Diagnoses and labels can be given to your child from many different sources, but one thing remains the same: Your life as a parent is forever changed. Your child now has a label and that designation will influence every decision you make going forward.
As any parent would, you feel guilty, defensive, and scared. All your own preconceived notions surface about past interactions with differently abled people who fell outside the standardized bubble. And if you’re living abroad in a country that’s lagging behind in accommodating for diversity, you’re facing a steep and bumpy path ahead.
For the grand finale of our Expert Series, I’ve brought April Remfrey to shed light on this topic that, unfortunately, still makes so many of us uncomfortable. In addition to her impressive 20+ years experience teaching in three countries, April holds several degrees, including her Master’s in Exceptional Education from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Driven by her life-long passion to better the lives of kids with special needs, April works as a consultant for globally mobile families. She gets them optimally prepared for the transition and helps them maneuver the disadvantages in the international education system post-arrival.
It’s my honor to welcome April as she shows us how we can do right by all children, not just the ones that fall inside the standard bubble.
What You’ll Learn in this Episode:
- Equality vs. Equity
- Rejected admissions & home-schooling
- Questions for your child’s teachers
- Understanding the school’s perspective
- Record-keeping efficiently
Listen to the Full Episode:
Featured on the Show:
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- April Remfrey Website
- Organisation for help in setting standards for transitions between schools – SPAN Safe Passage Across Networks
- Organisation for help in setting standards for transitions between schools – SENIA – Special Education Network and Inclusion Association
- Episode 93: “Challenges and Benefits of Expat Families Living with Disabilities.”
- Facebook Business Page – Sundae Schneider-Bean LLC
- Facebook Group – Expats on Purpose
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Full Episode Transcript:
Hello, it is 6:00 am in New York, 1:00 pm in Johannesburg and 6:00 pm in Bangkok. Welcome to the Expat Happy Hour. This is Sundae Schneider-Bean from www.sundaebean.com. I’m a solution oriented coach and intercultural strategist for individuals and organizations and I am on a mission to help you adapt and succeed when living abroad and get you through any life transition.
So I was sitting on the grass watching my son play soccer and I had this conversation with another mom who also had her son playing. And she asked me what I did. I told her about Expat Happy Hour and she started getting curious about what was coming down the pipeline for episodes. And I told her about this idea I had about the challenges and benefits of expat families that are living with disabilities. And she said to me “Oh, this is kind of what I do. I think what we need is more people who understand the paperwork that’s involved. Because it’s that misunderstanding of paperwork between schools that can actually stop families from getting a post abroad or their kid getting their needs met.”
And it was a moment for me where my eyes were opened. That there’s this part of living an expat life with children who have abilities that need to be accommodated for. That I have no idea what’s going on. And I think it’s something that we should talk about because we as parents, we as family members, we as administrators, as teachers, might be missing out on some of the really simple things we can do to make life smoother.
So episode 93 came out called “Challenges and Benefits of Expat Families Living with Disabilities.” Where this soccer mom sitting next to me actually got featured in the show among others. And I wanted to bring that conversation to the forefront again today.
So it’s my absolute pleasure to welcome our special guest April Remfrey. She is an educational consultant and she focuses her time working with globally mobile families that have children with special needs when they’re certain brand new school. Exactly the situation that I talked about on the grass that Saturday morning.
Sundae: So welcome April to Expat Happy Hour.
April: Thank you for having me.
Sundae: I am so happy to have you. Let me just brag on April for a second. She knows her stuff. She has double majored in Special Education and Elementary Education from Luther College in the United States. She also received a Master’s Degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in Exceptional Education. She’s been a teacher for 20 years in three different countries. And has experience in public, private and international school environments. I mean, she knows what she’s talking about.
Also, April is a mom to a 15 year old daughter. She’s lived in Zurich Switzerland since 2013. Ironically we’ve only lived in Switzerland at the same time for about two months I think. And in her free time, who has free time when you’re working and you’ve got a family, but she does do some hiking in these stunning Swiss Alps, cooks and plays clarinet in a local band.
So you sound like you’re living a very full life April.
April: Very very happy with my life as it is right now. Thank you.
Sundae: So, it’s really my pleasure to have you and I’m going to start the conversation with something really really basic but I think important. And this is something you and I talked about offline. This idea of special needs. You are an educational consultant, you say you work with children with special needs. There’s part of me that gets kind of defensive when I think about even labeling children with special needs. Because part of me thinks like, “Well, maybe our system isn’t fair. This works for 80% of the people. Why are the other 20% now having to ask for special things? Maybe the system is broken.” So this is a difference between equality and equity? So tell me what your thoughts are when we think about the topic of special needs.
