Easing Transitions for International School Students

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Life is composed of transitions. They often drive us forward and sometimes hold us back, but they are consistent in that they are inevitable. 

Transitions can create chaos, require a leap of faith, induce anxiety, and ignite a sense of loss. But they can also be incredible learning experiences for children, by:

  • Offering opportunities for essential growth
  • Teaching us how to create stability amongst turmoil
  • Helping us develop coping skills and grapple with self-awareness

Moving through different international schools is always challenging but can be particularly fraught for students with neurodiversities. Whether a child's experience with transitions sets them up for confidence and resiliency or failure and frustration is largely up to parents and educators. This post explores ways families and international schools can keep transitions positive for all. 

The Foundation for Real Resiliency


We all remember what it was like to transition to a new school or move from one grade to the next. Many factors influenced our transition, from making new friends to saying goodbye to old friends and teachers. We needed to adjust to new rules and classroom culture. In some cases, the early transition days involved figuring out the layout of a new building and the flow of our new schedule. Perhaps most importantly, we had to get to know our new teacher — and vice versa. The transition period, positive or negative, set the stage for our school experience.


Of course, the quality of a transition is not a predictive factor for a child's entire educational experience. However, learning and social development are often delayed when transitions are negative. While this is not always catastrophic, school — the place where children become independent with lives that develop outside of their family — provides an opportunity to create a foundation for positive transitions in life. 


There is this notion that "kids are resilient." In reality, children learn resiliency through transitional experiences and bring those acquired strengths into adulthood. School is an environment that not only fosters knowledge but also provides the opportunity for character building and nurturing resiliency. With that in mind, educators must align their efforts and focus on programs and interventions that promote healthy and positive transitional experiences in schools.


International Schools - Communities in Transition


Recently, Ellen Mahoney and Jane Barron (2020), seasoned transition specialists, published crucial research in the field of international education titled Surveying the Landscape: Common Practices, Challenges and Opportunities in International School Transitions-Care


They found that international schools are a community in constant transition.  


Approximately 65% of their surveyed self-selected participants worked with newly arriving students, 45% provided programming for those leaving schools, and 15% assisted students repatriating or staying at their current school. Their cross-cultural study focused on the impact of transitional factors on international school students, parents, and staff, paying particular attention to wellbeing. Findings indicated that support for dealing with these transitions is deficient.  


Their research also provided further insights, highlighting that while all students face transition, from entering or exiting their school or moving from grade to grade, schools have not established best practices. Most schools are not conducting evaluations to determine if their programs are meeting the needs of students.  


The summary of their results suggests that to maximize student success, international schools must give serious attention to developing robust, research-based transition support programs as well as training staff and international school leaders on the theory and practice of cross-cultural mobility and the broader scope of international school transitions. 


Mahoney and Barron's research is a wake-up call to educators, prompting them to prioritize and rethink their understanding and approach to student transition.


Smoothing Transitions for Students With Different Learning Needs


Remfrey Educational Consulting is an organization that assists globally mobile families through the process of finding the right school for their child with additional learning needs. As the founder, I am particularly interested in Mahoney and Barron's findings and second their call to action for the international school community. In my work with families, I have recognized that transitions can be challenging for all and extremely complicated for those with additional learning needs.


For example, let's consider a familiar international school circumstance. A student moves from one international school to the next every three years. On average, the student needs three to four months to fully transition into the new school environment and for teachers to understand how the student learns best. 


That adds up to seven moves requiring a total of 21 months of transition time during the lifetime of that student in the international system — 21 months when learning and overall experience are diluted. 


However, suppose a school can provide students with a system or program that reduces the length of initial transition by even a month. In that case, they can significantly decrease learning gaps and transition stress while maximizing the overall school experience. This type of adjustment benefits all students but may have a necessary and substantial influence on neurodiverse students, who often take longer to transition.


I have determined that two factors can positively influence the transition process and student success: measuring progress over time and documenting implementation techniques. While these are not new techniques to many, the communication of these findings during transitions is lacking.

Measuring Progress Over Time


When students move from school to school or from one grade level to another, it is typical (and easy) to communicate test scores and grades. But test scores and grades don't always reflect a student's progress over time — a crucial component of success. 


Most classroom teachers would agree that assessments provide only a snapshot of a student's abilities on a certain topic or skill; however, they do not show an accurate and detailed picture of student learning.  


I assert that teachers should regularly monitor and document students' progress in meeting their individualized goals and objectives. This will establish baseline data, identify progress, and provide a roadmap for learning support teachers.


To begin effective teaching from day one, support teachers at a new school or grade level need comprehensive data on their new students' learning abilities, not just grades. 


For example, if a student is working on sight word recognition, a letter or number grade in reading or language arts does not provide enough details. However, reporting that a student moved from 45% to 75% mastery of second-grade sight words within four months gives the teacher an idea of how that student has improved, what they still need to learn, and how long it might take. 


With specific and thorough data from previous teachers, the new teachers can focus on progress rather than spend critical education time assessing new students just to get a sense of their baseline skills.


Documentation of Strategy Implementation


While essential, having a clear picture of a student's progress over time sheds light on only a small piece of the whole picture of student learning.  It is also crucial that teachers can answer questions on how students made that progress. For instance:


  • What teaching strategies and interventions were successful?
  • What are the methods of connecting with specific students (interests, hobbies, social strategies, etc.)?
  • What modifications and accommodations proved useful?
  • Are there specific classroom management techniques that worked well?


Having answers to these questions in addition to progress data enables a teacher to utilize teaching techniques that have worked in the past and avoid those that haven't. For this information to transition with the student, teachers must first document how strategies were implemented and evaluated. 



There's much work to be done to foster positive transitions in international schools, but it can be done. The ultimate goals are to avoid gaps in education, reduce transition-induced stress, and help students develop resiliency and healthy patterns of transition. Specifically, schools should:

  • Document student progress over time with concrete data
  • Document strategies and techniques that work best for each student
  • Establish a standard for communicating information between grade levels and schools
  • Evaluate their transition programs regularly
  • Provide staff training in the area of transitions

April Remfrey is an American educational consultant and author of STEP - Strategic Tracking of Educational Progress. April helps international schools better serve their students and assists globally mobile families as they search for the best school for their children with neurodiversities and disabilities. Please feel free to share this blog post by giving credit to the author and the website link: remfreyeducationalconsulting.com.