US High School Survival Guide for Ex-Pat Parents

Female teenager by high school lockers as she navigates a new school with her language training

Table of Contents

High school is an exciting time in any teenager's life, but a stressful one even for kids who have grown up in the United States. The learning expectation is higher, and the societal norms change constantly. For teenagers entering high school without English as their first language, the first day of school can be daunting, and the entire family can feel anxious if they don’t know what to expect.  

Here’s everything parents and teens need to know before entering high school (9th through 12th grade) in the United States.


  1. School lunch is probably not what you’re used to. The United States doesn’t offer free school lunches to every student, so some students bring food from home while others buy their lunch in the cafeteria. Typically, students have about 30 minutes to eat and socialize with their friends before going to their next class, so there isn’t much time for heating up and eating food before the bell rings. Students who choose to bring their lunches should assume it’ll be eaten cold and quickly, and students who buy their lunch should be prepared to eat less than healthy options like chicken fingers, pizza, and sandwiches.   
  2. Homecoming, prom, and other events make the high school experience memorable. Homecoming is a high school rite of passage. While some schools make a bigger deal about it than others, knowing what a homecoming king and queen is, what activities the school schedules for the week, and how your teenager can be involved will make the entire experience memorable for all involved. Parents and teens can bond over dresses and tuxedos and the hoopla that comes with getting dressed up and going out with friends.  
  3. You’ll never be fully prepared for active shooter drills. An unfortunate truth for any parent sending their kids to school in the US is knowing an active shooter can enter their school at any given time. Most schools in the US have policies and procedures to keep kids safe in the event of an active shooter, but the experience is still stressful. In recent years, schools have implemented drills that include practicing what and where students will go if someone has entered the building with a gun. These include closing blinds and staying silent, cornering themselves in one area of their classroom, and staying alert to announcements when the drill (or real-life event) has passed. Drills are done periodically, and even though the risk of encountering a gunman is low, being prepared for any situation is just part of a highschoolers life.  
  4. Slang changes constantly. High school kids seem to make up their own language, and as parents, it’s nearly impossible to decipher what they mean when they’re talking slang! It gets even more nuanced when adding in texting lingo. Parents - don’t be afraid to ask your teenagers what the heck they’re talking about! If all else fails, use websites like or even a quick Google search to stay current on the latest slang trends.  
  5. Bullying happens everywhere, even to the most well-behaved kids. High school students are expected to behave with a level of maturity that will prepare them for the real world, but unfortunately, not every teenager gets that memo. Bullying can happen anywhere – on the bus, in the cafeteria, or by the lockers before class. Having an open dialogue with your kids about where they are emotionally and whether they’re being bullied is a huge step to ensuring the psychological safety of your teens while they’re in school. If being active in their friend group isn’t enough, high schools have guidance counselors well-equipped to mediate bullying. International parents shouldn’t be afraid to use the school administration for support if their child is bullied.  
  6. Resources are always available. Every high school – big or small – has resources to ensure your children thrive, and they’re guaranteed because they’re built into educational budgets. They include ESL support for non-native English speakers, college counselors that will help your teen pick the best university, and even school nurses who can help with medical issues while at school. You can rest assured that your teen is in good hands with the adults staffed at their high school, but most parents or students have to proactively ask for support instead of being offered outright. If you need help navigating resources, ask your school’s principal for help. If you don’t see a resource that you think your student can benefit from, every school district has a School Board that oversees student engagement and success policies. You have every right as a parent to attend those meetings and be involved in setting the policy that directly impacts your student's school career.  

Entering high school is a family event. It impacts the whole family and can be a major life change if the student and parents haven’t grown up in the United States. That’s why we offer interactive language and cultural experiences that allow parents and students to ask questions with teachers (language and high school) before students embark on their learning journey. They’re a great way to connect with other parents and students in the same phase of life in a supportive and uplifting environment.  

If you’re interested in learning more about how to better prepare for the US school system, reach out. We’ll tell you more about enrolling in an experience that marries language with tactical advice about thriving in your new home.  

This blog post was written by Patricia Diaz, VP of Marketing.

How can we help?

Start Your Next Project

Please fill out the form below for more information on our Translation or Interpretation Services or request a free quote!