By Jane Barron and Danielle Pringle

Jane Barron and Danielle Pringle have long been champions of the wellbeing and welfare of international students in Australian schools. In this article, they share practical solutions for supporting your international and overseas school students through the uncertainty of the COVID-19 Outbreak and offer insight for implementing robust measures for sustainable best-practice support.

The COVID-19 Outbreak is a rapidly evolving situation. The extension of Australia’s travel restrictions for mainland China reflects the seriousness and uncertainty that prevails across the country and the globe.  We can’t help but be affected by the images and stories flooding our news and social media feeds, highlighting the impact it is having on people, places, perspectives and prosperity.  In Australia, over 8000km away from the Wuhan epicentre, international education providers are scrambling to effectively support their students, including those in the secondary school sector.


Often the ‘forgotten child’ in the international education rhetoric, secondary schools are becoming more popular as an entry point for international students to study in Australia. They allow students to gain better fluency in their written and spoken English, acclimatise to the Australian educational and social cultures, receive proper preparation for Australian tertiary entry and may provide a better chance of being accepted into an Australian university or college. In 2013, 17,739 international students enrolled in Australian schools, according to the Australian Government: Department of Education, Skills and Training. In 2019, this had increased to 25,564 enrolments in Australian schools which represents approximately 2.7% of the international student population in Australia. Of these students, 12,716 hold passports from The People’s Republic of China and according to Austrade, 32% (4,047) of them are currently outside Australia.  While not officially meeting the CRICOS definition of an ‘international student,’ the number of school students impacted by the COVID-19 Outbreak is likely to be higher as they do not include overseas students such as Third Culture Kids who are currently enrolled in Australian schools while their families are residing outside Australia due to their parents’ choice of employment or study, and students with Chinese heritage, living overseas but holding Australian passports, not to mention those caught up in quarantine and travel bans. Each number represents a human being, disrupted in the midst of their developmental years. Many of them choose to study in Australia to take advantage of our educational culture including the development of their critical and creative thinking skills. It is time for us to role model some ‘out of the box’ thinking to support them. In the sentiments of Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, let’s lean in to vulnerability, get curious and learn from this challenging time. So what can schools do to support their international school students? Now. And in the future.

4 Ways to Support Your International Students Now and in the Future:

  1. Prioritise wellbeing: Emotions are the solid shelf that supports a human being’s cognitive glassware. They are not an add-on but a dimension of learning. In extraordinary and fluid situations such as the current COVID-19 Outbreak, fear, uncertainty, frustration and sadness are just some of the emotions which can hijack the brain and make it even more challenging to learn. Much has been written about Australia’s global reputation, the impact on the economy and class sizes determining if courses will run, but the reality is that how we support and equip our international students to manage their wellbeing during this challenge (and every other challenge they will face) will determine all these other factors.

I. Overseas Student Liaison. Whether you have 5, 50 or 500 international students enrolled at your school, you need a central person who can build and maintain a trusting relationship with students and their families while also being their advocate to staff and school leadership.

II. Communication is key. Checking in with your students and their families is the most important thing you can do at this time. Equipping your staff, international students and their peers with some of these tools may enhance open and honest communication and support mental wellbeing. The following suggestions take into account cultural reluctances to acknowledging mental wellbeing. Be sure to read on to learn how technology can assist you in this.

      • SWEET LifeSWEET Life – developed by the Massachusetts General Hospital specifically for conversing with international students, this acronym provides a skilful, culturally sensitive strategy for exploring and evaluating the mental wellbeing of students.
      • Check-In App – designed by Youth Beyond Blue for anyone who wants to check in with a friend (or student) but is concerned about saying the wrong thing.
      • 5 Ways to Wellbeing – encourage students (and staff, because staff need to role model wellbeing too) to engage with, reflect upon and dialogue these 5 Ways to Wellbeing
      • Learn from International Schools in China – take a leaf out of the Counselling Department at Dulwich College Suzhou. Put this Managing Your Mental Health During COVID-19 infographic on your website, post it on your social media feeds and print it off and display it around your school walls. Please acknowledge the source – Dulwich College Suzhou, China.
      • Seek help – Of course, if you are concerned about the wellbeing of any of your students, please seek assistance from your certified Youth Mental Health First Aider (and if you don’t have one, sign up for the course to become one right away), your school counsellor or professional help.

