The Beginners Guide to Homeschooling Abroad
Are you considering homeschooling your children while living abroad? Maybe you’ve been transferred for work, or maybe you just heard the call of adventure.
Since I met my husband back in 2008, I have lived in four countries: Bosnia-Herzegovina, the US (Boston), Colombia, and Guatemala. (We also squeezed in a separated tour during that time, while he was in Afghanistan and I stayed behind in DC for a year). We move every 2-3 years for his job in the Foreign Service, which is both exciting and exhausting in turn.
My oldest daughter was born while we were living in Bogota, Colombia, and we moved to Boston when she was 14 months old. After two years of trying (and failing) to find some sort of work-life balance in suburban America, we decided not to extend our time in America and instead requested another posting in Latin America.
We had no immediate plans to homeschool when we moved here. We had hoped that life in Guatemala would provide us with more family time, more time for creative pursuits, and more opportunities for adventure. But after just a few months, we found ourselves back on the traditional American-style rollercoaster: working full time, kids with caregivers or in school all day, and a lot of hustle for not much reward. It wasn’t working.
After a lot of soul-searching (and a lot of spreadsheets), we decided that I would turn down the local job opportunity that I had been offered and that we would take our older daughter out of a traditional school setting so that we could have more time together as a family, more freedom to pursue our own passions, and more “white space” in our day.
It was a tough decision, but once it was made, we’ve never looked back. Rarely has a choice felt so “right,” so quickly.
If you’re thinking about homeschooling abroad, there are a few issues to consider.
Why homeschool abroad?
There are so many reasons to homeschool, abroad or at home —
- more individualized attention
- more freedom to set the pace that’s right for your kid
- the ability to follow individual interests
- a more relaxed schedule
- the ability to focus on hobbies or passions that don’t fit into traditional afterschool hours
- the freedom to choose curricula and resources suited to your family’s personal values
- …the list goes on.
But homeschooling while living outside of your home country offers even more benefits:
- Consistency in curriculum and resources, particularly if you see yourself moving frequently or mid-year
- The opportunity to study in your native language, which can be beneficial if the local schools are primarily in a language you don’t feel the need to learn natively (for example, if you will only live in the country for a short time, or if the local language is particularly difficult or obscure)
- The ability to provide higher-quality instruction, either yourself or with tutors, which can be beneficial if local schools aren’t strong
- More freedom to travel and explore your new country
- More room to emphasize family and inter-personal connection, which can be difficult when living in a new country and/or your family moves often
But what about socialization?
Homeschooling doesn’t mean you become a hermit. Library visits, cultural explorations, museum tours, music or sports lessons, and daily interactions at the neighborhood playground provide ample opportunities for socialization, even for the most extroverted children.
And honestly, what are the benefits of sitting in a classroom with 20-30 other children all the same age? When will that scenario ever be repeated in “real life” later on?
Moving abroad and living overseas is hard. Even if you’re adventurous and outgoing, it is exhausting trying to navigate the local culture. A nurturing, loving home life can provide stability and refuge, enabling kids to confidently explore their new homes.
Last, how many times have you heard a teacher say, “School isn’t for socializing.” With the rise of bullying and peer pressure, school socialization isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Sure, there are some fantastic schools and some lovely educational communities around the world. If you live near one, that is AWESOME.
But don’t let the “socialization” fear hold you back.
Aren’t you missing out on language or cultural immersion by homeschooling abroad?
Possibly. This was probably my biggest fear, next to worries about losing my mind from being home with the kids all day.
No situation is perfect. If language immersion is important to you, you’re going to have to make sure that you’re providing opportunities to learn the local language, either through playdates, private tutoring, or community engagement.
And it depends where you live — in many countries, the high-quality local schools teach in English, because that’s what many locals want their children to learn.
In other words, your children might not be gaining as much local language immersion as you’d like by attending school locally.
I thought homeschoolers were religious nuts or left-wing hippies.
I’ll be honest, so did I.
It wasn’t until I met someone who was neither uber-religious nor a crazy hippie that I changed my mind.
She was more than normal, she was actually really, really cool.
Her kids were sweet and intelligent and kind. They baked a lot, read a lot of good books, hung out together a ton, and did cool projects.
We drank wine together. We complained about housework, and we humble-bragged about our kids to each other.
They were just people.
I think my family are just people, too. We just wanted a different life than the one we’d had before.
I could never do that. I don’t have the patience. I work, and I like my job. My kids would drive me crazy.
Taking full responsibility for your children’s education is scary. It’s a big deal. It is so much easier to relegate this task to a “professional”.
While there are families who work full-time and homeschool, it can feel impossible.
I get it.
It’s a cost/benefit situation, and if what you’re doing now is working for your family, rock on.
But likely you wouldn’t be here, reading this page if it was.
How to Start Homeschooling Abroad
First, I really urge you to sit down and brainstorm what exactly you’d like your children to know before they leave your home.
- What specific fields of knowledge do you want them to acquire?
- What skills and abilities would you like them to master?
- What values or principles do you want your children to internalize?
- What does “educated” mean to you?
This is heavy stuff. Talk it over with your partner. Write it down, and revisit it often. When you feel like you have a good grasp on what you’d like your children to learn, then you can start to ask — “Is it possible for my children to learn these facts/skills/principles in a local traditional school?”
This exercise is useful no matter what country you live in. Take your time, and don’t be afraid to change your mind. Kids grow, families evolve — it’s okay.