April: I totally hear you when you’re when you’re saying it makes you uncomfortable because it makes a lot of people very uncomfortable. So I’ve experienced this of course as a teacher, but I’m also going through this process with our daughter. And you know the idea of a label can be really uncomfortable because people give themselves labels. Right now we’re going through this goth phase, so the black fingernail polish, the black lipstick that’s a label she’s giving herself.
But when it’s a label that’s being given by a doctor, that makes you as a parent feel really nervous, really scared, really uncomfortable. I’m trying to reframe it myself as I didn’t label her. She’s receiving a diagnosis that’s going to open this door to getting her the help that she needs. But I think a lot of what’s wrapped up in those words are things that make me as a parent uncomfortable. It makes me feel like maybe I did something wrong. “Where did I get off track here?”
And that’s where I think calling something a specific word, and it’s not just in the educational field, we’re talking about all over the place there are labels. And sometimes people want to label themselves something or to be able to fit into a certain group or say that “This is my identity.” But when it’s coming from a place, that’s so personal and feeling like, “Could I have done something different to make this better as a parent?” That’s super uncomfortable.
And so having a label and calling it special needs, you can call it exceptional and education, you can call it so many different things. But there are a few good things about having that label and one of the very first ones is getting access to the help you need.
Sundae: I just saw such an inspiring article online about a woman who was blind and just graduated as a lawyer from Harvard.
April: I saw that too.
Sundae: Maybe I read it from you, from LinkedIn, maybe I read it from your share. But I said to my son, I’m like, “Isn’t this amazing what happens?” This is what I mean about a broken system, when a system creates the opportunity for everybody to take advantage of education. And that’s it’s nothing special. What it’s doing in an institution, is now they can be proud to have a graduate who now understands law from a totally different perspective.
So this is where I think it’s really interesting. But let’s dive in. I want to just know more about you. Why did you choose this educational direction? Tell me a little bit more about how you came to do what you’re doing now?
April: Sure. It started probably when I was 8 or 9. There was a classroom in my elementary school that had kids that were in wheelchairs or had feeding tubes or were different. It really piqued my interest. And I’m not sure if that was in a kind of a spectator kind of way at first. But it got me in there and I started giving up my recesses to go and help in that classroom when I was in third grade. And my brother was diagnosed with pretty severe ADHD at 5 years old. So I watched him go through this medicated, unmedicated cycle. And I watched my parents trying to get him as much help as possible.
So I come from a family of teachers. My parents are both music teachers. I was dead-set against being a music teacher, but you know, I am not so far from being a music teacher. So you desire what you are right, and it started super early for me.
But this expat adventure kind of started when we were really young. We got married at 22 years old and within the first couple years we’d moved to Paris and experienced our first expat living experience. I didn’t speak a word of French. My husband was fluent and was doing great by himself and I was the one left at home trying to figure out how to live my life as a 24 year old with nothing to do. So that was extremely traumatic for me. But it kind of ignited my first entrepreneurial feelings. And I started my first real deep networking, finding all of those people that I could work with in the Paris area. Because if you ever want to go and experience a system that does not have people that are any different than the norm, France is the place to go. There is no special ed services in the public school system. And it’s still this way 20 years later.
So I found a lot of people that had moved there and arrived and realized “There’s nowhere for my kids to go to school.” So I ended up writing homeschool curriculum and helping those kids get the right services in their homes. We can’t even talk about if that was the right setting for them or the morals and the ethics behind that. But it was what I figured out for myself in my first expat adventure. But by the time we left Paris, we’d both realized that if and when we ever have kids we really want to have them experience this learning a new language at a young age, seeing the world from a different perspective.
So that brought us back to exploring living abroad again and Switzerland came up on the radar. It was between Switzerland and Moscow. Because that other guy that I’m married to speaks Russian also. And so we would have been back in the U.S. quickly had we ended up in Moscow. But thankfully we’ve been in Switzerland. It’s been a really great fit. I’ve worked inside an international school here where I taught the, we called it the “Intensive Needs Program.” And I was really proud of that program because it took those kids that other schools weren’t taking. And there aren’t enough of those.
So that kind of started me down this path of wanting to work on my own as an entrepreneur.
But one thing I noticed from all of these schools in my whole 20 years of teaching is that no matter what happens, when students are moving across town, across country, across the world, their story gets lost.
