Ready, Set, GO...Preparing for Educational Success Abroad

By Tracey Ellis OTR/L, MPH, CEO International Diagnostic Solutions

Globally mobile parents have globally mobile children, and globally mobile children are just as much a measure of a successful job placement as the parent’s performance appraisal.

Educational satisfaction is a critical factor for professionals who travel as a family, and family satisfaction and stability are critical to the success of businesses as they strive to retain key personnel, particularly in remote and less developed locations. For most families ‘on the road’, making the best school choices involve some compromise. The extracurricular offerings may be minimal, the curriculum dated, or the cultural expectations seemingly overwhelming; all ‘typical’ factors parents must consider when deciding on global assignments.

But what to do when a child has special educational needs (SEN)? Lack of a speech therapist hardly equates to the absence of a debate club. For families dealing with learning disabilities, behavioral challenges, and other issues affecting academic success, compromise no longer seems an option. 


“We arrived to our post excited for the new experiences and adventures that awaited us. We had prepped for everything... or so we thought. Our oldest son Ryan was entering the 3rd grade. While he had always flourished back in the US, something had changed. We learned a couple of months in that he wasn't completing homework. Socially he seemed distant. He became short tempered and lashed out at us when we expressed concern. By our third month in the new home, our lives seemed to revolve around Ryan. Nothing seemed to work and he seemed like he was getting worse. Unable to find an English-speaking therapist, we were not sure what to do next. But we knew with close to three more years at this location, we could not maintain without help.”


As this family learned, their readiness did not include ensuring that Ryan’s SEN would be adequately met. They were ready, but not really set. They assumed that Ryan’s challenges would be adequately addressed when they arrivedon location.

What they learned was that SEN are not acknowledged worldwide, and that therapists specialized in supporting speech, language, motor, and cognitive development are a scarce international resource, especially those comfortable in this family’s native English language. 

Just as they wouldn’t bring Ryan’s grandparents to a pediatrician for care, they discovered that finding a school-based, pediatric therapist who would understand the intricacies of child development and learning disorders was, for them, like looking for a needle in a haystack. They were searching for such a resource, one that would appreciate the link between these deficits and academic success.They understood, too late for their peace of mind, that the link between special needs support, traditionally a clinical concept, and educational programming, now referred to as ‘inclusion’, is only recently recognized in the international education sphere.



“Sally was receiving special needs support back home. I do admit that we minimized her needs in an effort to land the perfect assignment. Though we had been warned that services were sparse in the city we'd moved to, my husband and I somehow expected things would be different –that of course there would be some support if we needed help... Sally was unhappy, falling behind in her classes, and begging not to go to school anymore. The teachers at her new school were frustrated, too, unaccustomed to providing Sally with the types of classroom interventions and accommodations she received at her school back home. I wonder if we were anticipating this new adventure from behind rose-colored glasses. Perhaps Sally’s needs should have deterred us from following our dream.”


Sally and Ryan and their families represent tips of an iceberg of unmet SEN, yet with careful support and focused planning, they may have been all set to embark on a successful global assignment.

Kernels of wisdom from IDS and client families who have “been there, done that”:

1. Develop and utilize an educational plan

“If you know that your child has SEN, or if you even anticipate challenges with academic achievement, comprehensive assessments are the best place to start. We found that having those assessments (and the educational plan developed from them) with us was as important as having passports. In a way, they served as passports to a wonderful four years for us. If you don’t have an educational plan with you, try to get support to develop one – ours provided a roadmap for tracking progress.” 

2. Make sure you have access to experts who can help guide and support services for your child.
“If you’re already on location, speak with teachers to gather as much information about the challenges from their point of view. Find a provider who will help you to understand your child’s needs, and who will work with you to develop a plan for support. Investigate the local resources. Be careful not to assume that all therapists are created equal. If a local clinician offers to test your child using translated testing materials, run! (Particularly with intelligence testing (IQ).) We learned, too late, that these tests were developed for a non-English speaking population, and believe me, language differences must be respected when administering standardized tests. “

3. Having a child with SEN does not mean that your family can’t live a life of global mobility – it could mean that support services may take a different form.
Our Nicholas had SEN that were a challenge in his new classroom, and everyone wanted to put a label on him. When a child like Nicholas has needs in the classroom, it is more important to identify those needs and to activate a means for support than it is to put a label on them. We were unable to find a local resource available for testing, so did not have the luxury of obtaining a full assessment complete with diagnosis. If you find yourself in a similar situation, look to a trusted online resource like we did, that can help you to define the scope of need and activate support immediately. We were able to provide Nicky’s teachers with immediate tools and knowledge to help him succeed in the classroom. Was that ever critical to us in ensuring a successful school year for our eight year old, and an overall sense of well-being for the rest of our family.”

4. Identifying and planning support proactively, better prepares for successful transitions.
“ We learned that it’s best to work with a specialist who can help you to set up a plan for success, a special educational needs plan. In the world of international education, schools vary tremendously, and not all embrace the idea of inclusion. Even when schools don’t have a formal ‘inclusion’ program, educational professionals were quite willing to work with us to provide additional support and accommodations that helped our Collette tremendously. I must say that she had a very successful first year abroad, and has become a seasoned traveler to boot!”

Finding this type of assistance is no longer as difficult as in the past. What may have appeared at first like a roadblock now is a sign that you need to be prepared in different ways. A child with SEN can thrive in the international environment with the proper supports in place. Technology and the ability to web conference face-to-face with consultants opens up whole new possibilities allowing you to have expert support at your fingertips.

Ready? Set? Now go… embark on your placement abroad feeling prepared and ready to fully embrace your family’s new adventure.

Tracey Ellis is the co-founder and CEO of International Diagnostic Solutions (IDS) providing consultation, therapy, training, and advocacy for children and families in the US and abroad. As a therapist and board certified disability analyst, Tracey has been supporting children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) for over 20 years. A frequent university lecturer, Tracey also serves on the Development Board for the University of New Hampshire College of Health and Human Services, as well as the Board of Licensing for the Department of Health in Washington, DC. Tracey and her co-founder, Dr. Richard Fleitas, have spent years developing ‘Insight from Offsite’, an IDS program bringing special education experts to remote schools through effective use of technology. Based in Washington, DC, Tracey is a native New Englander and spends a great deal of time traveling. 

The International Diagnostic Solutions (IDS) team supports individual families in a wide variety of global settings by offering online intervention, web-conference based consultation to parents, and training and ongoing consultation to classroom teachers and classroom aides with proven strategies and unique solutions.

Originally printed in ACS Market Update, ACS International Schools