By Michelle Grappo, EdM, NCSP, IECA (CO)

Whether you’ve been working with international clients for 1 year or 10, you will know that every case holds new challenges. We are constantly learning and growing in our practice, but following are some of the elements we have found important over the years.

1. Language

A fairly good command of English is necessary for students to engage successfully in a therapeutic program. The inability to speak English is a nonstarter. Although fluency is desirable, we have worked with students whose English is less than strong—which is sometimes tangled up in the cognitive abilities related to language. Still, it’s prudent to manage parents’ expectations around language. Many schools will not work with a student for whom English is going to be an issue because they simply do not have the expertise or resources. No one wants to leave a student unable to access basic communication, especially a student far from home and with limited English resources. Some schools will make exceptions and take a chance on a student with “enough” English, although what enough means varies. This is one area where an educational consultant’s knowledge, experience, and advocacy skills are crucial.

2. Education (for parents)

Many international clients find us through a referring professional or a friend who has already explained the role of an educational consultant on a basic level. Others have found us through our website, but still have only a cursory understanding of our role. One of our first tasks is to help clients or potential clients understand what we do and how we do it, without overwhelming them with details. I am careful to discuss our qualifications and professional memberships and have found that sample scenarios are a great way to demonstrate our work, our expertise, and ultimately our value. International clients may not be familiar with the idea of wilderness or even therapy, so it’s important to assess the client’s prior knowledge and beliefs so those elements can be a scaffold for new information. A good rule of thumb: make no assumptions about prior knowledge.

3. Logistics

One of the key distinguishing factors to international work is setting and maintaining expectations around practical matters. The first, most obvious piece to this is visas. I am careful to remind families that I am not a legal expert; however, I can discuss my own experience with programs, such as wilderness experiences and therapeutic boarding schools. I also advise clients to consult with an immigration attorney with whom I have collaborated in the past, especially if the situation is complicated. Secondly, understanding the family’s hopes around program location and number of options is important. Some expectations must be managed immediately—no, there are no therapeutic boarding schools in Manhattan—while others may be more workable. You might vow to make a good faith effort to honor their requests while simultaneously advising them that you may have to look further afield.

4. Assessment

The first step for most of our international referrals is typically to obtain a good assessment. Some families come to us having worked with very skilled clinicians abroad, but that is rare. As with local clients, we often must utilize wilderness or other clinical assessment or stabilization programs. We maintain a (sadly short) list of qualified clinicians around the world to whom we refer clients for quality psycho-educational evaluations, although we arrange for most clients to do testing in the United States.

5. Communication

Much like with local clients, communication is key to working successfully on therapeutic or special needs cases in the international domain. International work, however, does require more sensitivity about issues ranging from the practical to the cultural. Extra attention must be paid to helping families understand the work we do as IECs and also the very ethos of therapeutic programs in the United States. It frequently requires more time and more patience, with careful listening, extensive educating, and a good dose of kindness. But when it all comes together, the young person inevitably has an opportunity for a life-changing experience that is unavailable to them abroad. It’s difficult work, but it is high impact.

Michelle Grappo can be reached at [email protected].