After you’ve figured out your end goal, you can start looking at local options. That might mean traditional school. It might mean a mix of local schools or tutors and home education. It might mean full-on unschooling.
Figure out what’s right for your family.
Take your time. Unless you’re dealing with an urgent situation, like an unredeemable bullying scenario that affects someone’s mental health and safety — you have time to get your ducks in a row.
Make a list of the barriers to homeschooling in your current situation, and brainstorm ways that you would address each item. Think about:
- The ability to purchase supplies in your language of choice. Do you have access to mail services? Will you easily be able to get replacement supplies, or are you limited to what you can carry in your suitcase?
- How much can you afford to spend on educational materials, whether that involves school or homeschool curricula?
- How will you replace your or your partner’s income, if applicable?
- How will you make time for your own adult interests and passions? This is important and sets an important model for your kids. Don’t skip this one.
- Assess your local resources. Are there libraries? Nature opportunities? Co-ops? Good internet connection for accessing online resources?
- Confirm that it’s legal to homeschool in your area. Maybe you need to enroll in a certified online school to meet local requirements.
You don’t need to get down in the weeds right now with a homeschool philosophy or choosing a particular curriculum. Many families never bother with either, and that’s just fine! For now, just keep doing “the next right thing”.
If you can swing it, give homeschooling a trial run. Instead of rushing into enrolling in local schools after arrival, take a few months to “get settled” and use this as an excuse to try a few homeschool resources out.
If you’re already established in your host country, dabble with read-alouds and science projects over a summer break.
Keep it fun, keep it light, and let your kids guide you. Because the really cool thing about homeschooling is that it is often really, really fun.
Tips for Success When Homeschooling Abroad
It is always hard to do something outside the norm, and this can be a hundred times harder in a foreign country.
Maybe homeschooling is particularly uncommon where you live.
Maybe you already stand out as an expat, because you struggle with the language, or look markedly different than the local population.
Maybe you just moved and don’t know many people.
Here are some tips to ease the way:
- Find your tribe. Throw yourself out there, attend the potlucks and the church suppers and the book club meetings and the expat socials. Accept all the invitations. It will take time, and it will often feel like one step forward and five steps backward. It can be exhausting. But particularly if you don’t plan to stay in this country long, it pays to find your tribe early.
- Find your online tribe. Regardless of local friends, make an effort to find a Facebook group or two that aligns with your values. They’ll travel with you from country-to-country, and provide great advice no matter the hour of day. I really like Kindred Collective, but take the time to find one that’s right for you.
- Don’t talk about it (much) with your friends or family, unless you know they’ll be supportive. You’re doing a hard thing. Your family loves you, and worries about you, and sometimes that love can look like hurtful comments or unwanted advice. Strategize what you’ll say if met with resistance, and move forward. Keep your doubts and fears for your tribe.
- Go slow. Don’t start out with a huge number of resources or curricula right away. Start with the resources that matter most to your family — I recommend books! Your kids won’t fall behind, I promise.
- Trust your kids. They are engineered to learn, and they are learning even if they aren’t sitting at a traditional school desk. Provide rich opportunities, read often, talk frequently, and support their interests. Most of the time, that’s enough to carry the way.
Common Questions About Homeschooling Abroad
- Is it legal?
- This is a tricky one, and it depends on the country. Some countries have exceptions for military or diplomatic families living temporarily in the country, others don’t. This website gives a quick overview (I know the HSLDA is controversial among some homeschool families, but this is a legit good resource. Take the good, leave the bad.)
- What’s the best homeschool curriculum?
- This depends on your kids, your values, your budget, and your approach to education. For a list of what we use, go here.
- How will I afford this?
- We’re lucky that my husband’s job provides financial reimbursement for educational expenses, including homeschooling, while we’re overseas. If you’re posted abroad with a company, check their policies. If they pay for children to attend local schools (many do), they likely provide money for homeschooling as well.
- But homeschooling doesn’t have to be expensive. Find used curriculum online, use your library (if available) or access an online library from the US. And some of the best resources are free or very cheap — hiking, cooking, exploring your host country, reading great books, visiting museums, and spending time with others are incredibly valuable. Don’t underestimate those resources just because they don’t fit between the pages of a textbook.
- Will my kids be able to attend traditional school if we move back?
- Almost definitely. If this is a concern for you, research homeschool laws in the state or country of origin. You might consider enrolling in an accreditated online school that provides transcripts and oversight, for ease of re-entry.
- Do I have to do this forever?
- No way. We take it year-by-year, month-by-month even. Do what works for your family, for as long as it keeps working. One of the best realizations I had in this journey was that as a grown-up, I get to make the rules for what our life looks like. You can, too.
- What if it’s not working? My kid won’t study!
- Breath. Back off. Allow some space. When in doubt, get outside. Look into de-schooling — it can take a long time (common wisdom is that kids need a month off from formal lessons for every year of traditional school they’ve attended to date).
- And if it’s still not working, you have the freedom to try something else — a different curriculum, a different school, possibly even a different country. You make the rules.
The Most Important Thing You Need to Know about Homeschooling Abroad
Homeschooling abroad can be scary.
But here’s a little secret: it can be so much fun.
When in doubt, go back to your manifesto. What do you want your children to learn? What do you want your family life to look like?
What do you want your life to look like?
Keep it simple, keep it fun.
This is your one life, your one chance to parent these kids.
We get 18 summers, 18 Christmases, 18 birthdays at home with our kids.