Sundae: Yes. This is what I was talking to the woman about on the grass. She was telling me it’s something as simple as reading the paperwork and translating it for the next environment. So I want to hear from you. One of your areas of expertise is helping families that have children with special needs when they’re searching for a new school. So what do parents need to know when they’re heading to the next school or looking for the next school?
April: Well, one of the things that scares schools away is when they just hear this label. So when you hear the label autism, for some reason people of my age group tend to think one specific thing. Maybe from a movie or someone they knew growing up. And that the idea of autism has really changed in the last 10 years. People are seeming to be a little bit more educated about it. But still in the international school world you can’t go to a school and say, “My child has ADHD. My child has autism.” Because for some reason one specific picture comes up and then the school is making an admissions decision based on kind of this void of information.
Sundae: That is incredible, right? Like you either get to come or not based on a few letters. And they have no context. And I mean I am not informed on this, but everybody talks about there’s a spectrum. And who knows how children thrive when their needs are supported.
For me as a parent. My children haven’t been qualified as having special needs. But they go to schools right next to kids who have. And I’m so grateful for that. Because it’s like my kids just do life with everybody and they’re learning like “Hey, so this is what their needs are? This is how we accommodate? This is how I interact? Here’s how we support it? Here’s how I get supported?” They learn so much and they also get things modeled that are really really wonderful that they wouldn’t if they were in sort of a really homogeneous classroom. So I’m so grateful for classrooms that have just a mix of people, who cares whatever identifiers there are.
April: Absolutely. But I think some of the big things that parents need to be aware of when they’re planning a move. Is that you need to start to become your child’s official record-keeper. You need to be the one that’s sitting on the side of the court taking stats. And you have to, three to six months before your move start collecting your kids teachers perspectives. Ask them what are their strengths and weaknesses in the classroom. Because we know our kids at home, but we don’t know them at school. We can pretend we do. But we don’t fully know who they are at school. And that teacher is the one that can give you that perspective. You need to ask them what kinds of things do you do that help them be successful in the classroom. We call them strategies. What are the successful strategies in the classroom?
Then, there’s some kinds of technical things. There are lots of testing documents that go into this process. And the life of those testing documents is three years. So before you move you need to make sure that those documents, those tests are up to date within that three-year period. You need to find out exactly how much time is being provided for your child in school. If they’re getting speech therapy, exactly how many minutes are they getting per week? How much math are they getting per week? Those kinds of things create a much bigger picture before you move to the next school that you can hand over to the school.
Because honestly the school is simply not asking enough questions. The admissions department. And if they aren’t asking the right questions, you need to provide them with more information so they aren’t making a decision on a void of information.
Sundae: So I’m hearing two things. One, as parents with children for special needs, that you need to just sort of, three months out, six months out, be the record-keeper. Have the conversations with teachers, get really specific information on strategies that are working, diligent reporting on whatever support that’s being given so that you can hand it over.
And I’m also hearing things that schools could do differently. They could be doing a better job at asking better questions. What do you think the schools should be doing differently?
April: Well, like I said number one, they need to start asking the right questions. Which is difficult because when we’re talking about students that have, I kind of say that they have educational needs that fall outside of the bubble. And when that happens that’s huge. It’s so difficult to pinpoint. And our brain works kind of like files in a file folder, and when you say food your brain goes to the food file. And then you can get more specific once you’re inside that file. But when you say special needs there are so many files that could go into that. I mean even gifted and talented could fall into that file. If your child is reading two grade levels below it’s the same issue as if your child’s reading two grade levels above, it’s just outside of that range. And you need to be able to communicate to the school that that is something that you want them to be aware of.
So schools need to be more honest about what they can and can’t do. Which is scary for us to hear as parents. Maybe this isn’t the right fit for your child, but it should be said before you move. God forbid you get somewhere and three months in the school says, “I’m sorry this isn’t a good fit.”
Sundae: Right, and then you’ve just uprooted your entire family and said yes to the job.
April: Exactly. And if you are in a country like Switzerland, you may not be able to home-school. It’s illegal in a lot of the different states in Switzerland to home-school. So having that information beforehand is really important.
So I want schools to be honest. But I also want them to keep that growth mindset because some of the best programs out there in the world started with one child coming in applying to that school and you simply had the right people at the school that said, “Yes, we’re going to make this happen.” There’s a school in Germany that I just talked to the principal not too long ago and they have a student that is needing a wheelchair. The school has no lift, no elevator. And they’ve decided they’re going to do it because they have that growth mindset that “We’re going to make this work for this student.” And then they are going to be the example.
