International mobility and learning

The bad news and the good news

Jane Barron investigates the impact of international mobility on learning and what can be done to support students through the challenges of transition from country to country 

It’s a fact: international mobility impacts learning.

Teachers in International Schools know it. Psychologists such as Douglas Ota and Lois Bushong know it.



Researchers including Professor John Hattie and Australia’s NSW Department of Education know it too. On the surface, the news looks bad for students who move schools out-of-synch with normal transitions (such as beginning high school). The first step to addressing any problem is to identify it. From there, we can work towards a solution . . . . and the good news is, there is a solution.

First the bad news

australia-2594475623_e345ab842f_zMoving is regarded as causing stress equal to that engendered by death and divorce. Of all moves, repatriating is the hardest. In 2009, Professor John Hattie published the largest educational study of its time, looking at what actually worked to improve student learning. Ranked 138 out of 138 (i.e. the single factor most detrimental to learning), was unmanaged mobility.

He has since updated his research twice. In 2011, mobility continued to be the most detrimental factor in learning, whilst in 2015, it ranked 194 out of 195, only “beaten” by depression, and we know that unmanaged mobility often leads to depression.

Recent research from Australia’s NSW Department of Education aligns with Hattie’s research and from my experience as a domestically mobile child, a parent of two globally mobile children and a former teacher in an International school. The Department’s research found that students who change schools several times do worse in literacy and numeracy than their peers. In the Australian state of New South Wales alone, 54,000 government school students change schools each year, 1 in 4 students change schools at least once, 55% of school moves occur during the school year and 1 in 8 schools have high levels of student mobility. Imagine what the statistics would say for the International School sector?

Why does mobility impact learning?

australia-drinkwise_socially_awkward-20130828134520-jpg-q75dx720y432u1r1ggcTransitioning to a new environment is hard. It impacts the academic, social, emotional, physical and spiritual elements of a child . . . and their family. 

  • Academically, gaps in learning are inevitable as schools design their own curriculum based on their educational authority’s syllabus, their vision and guiding principles. 
  • Socially, leaving old friends and making new friends is onerous. Working through the grief and loss of saying goodbye, suppressing the feeling of disloyalty to old friends whilst trying to make new friends and dissecting the new social norms are just some of the challenges associated with the lack of belonging in a new school.
  • Emotionally, these domestically and globally mobile students arrive at a new school feeling sad and anxious. Sad, because they have lost the familiar old life and anxious, because everything is new and unknown. Add in anger at the parents who made them move and we have a cocktail of emotional turmoil that makes focusing on schoolwork incredibly difficult.
  • Physically, all of the above takes a toll on a child’s or adolescent’s body. Symptoms of the strain such as stomach cramps and headaches, physical hyper-sensitivity and cultural fatigue resulting in exhaustion, are common. Importantly, memory loss can also be apparent in mobile children who have so much going on in their world at this time.
  • Spiritually, it is common for questions to be asked about a Higher Power and themselves. When there is no support network to cling to in a new environment, some students may grow stronger in their faith resulting in an inner peace whilst others may feel abandoned or angry thus adding more stress.

australia-fig-1691909_960_720With a transition to a new environment, questions of ‘Who am I?’ are natural. The development of identity is inextricably linked to self-confidence and developed by learning basic cultural cues from society, as children. In many cases, for domestically and globally mobile children, those cultural cues keep changing as they move from one culture to another or even one sub-culture to another. Their assurance of who they are and their self-confidence can be compromised.

Add to all of this, the fact that other family members are also transitioning to a new environment and going through their own challenges plus comprehensive school-based programs for handling the challenges associated with moving rarely exist so finding support can be difficult, if not impossible. It is not surprising the statistics show that these students can struggle in the classroom.

Now the good news

Amongst those NSW Department of Education statistics was one that, as an advisor to schools & families on transition, concerned me greatly. 1 in 8 government schools have high levels of student mobility. What are they doing to support their students through the challenges of transition? What are you doing to support your students through the challenges associated with transition?

Unmanaged mobility is what causes the trauma; managed mobility can be full of positives.

By developing and implementing a comprehensive school-based transitions program, schools can significantly reduce the negative impact of mobility upon their students’ learning. Whilst this looks different at each school, by supporting the Leaver, the Arriver and the Stayer, staff, students and parents can learn to think about transitions as a process, a life experience that can be purposefully managed . . . and that is the key. Unmanaged mobility is what causes the trauma; managed mobility can be full of positives.

australia-breakthrough_miami_students_in_class_at_palmer_trinity_school_nov_2013It is predicted that Generation Z, our current students, will have seventeen different jobs, five different careers and live in fifteen different homes. Learning to engage proactively in the process of transition will be a vital skill for success in the 21st Century. By providing focused attention and nurturing, whilst looking carefully at one transition, schools can help their staff, students and their families to engage more effectively in all transitions in life – whatever the context. Comprehensive transitions programs can ensure that mobility is not traumatic but a springboard for growth, not an inhibitor to learning but a facilitator of learning.


jvb-portrait-colour-1Jane Barron

Jane is a Youth Intercultural Transitions Specialist and Culturally Responsive Educator driven to improve emotional, social and educational outcomes for culturally diverse, domestically and globally mobile students and their families. For more about her work, see: Twitter: @GloballygroundD, Facebook: Globally Grounded

Further Reading:

Hattie, J. (2015) Hattie Ranking: 195 Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement URL:

NSW Government Centre for Education, Statistics & Evaluation (2016) Mobility of Students in NSW Government Schools URL:

Ota, D. (2105) Safe Passage: How mobility affects people & what international schools should do about it. Great Britain: Summertime Publishing

Bushong, L. (2013) Belonging Everywhere & Nowhere: Insights into Counseling the Globally Mobile, Indianapolis, USA: Mango Tree Intercultural Services


Feature Image: Pixabay

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