, Ip says.


However, if the bond between the child and parents is not strong, or the parents put their children into boarding school as a punishment because they cannot cope with them, the experience can be detrimental to the child and their relationship with the parents will not fully develop. 


Beyond personal factors, difficulties fitting in at boarding school depend on the child's age. Younger students might lack social skills or understanding and may find it difficult to share a room with six to eight other girls or get used to a different lifestyle, way of learning, examinations or scheduling.


"If you go at a later stage, making friends might be more difficult, as you will be the new face," says Ma-Lau, while Ip says that developing a leadership position in the class or school will also be harder, as those positions would already be taken.


GR Talent's lead counsellor Benita Chick says parents should start preparations two to three years before the child is due to go to a boarding school. When it comes to country and location, parents should consider the curriculum and whether the child should study for A-Levels, the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma or the Advanced Placement (AP) programme. 


They also need to decide whether it should be a rural school, where there is more opportunity for outdoor activities, or an urban one, where there is a more enriching cultural environment - and probably more temptations as well. Having a relative nearby or a sibling in the same school can be reassuring.


"Probably it is better for the child to stay in the same country to go to university, and it is important to see if it is feasible for the child to get into the boarding school," Chick says, adding that parents should pick six to eight schools for further research.


Dr Jadis Blurton, founder of The Jadis Blurton Family Development Center in Kennedy Town, who has 30 years' experience as an educational psychologist, says the final decision should be based on visits to the short-listed schools and how well the culture of the schools matches the child's personality. "Brochures all look the same but it is not the point to get the child into a big name school," she says. "Visit and experience different campuses and see where your child feels the most comfortable. They have to feel it is something they want to do."


During the visit, parents should talk to teachers and houseparents to find out what kind of support they are offering. 


Is the connection between school and houseparents strong and do they follow the child's development well? Will there be a good connection between parent and houseparent, in case there is any problem? Can they schedule parent-teacher meetings on demand, when the parent is able to travel there? What are the school's traditions? How do they handle misbehaviour, such as drinking, drugs and bullying?


Chick says parents should also look at how committed the school is to the ongoing development of teaching methods and the curriculum, which is an important sign of its professionalism.


"It is important to attend receptions for families and find out how well the school supports the students and parents," she says. "The family should visit on a weekday to see the classes in action. The child can usually stay one night in the boarding school. Parents should see how well the facilities are maintained and whether the teachers are willing to talk."


Once the school year starts, parents should offer "regular but not obsessive" support to their child through phone, email and social media, says Blurton. The student should have an emergency contact number and know they can call their parents at any time, regardless of the time difference.


Culture shock has its own trajectory, according to Blurton. During a six-to-eight week "honeymoon period", the students will find everything splendid and interesting. Then a period - which usually coincides with the short, dark and cold winter days in the northern hemisphere - sets in when they start noticing all the things they don't like. Blurton says that, while parents should keep evaluating the situation, they do not need to be unduly worried. They can tell the child to finish the school year before taking any action, unless the unhappiness is about bullying, in which case parents should act straight away. "Usually by February or March it is a great school again," she says.


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