Sundae: It just makes me crazy. And for every single student for decades to come, it’s not just accommodating one child. This is the whole thing between equality and equity right, letting people have access.
April: And the schools could be training their staff better. It’s not like we’re where we grew up in the U.S. where there are laws mandating the school’s take every child that shows up to their door. That’s what they have to do. And the international schools need to start moving in that direction. And there just aren’t enough trained people with my background out there in the international school system, but I think there could be.
Sundae: What about partnering? Like what about a school that can’t afford to have a full-time counselor on staff with a specific know-how of special needs. Is there a liaison or a consulting role that would be realistic in an international school setting?
April: There are companies that are doing that. Yeah, there are companies that are going into schools doing a really hardcore training really fast and then slowly pulling back. But being there to be the mentor as they grow the program inside the school. So it is out there. They’re not in a whole lot of schools because I think I know of two organizations that are doing that. But it’s coming.
Sundae: So schools can ask better questions, they can be more honest about what they can and can’t do and they can have a hard look at how they’re training their staff so that things can be more accommodating and all kinds of kids can get the support that they need.
April: Yeah, and I think they can really just stop saying, I hear so many times, there’s a family of three kids, “We’ll take those two, but not that one.”
Sundae: Are you kidding me?
April: No, it happens all the time Sundae.
It’s funny because it’s so absurd. So you’ve got a family moving to Kazakhstan that has one international school, and they say, “Sorry not that one.” And this is for me the perfect opportunity for a school to have that growth mindset and say, “Let’s use this as an opportunity to grow ourselves as a school community.”
Sundae: So there’s an administrator out there right now who is listening and he or she is shaking their head going, “But you don’t understand, you don’t understand how expensive that is or what that means for us.” What is their devil’s advocate position? who is listening right now and going, “Yeah, it sounds nice, but it’s not possible to implement.”
April: I do understand how expensive it is. The program that I taught was $75,000 a year. It is so expensive. But if you have the will, you’ll figure out the way there. There are resources out there. There are trained people that can come in and train your staff. But I think when the administration has the mindset that “This is something we’re going to do.” Everyone comes along. That’s how that works. If the idea on high is, “These are the people we’re going to support, we’re supporting the whole family end of story.”
Sundae: Because I know international school fees are very expensive. Is there like a corporate responsibility here, you know Foreign Service families or corporations. I’m just thinking from a business perspective. Because the International School administrator who says, “We have got to keep our costs down. We already have high fees. How do we hire in someone to meet these needs and not charge this family extra? Just have it absorbed into the school.” How did these costs get absorbed?
April: Well, this is one of the things that happened at the school I was at here in Switzerland. The program I taught started with one student. And that family came from a big business and that business decided that they were going to help create that program in cooperation with the school. So I think it’s about working with those companies that are probably paying the fees. Which is quite often in international schools, that you work with those companies to help support the development of those programs.
Sundae: So this is interesting because when I was thinking about what I want to talk to you about I thought about, we need to think about what do parents need to know? What administrators need to know? But now I’m also hearing there is a stakeholder in the international school. And that is the corporate sponsors so to speak. So let’s say Foreign Service or the corporations that send their kids, their employees kids to these schools. So it sounds like what I’m hearing from you is an unnamed stakeholder inn the equal access to education at International Schools are descending organizations,
April: Right and a lot of those people are on the board of directors of those schools already. So creating that partnership between the businesses and the school’s I think is really the way it needs to go. Because it’s going to be a steep climb in the beginning budget-wise to create the program, but it’s going to level off.
Sundae: Right. Totally. I mean, especially When you think about there’s organizations for example in South Africa like BMW, they’re here to stay. And they want to send their top talent. And why would you not have talent come here? Because one kid can get educated when the other two can. Like that is ridiculous.
April: And we know the main reason that families leave, it has nothing to do with that person that’s in the working environment. It’s that family at home. So I think companies are starting to come around to that knowledge and understand that they need to be supportive of every family member and not just the one that shows up to work on a daily basis.
Sundae: And this goes back to the idea that around global mobility. You don’t move an employee you move an entire system. You move the whole family. Like it or not. Sorry. It’s just what the research says. And the better that the family adjusts the more that the lead assignment person can thrive. Because otherwise there’s what they call spill over and cross over of stress and frustration from the home to the environment.
So I guess what I’m hearing right now is, what I didn’t expect us to talk about. Is that organizations, sending organizations are silent stakeholders in the education of the kids for the family members that are going. So it’s for that employee to be able to say yes, and for that employee to have focus during those three to four to five years or however long it is, the needs of their family just for basic education need to be met.
