French School – Make it work for you and your young kids
written by Bree Barclay
When my husband was offered a job here in Paris, we were excited and petrified all at once. The prospect of leaving our home town Melbourne brought a host of unknowns and possibilities. There are different road rules, social etiquettes, pass-times, working hours, gender roles and political issues. Different language, different weather, different food, different fashion. Dammit! They even drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road in France! How were we, as a family and as individuals going to adjust? Would this move make us or break us?
We’ve gained some chinks in our armour and we’re a little frayed at the edges, but we remain in one piece.
I’m happy to report that we have survived our first year in Paris. We’ve gained some chinks in our armour and we’re a little frayed at the edges, but we remain in one piece. The biggest challenge has been one I did not foresee: the French school system. Before leaving Australia I was aware that French kids went to school from 3 years of age. Since my son was 3, I probably should have considered schooling a priority but I purposely ignored it. I had more pressing issues to deal with (both logistical – such as should we pack our TV/dining-table/potato-peeler? and emotional – dismantling kids nurseries, handing our home over to strangers and saying goodbye to loved ones) and like, you know, I wasn’t ready. Every time the subject of school popped into my head I shoved it to the far corners of my brain.
My gorgeous son did his best to like school but I know he was struggling.
In Australia, kids start school at 5 (and only then if they’re entirely ready). Pre-school is important but with very much an ‘easy does it’ approach. Contact hours are dramatically less than in France, days are loosely structured with a big focus on free play and socialisation. It took me some time to come to grips with some of these differences. I realise that not all French schools fit the same mould and there is more choice outside the public system. We chose public primarily for financial reasons, but we also viewed it as our best chance to link in with the local community outside our all-too-easy (but very necessary and wonderful) expat bubble.
We arrived in Paris last October, but my son didn’t begin maternelle (petite section) until February – more than halfway through the school year. We couldn’t start him straight away because it took time to settle on where to live, to really master toilet-training and to prepare this maman poule* to allow her son to be thrown into a pool of circling 3-year-old sharks who understood everything the teacher said, wiped their own bottoms and were already accustomed to 4-course meals complete with cutlery, side-plates and a fine selection of soft cheeses. Meanwhile, I was busy walking around like a deer in headlights assembling courage to go to the mairie and navigate our options. My fear of speaking French and failing (which I did/do all the time) also factored in this delay. That, Christmas and the weather.
Mama Poule? *French inference for overprotective mother. Actual translation: mother hen.
The months between February and the end of the school year in July were tough. My gorgeous son did his best to like school but I know he was struggling. I’d ask who was at school today, who did he play with but he couldn’t even tell me one of their names. He opted out of group activities and preferred to play alone in the corner of the classroom. He ran around by himself at play-time. Occasionally he would try and connect with other kids but when they realised he was speaking gobbledygook they lost interest and split. He would get frustrated and force his way into kids’ personal space (his best trick is to roar like a dinosaur right into their faces) only for them to get upset and push him away. It tore me up. My normally happy, sociable child could not connect, despite his efforts. The teacher reassured me, “Don’t worry it will come,” she said. I wanted to believe her but I was seriously questioning our decision to throw him in the deep end.
A turning point came during the summer break. To continue his exposure to the French language I enrolled my son in centre des loisirs (we’d call it a ‘holiday program’ in Australia). He was lucky to have some English-speaking friends thanks to parents I’d met in the expat community. For the most part he enjoyed loisirs (or “wazoo” as my non-French speaking husband called it). He grew more confident to try out the words in his head and seemed to appreciate the more relaxed atmosphere of loisirs compared to school. Only a couple of weeks after this year’s rentrée, he was skipping into the class-room. He was playing in French, responding to the teacher in French. He was excited and proud. My little boy (now 4) is integrating at a rapid rate and it is wonderful to see.
Don’t be disappointed if the teacher fails to gush about your child’s every achievement
On the whole, our family is feeling much more settled in Paris, and I strongly believe school has been a huge factor in getting us to this point. This following advice is for those of you who might be in the early stages of decision-making and path-finding for your little ones in Paris. Perhaps you don’t have a good grip on the French language. Perhaps you’re a long way from Kansas Toto, and you haven’t met the Oompa Loompas who point out the yellow brick road. Consider me your Oompa Loompa as I offer these tips for surviving your child’s first year of French school.
23 Tips every parent needs to know
1. First and foremost, be nice to the door-bitch-lady — she knows everything and can keep an eye on your daughter if you’re running late and don’t have time to take her out of the pram and wait for her to meander up the stairs, down the stairs, sit in the book corner and refuse to leave etc.
2. Beware the wagging finger. It’s confronting and quite frankly condescending when a grown adult scolds another adult in a full class-room over what seems to you an extremely trivial issue (a Matchbox car found in the bottom of your son’s school bag – quelle horreur). The wagging finger may find it’s way into your child’s own repertoire. Example: You: “Pick up those toys please!” Your child: “Non non non non non” (wags finger).
3. Source an ally – find a friendly parent who speaks your language so you can double-check things you may not understand. I found an absolute gem who even accompanied me to the parent-teacher interviews to translate, which was an extremely kind gesture and a huge help to me.
4. Don’t expect the teacher to give you a daily report on your child’s progress. Remember how many they are responsible for – their time is precious.
5. Don’t be disappointed if the teacher fails to gush about your child’s every achievement. They generally seem better at letting you know if something is wrong. Red lines and upside down smiley-faces are not uncommon on incorrect work.
6. Attend as many school functions as you can such as fêtes, cake sales and excursions (not possible for everyone I know).
7. Familiarise yourself with the weekly timetable – our school has a different pick-up time every day which requires some forward planning.
8. Read the school menu. If everything else is failing at least you know your child is being fed extremely well.
9. Be prepared to come to enjoy the routine of school. Equally, be prepared for a barrage of school holidays where you suddenly find yourself reprising the role of chief entertainer (or find other arrangements if you’re working).
10. Embrace the Doudou. Australians tend to frown upon 4-year-olds cruising around with dummies and raggedy comforters in public. Not so in France – it’s simply a tool to help your child settle themselves and be you know, comforted.
11. Be prepared for France’s near obsession with your child’s independence. This is wonderful and a bit snaggy on the heart strings at the same time. On one hand, they teach children clever tricks to put on their own coats and gloves. On the other, parents are invited NOT to linger in the classroom.
12. Consider the phrase – “it takes a village to raise a child”. Where I’m from, there is judgement and suspicion towards mothers who are seen to rely too heavily on help from others, leaving some mums feeling like a lonely village of one. In France, it seems that the state insists on sharing the responsibility, with a ‘we’ll take from here’ approach. This can be upsetting as a portion of control must be relinquished. I actually appreciated the thought that I’m not only one influencing the growth and development of my child (of course in partnership with my husband). It also limits the guilt I’ve experienced as a mum – shouldn’t I be looking after my child 24/7? Is it selfish to want a break? Pursue a career? Leave your child with ‘strangers.’ Non! Say the French. It’s good for your child to learn, to socialise, to have structure in their day, to respect their superiors, to have a break from their MAMAN POULE.
13. Discipline is a thing and French teachers are unafraid to dish it out. Don’t be surprised to see your child sitting in a corner as punishment for disobedience or disruptive behaviour.
14. Maternelle activity books (from any bookstore) can help your child make headway on curriculum without the pressures of the classroom. Make learning fun by doing activities together and by taking on a light-hearted ‘no need to be perfect attitude.’
15. Make an effort to read and understand every word of the school newsletters – it takes me about a 100 years but a lot of stress is avoided when you feel informed about what’s going on at school.
16. Ensure your child has a substantial breakfast. Morning tea does not exist in France and the kids don’t eat until lunchtime.
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17. If your child is in petite section, they will probably nap at school. For older kids this can be tricky when it comes to bedtime at night. You may need to adjust your evening routine to accommodate the extra ants in your child’s pants.
18. Remind yourself about the investment you’re making in your child’s future. It’s a tough 6 months (or thereabouts) but when things start happening the rewards come through thick and fast.
19. Try to be on time! It will keep you in everyone’s good books and reduce stress for you and your child. If anyone has any tips for me on this I’m all ears (yours sincerely, Perpetually Late).
20. It’s okay to ask for help. If you need to go to your own French class, to the gym, meet with a friend or do the shopping alone – and it clashes with a school pick-up – ask a friend, book a babysitter or employ the after-school loisirs. Your well-being is important too.
21. Try try try. Make it clear that you are trying with language and the French way of doing things. If staff/parents get a sense that you have no interest, you will be left in the dark about what is going on with your child and the school.
22. Limit the pressure on your child. If school is a place of structure and rules, make your home as comfy and relaxed as possible. Everyone needs down time – if kids have a safe place to unwind and be themselves, they’ll be better equipped to face a tough day at school.
23. Finally – make sure your child has a good wash daily. French schools may be super at developing your child’s independence but they do not account for the bottom-wiping capabilities of many 3 and 4-year-olds.
On the back of that terrible toilet reference, what advice can you give families breaking into the French culture and school system? What challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them? What challenges are you experiencing right now? Please share because while I believe the hardest part is over, I know that plenty more armour chinking and edge fraying opportunities await.
Bree Barclay is an Australian mother of 2 and has lived in Paris for 1 year. A critical care nurse of 15 years, she currently spends her time learning French, writing her blog, doing school pick-ups and folding piles of laundry. Check-out the blog at breeellen.com.
Fantastic post Bree! If you found what Bree had to say about the French school system useful, then please like it and please comment. Share you views, opinions and advice for all the mamas and papas out there. Subscribe to the MLP newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.