III. MindfulnessProviding opportunities and resources for students, families and staff to participate in mindfulness activities can improve their lives in a number of ways. Just 10 minutes of “mindfulness can potentially make studying more efficient, can help you retain and utilise important information in your work and even help something as simple as remembering a person’s name or a story they shared with you,” say Adam Lueke, researcher and assistant teaching professor at Ball State University.

      • Smiling Mind App – developed by Australian psychologists and educators, this App has age appropriate mindfulness activities that can be used individually or as a group/class/staff meeting activity.
      • Breathing Exercises – Conscious, controlled breathing calms the nervous system in a short amount of time. Choose one or two of these quick breathing exercises one-on-one, in a group and share them with your school community. They work a treat with children, teens and adults too.
    1. technology
  1. Utilise technology: With students and families spread far beyond our shores, technology is your friend. Karl Suits, Director of Technology at Hangzhou International School, China, is well respected throughout the region for his technology expertise. He offers this timely advice. “The COVID-19 Outbreak came upon us suddenly and schools in China, the Asia region and throughout the world have been scrambling to find the best ways to facilitate E-learning. Mainland China is particularly challenging due to the ‘Great Firewall’, which is forcing schools to think creatively about the platforms they use and the expectations they have of their students and parents. It’s not a ‘one size fits all’ situation. Catering for a cross-section of ages and grade levels proves challenging to support students on a variety of devices and networks. In fact, China is experiencing the most network usage ever, with this working and learning from home experience.”

Karl recommends the following successfully used platforms for schools and families.

I. WeChat– In mainland China, WeChat has been successfully used to communicate between teachers, parents and students for video chats with up to nine users at a time.

II. Zoom– Zoom free accounts allow for video calls up to 100 participants at a time and allow for video recording and screen sharing.  Families in China are able to request the Zoom Pro version for free during the COVID-19 Outbreak with the use of their cell phone number at the domain, which allows for unlimited meeting lengths.  Note that video recording options are important for asynchronous E-learning where students and teachers may be accessing learning from different time zones.

III. Office 365– Schools using Office 365 have been using Microsoft Teams effectively in addition to their primary Learning Management Systems.  It allows for video calls by an entire class, screen recording, assignments with grades, and remote access for assistance from tech staff.  Teachers are having success posting videos to Microsoft OneDrive (in 540p or less resolution) and domestic platforms like Youku, but with up to a 24 hour wait time to post. Additional enrichment and E-learning software is working to varying degrees on and off of VPN by city but should first be tested before use.

“Remember that the goal of E-learning is to create meaningful educational experiences for students outside of the classroom – it is not essential that E-learning activities take place on a computer or require students to sit all day at a device or computer,” says Karl. “The secret is finding ways to motivate authentic learning through a variety of activities and assignments on an ongoing basis.”

“Teachers and families throughout China have been doing a fantastic job of finding ways to communicate and motivate learning in their homes during this difficult time,” he says. Using these technology tools, Australian schools can do the same.

wuhan-sand lake park
Sand Lake Park, Wuhan, China

3. Beware of Geographical Ignorance and Racism: China is not Asia and Asia is not China. The COVID-19 Outbreak has uncovered some interesting beliefs here in Australia, resulting in some schools mistakenly quarantining all students from the Asia region, even though they have not travelled through, in or near China and individuals making ill-informed assumptions about others’ cultural heritage and health.

I. Where is China? Talk about a teachable moment! The COVID-19 Outbreak provides the perfect opportunity to dive deep into the geography, politics, people, cultures and languages of mainland China. Use your students who reside or have resided in China to teach your school community. Quality social media and blogs can provide you with up-to-the-minute documentary style accounts of life in Wuhan and China right now, like this post from Rebecca Arendall Franks. Good things are happening amidst this unprecedented event.

II. Asia and Australia’s Engagement with AsiaThis is one of the Australian Curriculum’s cross-curriculum priorities. How is your school embedding it throughout your curriculum? Now is a perfect time to review from K -12.

