International family transitions in a post-Covid world

This new webinar, part of the Great International Education and Schools Fair, sees certified education transitions coach Aleka Bilan of SPAN and Fiona Murchie discuss how every family member can have a happy landing.

Relocate Global’s Fiona Murchie talks to Aleka Bilan about how Covid has changed transitions practices in schools and organisations: and why good transitions care has never been more important.For internationally mobile families – not just the lead assignee – adapting to change and undergoing transition is a fact of life. Moving from home-to-host or host-to-host country brings with it stress and anxiety. Yet it can bring great rewards for everyone if transitions are managed well.
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A growing number of international schools and educators, enlightened relocation management companies and employers – including our Relocate Think Global People Award winners and Great International Education and Schools Fair participants – understand this.  This is thanks to the work of organisations like Safe Passage Across Networks (SPAN) and individuals like its founder, Doug Ota, Aleka Bilan and their colleagues.All are engaged as part of a global community to increase wider understanding of why good transition care matters in global mobility, and to help build better transitions care practices in organisations and schools around the world.“It’s really important to put transitions care at the forefront to make sure you’re getting the best learning, the best teaching and the best work out of all members of the family that have made this move,” explains Aleka Bilan.“At SPAN, we really are trying to increase the ability of networks in schools and the ability of a family moving school to school, country to country, to create a much smoother experience; for a parent to see what their target country might be like and for relocation specialists and for corporations to say ‘ah, this is a SPAN partner school.”

Why is transition support in education so important – and vital post-Covid?

For families relocating internationally as well as locally, schools have often been the foundation for making a good transition – and therefore for a successful international assignment overall.“I think particularly in the international schools setting, schools have seen themselves as the welcomers and community for globally mobile parents and families for a very long time,” explains Aleka Bilan, who has raised two children in host countries and spent over half her life outside of her passport country. Having the tools to do this well is therefore critical for schools and everyone involved in international assignments.Research into transitions care for “third-culture kids” (TCKs) and children from cross-cultural families is a growing area. SPAN bases much of its approach on the work of academic John Hattie. A key conclusion of his meta study into what impact a student’s learning is that if a child is not settled, then they cannot learn effectively.“For that reason, schools need to be at the forefront of transition care because learning is our business,” says Aleka Bilan. “If we are not taking care of families and staff, as well and the teachers and their families, who are moving back and forth across the world, then we’re really not taking care of the learning.“What we found is that if you can positively manage transitions as a school, then you’re going to help everyone who is going through that move,” continues Aleka Bilan. “It starts at the pre-entry gate before admissions. Admissions officers are really key in that work. They need to make sure that families are feeling welcome and know what their options are. Then it continues right the way through the school from when the student is arriving, their first day in a virtual classroom or on campus.”

Transition care practice post-Covid

Saying 'good hellos', as well as 'good goodbyes', is a central tenet of positive transitions. But successive lockdowns around the world have increased the frequency of these hellos and goodbyes and made them more difficult in practice – for the short-term at least.At the beginning of the pandemic, national-border closures saw many families separated and some making unforeseen transitions, for example into third countries because of quarantine regulations. Today, many children are still moving between remote and classroom learning, and potentially between home, host and quarantine locations, often at very short notice.This is heightening the need for conversations, like these as part of the Great International Education and Schools’ Fair, around what makes good transitions support, how Covid has changed this and made it more urgent.“Right now, it’s like death by a 1,000 cuts,” says Aleka Bilan. “It’s lots of mini transitions over and over again as we go into and out of lockdowns in virtual school or classrooms. It’s a very good point about how can we say a good goodbye when we need to board a plane in 24 hours? This continues to be important as we ride out the pandemic.“With Covid, at the beginning, schools were scrambling to do in person the same things they were doing before, like making sure that families were cared for as they were leaving school as well arriving in schools. What I’m happy to see now is that schools have expanded to the larger community because they felt particularly there was so much isolation at home and so much pressure on parents to be the teachers.”

Community building throughout Covid-19

As in the workplace, technology played a key role in this time, particularly for welcoming new families. “We found lots of schools who took a cell phone camera around and filmed the virtual tour of the school, even if they hadn’t had that up on their website before,” notes Aleka Bilan.These virtual tours also worked particularly well for every family before school re-openings with new regulations about social distancing in public areas and desk spacing.With anxiety and stress commonplace both at a time of international relocation and throughout Covid, particularly among children and young people, some schools and parent communities scheduled online discussions alongside screenings of mental wellbeing documentaries to open up the conversation about this important topic alongside virtual games nights and quizzes.“We have seen a lot of anxiety,” says Aleka Bilan. “We just need to acknowledge that even in schools in countries that are back at school in person, it’s not normal again. If we are not taking care of underlying fear, uncertainty and anxiety, then the emotional needs of our students are not going to met. I’m seeing more and more social and emotional learning, which is a sort of buzz word for this type of approach in any school. More time and resources are being granted to that kind of care around the world.”

Advice for internationally mobile families looking for schools

What is clear from Relocate Global’s conversations with schools around the world and feedback from parents and students is appreciation for this kind of communication and emotional learning support from schools. It has cemented a very strong sense of trust.Prospective parents and students starting to look into international education options could find out how schools have been supporting their parent and student communities over the last year or so to gain insight into its transitions support.“In the months since the pandemic broke, there has been an incredible amount of creativity in how to do this,” continues Aleka Bilan. “What we are seeing in The Nest, which is our monthly online gathering for individuals providing transitions care in schools and organisations, and in our training course, is the ideas for how schools can do this virtually have been fantastic.“Schools practitioners and schools really see themselves as building community and being a community, even if that has to be virtually and across several time zones. I think everything was much more intentional. There’s been lots of community building with parents, like Bake Off nights and then if it was safe to do so then doing delivery of the different bakes and leaving them on their doorstep.“One school I know had a standing Happy Hour once a week for the staff that morphed into a pub quiz night kind of thing, but really they said bring your cup of choice. For some that was an early morning cup of tea or coffee and for others that was a late-night nightcap. But that brought the staff together.”

Schools focusing on supporting transitions earlier

The shift to more individualised and people-centred approaches to global mobility and greater awareness of the importance of healthy transitions support among schools, employers and relocation and destination services providers will likely be hastened by the pandemic. Another outcome Aleka Bilan sees is more time and resources focused on the transition timeline.“The wonderful silver lining of the pandemic is that all of us have gone through it,” says Aleka Bilan. “It’s a global humanity experience. Sometimes in mobility we can feel we are the only family going through this, particularly in repatriation. It can feel quite isolating. But the fact is that all of us are experiencing minor transitions in the day to day.“The pandemic has really forced, not only schools, but also universities, to create a longer transitions runway,” continues Aleka Bilan. “It may have been that a family did a school or site visit in location in the host country. But now I’m finding that admissions officers and programmes are reaching out across countries. They are really making sure that a family is feeling welcome much before pre-departure and providing lots of those kinds of orientation services for that.”For families planning their international move, it’s a good idea to look for schools that have these frameworks and practices in place and ask: how will you take care of my student during this transition; what are the programmes that you have in place, not only for my student but also for ourselves? “They are thinking about those questions and are able to give you ready answers,” advises Aleka Bilan.

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