Writing over at the International School Magazine, I take a look through the eyes of a globally mobile student to investigate mobility’s impact on learning – and what schools can offer in support.

Educators, parents and students in an international school community, please read this article and forward it onto your colleagues, your children’s teachers and your teachers respectively. Let’s partner together to place globally mobile students in a position to succeed both inside and outside the classroom.

Dear Teacher,

Like most of the students in your classroom, I am a globally mobile kid. I have spent a significant portion of my developmental years living in at least one culture that is different from my passport culture. By the time I finish my international school education, it’s highly likely I will have experienced more meaningful losses and separations than most people experience in a lifetime. Did you know that whilst living a globally mobile life comes with many benefits, it can also impact my learning? Please let me tell you about it and what you can do to support me, so that mobility does not inhibit my learning but enhance it.

Moving is hard. I’m not the only one who thinks this. I’ve heard grown-ups say that moving is as stressful as death and divorce, and the hardest of all moves is repatriating. I’m not looking forward to that one! Researchers have recently confirmed my thoughts too: here are some examples.

A 2016 Danish study led by Dr Robert T Webb found that, regardless of socioeconomic background, links between childhood residential mobility and negative outcomes in later life were widespread, particularly if frequent mobility occurred in early/mid adolescence. Between 2009 and 2018, in four studies, Professor John Hattie identified that one of the top five factors most detrimental to learning was unmanaged mobility. In March 2016, Australia’s NSW Department of Education concluded that students who change schools several times do worse in literacy and numeracy than their peers. This research has brought me comfort. I’m not crazy. All the weird things going on inside me are because I live a globally mobile life.

How does Mobility Impact My Learning? 

“At any school with a high degree of turnover, transitions affect everyone – staff, parent or student – and regardless of whether a person is moving or being moved away from” say SPAN (Safe Passage Across Networks), leaders in supporting and connecting school-based programs that address international mobility. For me (and other globally mobile students), mobility impacts my academic, social, emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing and causes me to ask questions about my identity. Let me explain.

Academically, there are gaps in my learning because each school I go to has a different curriculum. It worries me. Will I ever catch up? Will my current knowledge be valued?

Socially, leaving old friends and making new friends is stressful, not to mention decoding new social norms. Working through the grief and loss of saying goodbye, suppressing the feeling of disloyalty to my old friends whilst trying to make new friends are just some of the challenges I face.

Emotionally, we students arrive at a new school feeling sad and anxious. Sad, because we have lost the familiar old life. Anxious, because everything is new and unknown. Add in anger at our parents who made us move here and we have a jumble of emotions that makes focusing on schoolwork incredibly difficult. I can’t even begin to discuss what happens when I stay and my friends leave.

Physically, all of this takes a toll on my body. Sometimes, the strain of mobility causes me to have stomach cramps and headaches, physical hyper-sensitivity and cultural fatigue that’s exhausting. Memory loss is also common in globally mobile children who have so much going on in their world before, during and after The Moving Season. It’s reassuring to know why I’m a bit forgetful right now.

Spiritually, I’ve been asking a lot of questions about a Higher Power and myself. Some days I feel strong in my faith and that gives me a peaceful feeling, but on other days I feel abandoned and get angry, which just adds to my stress.

With all this upheaval, I think it’s quite natural to ask ‘Who am I?’. When people ask that dreaded question, ‘Where are you from?’, I feel confused. My passport says one thing but my heart says another based on the cultures in which I have lived and built relationship. I’m not sure who I am. I don’t feel confident. It’s not surprising that research shows that students like me can struggle in the classroom. Thankfully, there are things you can do to help me.

Steps for Supporting Me

I don’t want these challenges to be traumatic for my fellow international school students or me. I want to overcome these challenges. Douglas Ota is a transition expert, psychologist and author who has spent the majority of his professional life working with globally mobile kids like me, and international schools who educate us, to help address the challenges associated with mobility. He suggests the following steps will help you to help me make these challenges levers for growth.

  1. Actively manage your own grief

It’s tiring working in an environment of regular goodbyes isn’t it? It can seem easier to avoid goodbyes altogether. That’s not true. I need to learn how to “maintain emotional health and (develop my) ability to tighten and loosen relationship bonds”, says Ota. Please show me how to grieve the loss of my friends and teachers. I know you can only do this if you’re comfortable in dealing with grief yourself. If I can get this right in my school years, it will help me in all my relationships ahead.

  1. Develop and implement a comprehensive school- based transition program

This looks different at each school, but transition programs significantly reduce the negative impact of mobility upon students’ learning. By supporting the Leaver, the Arriver and the Stayer, staff, parents and students 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 trauma; managed mobility can be full of positives. Please put a Transition Team together to look at what we already do, what we can do better and how we can learn from others so that, as Ota says, “parents can parent well, teachers can teach well and all in the ultimate service of achieving a goal common to all schools, namely that students can learn well”.

  1. Collaborate with other international schools

It’s likely I will soon be moving on to a new school. “The emotional processes generated by transitions transcend school walls and ignore academic calendars.” Douglas Ota is right. Please can you work together with the other international schools to help me transition from here to there, and others transition from there to here? We can then build on a solid foundation and make the most of this incredible opportunity to live a globally mobile life.

It is predicted that my current generation, Gen Z, will have seventeen different jobs, five different careers and live in fifteen different homes. Change will be our constant companion. I need to learn to engage in the process of change to succeed in this 21st century. By providing focused attention and nurturing, you and our school can help all of our staff, families and students to engage effectively in every transition in life, whatever the context. Please, help our school to support everyone in our international school community so that mobility is not traumatic but is a springboard for growth, not an inhibitor to learning but an activator of learning. Thank you for caring and placing me in a position to succeed, both inside and outside the classroom.


Your student


Hattie, J. (2018) Hattie Ranking: 252 Influences and Effect Sizes Related to Student Achievement, Available from: 

NSW Government Centre for Education, Statistics & Evaluation (2016) Mobility of Students in NSW Government Schools, Available from: in-nsw-government-schools

Ota, D. (2015) Safe Passage: How mobility affects people & what international schools should do about it. Norwich: Summertime Publishing

Safe Passage Across Networks (SPAN): Leaders in supporting & connecting school-based programs that address international mobility, Available from:

Webb, R.T., Pederson, C.B., Mok, P.L.H. (2016) Adverse Outcomes to Early Middle Age Linked With Childhood Residential Mobility, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 51, 3, 291–300, Available from: 

Want to read the published version? You’ll find the complete article here – Page 61 of International School Magazine, Summer|Autumn, Volume 19, Issue 2, 2017.

As a domestically mobile child, I have been this student. As a Mum to two globally mobile kids, I parent this student. As a teacher in both international and local schools, I have taught this student. As an intercultural transition specialist, I come alongside this student, their family and the people who educate her/him to ensure that mobility is not an inhibitor to learning but an activator and enhancer of learning and life.

May this article provoke dialogue and action in yourself, your family and your school…and if you need help to be equipped with the tools to do this well, please contact us. Equipping families and schools to support and empower their cross-cultural learners is what we do best.

Updated 2021


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