III. Be Kind– Role model kindness, encourage and praise random acts of kindness you see and hear about in your community and do not, under any circumstances, tolerate racism. If racist remarks or behaviours come from a place of ignorance, see above. If they come from a place far more sinister, enact your Anti-Bullying Policy and seek professional help immediately from your school counsellor. Use the hashtag #inthistogether when posting images of your school community showing kindness and unity towards others.

kids holidays hosting students

  1. Prepare for the upcoming School Holidays: It is just 6 weeks until most Australian schools break for the Autumn holidays. As each day of this COVID-19 Outbreak continues, it becomes clearer that there is no quick fix. This means schools need to plan ahead. International and overseas students who are actually in the country may not be able to return home for the holidays.

I. Consider keeping your boarding house openAs many of our international and overseas students attend Australian boarding schools, providing accommodation and care for them during this time of uncertainty will bring peace of mind to families and students and offer some respite from the ongoing upheaval. Yes, it may mean paying staff extra to be there over the holidays. It also means that you can provide a nurturing and comfortable environment for your international students and the confidence that they are safe and will be able to continue their studies after the holiday break.

II. Ensure your school’s Learning Management System (LMS) is internationally accessible – Some international and overseas students may choose to stay with family or friends in other countries outside of China over the school holidays. For senior students in particular, it is essential that your school’s LMS is accessible outside of Australia so they can access their work, past papers and tasks set by their teachers.

III. Encourage your school community to host an international or overseas studentThe recent bushfires, floods and ongoing drought have reminded us that Australians have an incredible ability to rally the troops and care selflessly for their neighbours. This is another of those times. The COVID-19 Outbreak provides a real-life opportunity for your school community to open their homes and holidays to those in need. What a great way to share the Australian culture, landscape and kindness of its people to our international and overseas students! Imagine the conversations, the experiences and the perspectives that can be gained, heard and understood and the empathy that can prevail. Just picture what your playgrounds, quadrangles, classrooms and school culture could look and feel like after this holiday period…

In this constantly changing world, we have come to realise that disruptive events such as the COVID-19 Outbreak are likely to occur again. Schools must be prepared to ask the question: where do our school’s vulnerabilities lie in relation to supporting and empowering our international and overseas students? Some of the support mechanisms suggested above can be easily implemented. Others, such as the technology elements and curriculum reviews, require intentionality and collaboration. Sustainable best-practice support for international and overseas students requires a comprehensive school-based transition program that includes pre-arrival and onboarding practices and support, ongoing cross-cultural transition care and support for successful transitioning from school to tertiary. It also comprises staff professional learning opportunities around culturally responsive pedagogy and care, peer and school community cultural empathy education and most importantly, best-practice support requires the evaluation of your school culture. Does your school have a culture of integration; “an intentional process to create community, by encouraging domestic and international students to engage with one another in ongoing interaction, characterised by mutual respect, responsibility, action and commitment”? (Young, 2014)

Misinformation, uncertainty, fear and frustration seem to be common themes swirling around the COVID-19 Outbreak. We hope that this article will push through all of that to give you confidence in taking action to support your international and overseas students, families and school community now and in the future. Let’s join together to lean in to this challenging and unsettling season and use it, not as a stumbling block, but as a stepping-stone towards best-practice support and care.

 About the authors:

Jane Barron (MEd) is a youth intercultural transition specialist, culturally responsive educator, researcher, speaker and author with 27 years’ experience in both international and local schools, a parent of two cross-cultural children, a child of a domestically mobile family and a repatriate to Australia. She has seen and understands the impact of crossing cultures on individuals. Founder of Globally Grounded, Jane consults to international and local schools, families and students crossing cultures; developing their understanding of the impact of cross-cultural mobility, evaluating, designing and implementing support mechanisms and programs to enhance learning and life.

Danielle Pringle (B.Com) is Director of Student Concierge Connect. With extensive expertise and knowledge as an international relocation specialist and as a former boarder and boarder parent, together with the sound research and education in Third Culture Kids and cross-cultural issues among educators and families, Danielle is equipped to support students and staff on the journey towards an optimal Australian schooling experience. Founder of Student Concierge Services, she is focused on servicing the needs of students living and learning away from home and assisting with the selection of schools and placement of students in schools and universities in Australia.

Image Credits:

Pixabay – Peggy Marco, 6689062, Pinoz, Stocksnap

SWEET Life – Jane Barron


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