And that’s why we started off talking about how the word special needs kind of triggers me. Because it’s like who decides what is within the bubble and was without the bubble. Like you said outside the bubble, who decides how big that bubble is according to home.
So I’m just thinking, I know we got a few minutes left. But I want to hear from you. What do you wish people got but don’t or what do you wish people did but don’t do it enough?
April: Well the first thing I was going to talk about is exactly what we were just saying, that more of these programs need to be started, the bubble needs to get bigger. But one of the main things that I really want to start happening, and I’m trying to champion this being on a few different boards of directors. Is that we need to have consistent terminology from school to school to school. We need to have consistent documentation. Because these international schools, really they exist on an island. They don’t speak to one another. We have organizations that they’re a part of but nobody’s sitting down and saying, “Hey, how can we all use the same words?”
Because I had a client that came to me and said that, “School is not even an option because they don’t offer the learning support that we’ve been looking for.” Well, that school was just using something different than learning support. They were using different words. So it’s really confusing if you’re going to use different terminology, and then that goes back to labels. But consistent terminology is going to help make those moves easier. Consistent documentation.
And we have this thing, it’s an IEP, it’s an individual education plan or individual learning plan. And we need to have one that’s universal for international schools. Because I’ve seen schools, one school that I work with. They had six different formats for that learning plan just within their school.
Sundae: I don’t understand that. If you can have an IB Program, like it’s supposedly consistent across IB schools. Why can’t you have a consistent IEP.
April: I’m working on it Sundae. I’m working on it.
Sundae: Thank you for all the work that you’re doing tirelessly behind the scenes.
April: Thank you. I think the other thing that I really want parents to know is that they can ask questions. You can ask really pointed specific questions. And I kind of go the who, what, where, how route. So who is providing those services for your kids? We don’t want it to be a teaching assistant. We want it to be someone trained. Is there access to all of those other things that your child’s going to need. Like speech and language services or occupational therapy? What kind of curriculum are they using? And and really look for a variety of curriculum because one size does not fit all. What kind of extracurricular activities are your kids going to be able to enjoy there? And like we were saying before how much are those extra services going to cost?
Sundae: Good questions.
April: So there are some organizations out there that I would send people to. There’s one that’s called SPAN Safe Passage Across Networks, which helps set standards for those transitions between schools. Making sure the receiving school has mentors and ambassadors for students when they arrive.
And then there’s another one that’s much more specific to my world. It is called SENIA – Special Education Network and Inclusion Association. And we have chapters all over the world. We’re just getting one going in Europe, but it’s got a real strong hold in Asia because that’s where it started. But it’s for professionals, teachers, parents and it really helps build the network where people can go and ask questions of each other, “I’m moving here. What do you know?”
Sundae: That’s perfect. So you realize you’re not alone. You’ve got someone on the other side.
Sundae: So I’m going to put those two organizations in the show notes because that’s important for people to know where to go. Obviously you are a really experienced consultant on this topic. If people were interested in having a conversation with you or working with you, where can they find you?
April: My website is https://www.remfreyeducationalconsulting.com/ and I’m happy to give you a link to make sure you can put that in there with SPAN and SENIA. There’s an easy form you can fill out on there and we can have a 30-minute chat. No strings attached. Sometimes people just need to have a little touchstone and be heard and know they’re on the right path.
Sundae: Well, I just want to say thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us today. I know we just covered the surface. This is just the beginning. But I hope that for parents who are out there and are in this situation, they’re going to be more diligent about the record-keeping. More courageous in their asking of questions.
For administrators, who are responsible for the student body at international schools, they’re willing to have conversations with their staff about how well they are meeting everyone’s needs. How they can liaise better with the sending organizations who potentially have budgets to support programs like this. And for the individuals out there. Knowing there are organizations that are working hard to create the consistency and the terminology that’s necessary. So that everybody can just get on with learning and doing what we’re on this planet to do.
Sundae: So thank you so much. It’s wonderful. I really appreciate your time April. And I know that you’re leaving our listeners with some important tips.
I’m going to leave the audience today with some thoughts.
But first, I just want to say thank you for listening to Expat Happy Hour. This is Sundae Bean.
I’ll leave you with the words from Carolyn Belden in the series inclusion solution. She says, “Equality is leaving the door open for anyone who has the means to approach it. Equity is ensuring there is a pathway to that door for those who need it.”
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