International School Students in Transition

Edryc James P. Binoya on Unsplash Magnifying Mountains Clouds

Life is composed of transitions, they often drive us forward and sometimes hold us back, but they are consistent in that they are inevitable. Transition can be natural, unconscious, and unavoidable like a baby learning to walk, or an experience we choose after much contemplation such as buying a home. Throughout our lives we are exposed to transitions we have little control over, those that are put upon us and affect us greatly, like a best friend moving away or the loss of a job or loved one. Transitions can create chaos, require a leap of faith, induce anxiety, and ignite a sense of loss. But, they also offer opportunity for essential growth, teach us how to create stability amongst turmoil, develop coping skills, and grapple with self-awareness. 

In an effort to help children develop confidence and resiliency in the face of life’s many transitions, educators and parents must prioritize the importance of early transitional experiences in school. We all remember what it was like to transition to a new school or move from one grade to the next.  There were many factors that 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, when transitions are negative, time for learning and social development is often delayed. 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 surveyed self-selected participants were working 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 schools face transition, whether from students entering or exiting their school or moving from grade to grade, best practices have not been established.  Most schools are not conducting evaluations to determine if their programs are meeting the needs of students.  The summary of their results suggests that in order 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 wakeup call to educators, prompting them to prioritize and rethink their understanding and approach to student transition. 

Transition for Students with Different Learning Needs

As the founder of Remfrey Educational Consulting, an organization that assists globally mobile families through the process of finding the right school for their child with special needs, 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. During the lifetime of that student in the international system, that is seven moves requiring a total of 21 months of transition time, when learning and overall experience is diluted. However, if a school can provide students with a system or program that reduces the length of initial transition by even a month, 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 students with special needs, who often take longer to transition.

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

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, I and many other teachers have come to the conclusion that 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 would like to assert that the progress a student makes in meeting his/her individualized goals and objectives is monitored and documented on a regular basis.  This will establish baseline data, identify progress, and provide a roadmap for learning support teachers.

In order 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, if it’s reported that a student moved from 45% to 75% mastery of second-grade sight words within four months the teacher then has an idea of how that student has improved, what he still needs 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 on assessing new students just to get a sense of their baseline skills. 

Documentation of Implementation

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

  • What teaching strategies have been implemented and 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. In order for this information to transition with the student it must first be documented as to how it was implemented and evaluated and then communicated to the new teacher.

STEP: A Tool for Progress Monitoring and Documenting Implementation

In addition to supporting families, I work directly with international schools assisting them with documenting student progress and successful teaching techniques for those students with special needs. Through a partnership with UnitusTI, I was able to create STEP, a platform for schools, outside service providers, and families to gather critical information related to goal setting and progress monitoring. When schools utilize STEP they are able to streamline a vital component of student success, enabling teachers to make informed curriculum decisions, and understand exactly how their students are performing over time. STEP can play a significant role in guiding transitions, whether from one grade to another or from school to school, by providing future educators with the information needed to build informed and appropriate programs. 

In summary, much work needs to be done in order to foster positive transitions in international schools, with the ultimate goals of avoiding gaps in education, reducing transition induced stress, and helping 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.

Please feel free to contact the author with any questions regarding student transitions within the international school system and/or STEP: Strategic Tracking of Educational Progress.

April Remfrey is an American special needs consultant and Author of STEP - Strategic Tracking of Educational Progress living and loving life in Switzerland. April helps globally mobile families as they search for the best school for their child with special needs. Please feel free to share this blog post by giving credit to the author and the website link: