Students will have been exposed to multiple forced transitions and traumatic events prior to arriving in Australia. Whether moving to secondary school from primary school, or entering school for the first time, children and young people of refugee backgrounds have specific transitional needs. Schools that support transitions well see students’ recovery accelerated and their engagement with school enriched.

This Section

Understanding Transitions

Three Aspects of Transitions

The social aspect of transitions holds utmost importance for students. Deeply impacting upon all other aspects, the social dimensions of transition are critical for students’ engagement and investment in schooling. (Hiorth 2017:191)

Students’ transition experiences comprise three aspects requiring effective strategies:

School Climate

The formal and informal structures of schools and their established patterns of organisational practice, dimensions include:

  • Formal procedures.
  • School culture.
  • Orientation and access to the school.

Explicit in-class scholarship as well as implicit learning about what is expected of an Australian student, dimensions include:

  • Language and literacy.
  • Key learning areas.
  • Socio-cultural expectations.

The connections amongst peers and with teachers, as well as the comfort and security felt by students in the school community, dimensions include:

  • Relationships.
  • Belonging.
  • Wellbeing.

Three Phases of Transitions

Transitions are ongoing for students of refugee backgrounds and involve three phases across which students require support from schools and outside agencies.

The first phase of transition occurs after arrival at the English language school (ELS). Good transitions here are crucial to supporting newly arrived children and families beginning their recovery through settlement in Australia.

Newly arrived children and young people typically undertake 6–12 months of intensive study at an ELS before attending a mainstream school. They are required to enrol within six months of arrival (or 18 months for Prep Foundation year learners).

Students are placed in small classes and follow a curriculum designed for EAL learners. This is a time of preparation for moving ahead to a mainstream school, and is marked by significant transition moments such as enrolment and orientation to the new school.

Things to consider

  • It is important for you to know about children’s schooling and language transitions before they arrived in Australia.
  • A child or young person may have multiple languages spoken but academic proficiency in none.
  • When a student exhibits learning and behavioural difficulties you should initially interpret this through a trauma lens.
  • Some students may be unfamiliar with class rules/structures including the need to pay attention, follow instructions, complete assessments, printed materials and computers.
  • The influence of potential health problems should not be overlooked when assessing children’s learning ability.

What you can do

  • Partner with nearby mainstream schools to establish transition (or bridging) programs, which provide support for students transitioning out of your ELS.
  • Ensure Multicultural Education Aides (MEAs) are available to assist students and families to understand the school and what is expected of them.
  • Provide ‘translate’ content language options on your school website, e.g. Western English Language School’s website.
  • Provide school administrative staff with Foundation House professional learning on supporting newly arrived students and families of refugee backgrounds.

The second phase of transition occurs at the new mainstream school. Although this phase cannot be rigidly set in time, the first days and weeks in the new educational setting is a critical period for students and families, and for the school to welcome and include their new members.

What you can do

  • Partner with the feeder ELS to establish a transition (or bridging) program, which provides support for students transitioning into your school community.
  • Ensure ELS prepared ‘exit reports’ for transitioning students are made available to teachers in the new mainstream school.
  • After three months post-transition, liaise with the ELS transition officer to follow up on student’s transition experience and progress.
  • Ensure Multicultural Education Aides (MEAs) are available to assist students and families to understand the school and what is expected of them.
  • Provide school administrative staff with Foundation House professional learning on supporting newly arrived students and families of refugee backgrounds and using interpreters.
  • Organise and invite parents and carers to information sessions around supporting learning at home.

The third phase of transition occurs at the mainstream school. The length of this final phase of transition is determined by the individual student as they navigate their school environment and find their place in the school community.

What you can do

  • Partner with services and agencies to increase opportunities for students to connect with their local community and access supports.
  • Provide school staff with Foundation House professional learning on supporting students and families of refugee backgrounds.
  • Organise and invite parents and carers to information sessions around supporting learning at home.
  • Employ a transition coordinator to ensure a coordinated approach to transition and provide students and families with an advocate for ongoing support. Some schools provide a time allocation to their EAL or student wellbeing/welfare coordinator (SWC) to fulfil this role.
  • Initiate an EAL Policy, and the inclusion of EAL in your school strategic plan and annual implementation plans.
  • Be aware that students may have high educational aspirations but adult responsibilities at home.


Welcoming and informative enrolment processes contribute to families and students feeling supported, while ensuring relevant and accurate information is gathered to allow schools to best support students.

Effective  enrolment processes establish a strong base for families’ ongoing engagement with education and the school community.

Orientation programs allow students and parents/carers to familiarise themselves with the school.

As one parent said, ‘I found it helpful to attend the orientation program and meet other people. Those relationships are continuing throughout the school years.’

What you can do

  • Offer school tours, including classroom observation.
  • Introduce principal and classroom teachers.
  • Provide practical details (e.g. school schedules, expectations, uniforms, fees, etc.).
  • Give an overview of classroom activities, and advice on supporting children’s at-home learning.
  • Provide information about school programs (e.g. homework clubs).
  • Give information about healthy eating, including culturally appropriate lunch box food.

You can ensure adequate supports are in place by identifying students and families of refugee backgrounds at enrolment including those seeking asylum. Try to collect basic information about the family without asking unnecessary and intrusive questions.

There are simple indicators that a student may be of refugee background:

  • Country of birth (for students, parents and carers)
  • Exit reports and communication with the previous school
  • Year of arrival in Australia
  • Preferred language
  • Visa subclass (permanent visa humanitarian entrant: 200, 202, 204, 866; and asylum seekers with temporary visa: 785, 790)

Things to consider

  • Families who have come to Australia under another migration program may also have refugee backgrounds (e.g. skilled migrants from Iran).
  • People who have been in Australia for some time may not want to identify themselves as refugees or want to present visa number details.
  • If the country of origin is one that has a history of conflict and human rights violations, for example Afghanistan or Myanmar, the student is likely to be of refugee background.
  • Students may have been born in another country (e.g. in Kenya, Pakistan, Egypt, Thailand or Malaysia), which can suggest a refugee background.
  1. When parents/carers organise an enrolment appointment with the school, inform them of the documents to bring to the interview. It helps to provide a handout with visual prompts and language identification charts.
  2. Decide if an interpreter is required to assist parents/carers in the enrolment process.
  3. Office staff inform relevant school leadership who organise the appointment time.
  4. At the appointment, the staff member finds out:
    • student’s birthplace and how long they have been in Australia
    • if the family lived in other countries on the way to Australia (can mean time spent in a refugee camp)
    • passport numbers and visa codes
    • students’ educational histories
    • if parents/carers are comfortable to discuss, other information about refugee experiences.
  5. School leadership sets appropriate enrolment day (or recommends student to an ELS).
  6. Parents/carers and staff complete enrolment forms, families are linked with appropriate agencies (if needed).
  7. School discusses students’ classroom placements.
  8. Classroom teacher informed and given background material.
  9. EAL program initiated.
  10. Parents/carers and students meet with classroom teachers to discuss needs, and further meetings are timetabled.
  • Ensure staff members who conduct enrolments are familiar with how the refugee experience impacts upon students and their families.
  • Make arrangements for interpreters, and involve school wellbeing coordinators and EAL coordinators.
  • Standardise enrolment questions to unobtrusively gain relevant information from students. Example questions:
    • How many schools have you attended?
    • How old were you when you started school?
    • Have you attended school in other countries?
    • How many hours per day did you go to school?
    • Have there been times when you didn’t go?
    • What subjects have you learnt?
    • What language/s did you learn in?

Tip: It is important that students’ enrolment information, particularly sociolinguistic and education profiles, is accessible not only to teachers, but also coordinators, MEAs, SWCs, school guidance officers and psychologists.

Early Years to Primary

Successful early years to primary school transitions is a collective responsibility involving collaboration with families and between schools, early years services and community, health and wellbeing providers.

Young children of refugee backgrounds are particularly vulnerable upon starting school. A significant number of children may have missed out on attending universal early years services, such as maternal and child health, playgroups and kindergartens.

What you can do

  • Work in partnership with all stakeholders to plan and extend local transition programs (e.g. Step into Prep) considering the particular needs of families of refugee backgrounds. This might include:
    • family sessions conducted in community languages,
    • participation of trusted community leaders and bicultural workers; translated resources distributed in a variety of modes,
    • buddy programs and the input of professionals and stakeholders from the broader community (e.g. community groups, libraries, businesses).
  • Support collaborative partnerships between families and all professionals, and use those relationships to gently support referral of families between services.
  • Create opportunities to work together with early years services (e.g. joint staff training, hosting playgroups and MCH drop-in clinics and supporting excursions and reciprocal visits between services for children, families and staff).
  • Employ a parent support worker or a bicultural worker with the time and resources to fully support transitions.
  • Establish practices that fully utilise transition learning and development statements, (e.g. staff transition meetings).
  • Carefully measure the effectiveness of transition processes. Support families to offer input into all transition planning and evaluation.

Transition Programs

Transition (or bridging) programs help students develop the social connections, understanding and confidence necessary to grow and thrive in your school.

The following are two transition programs:

  1. Foundation House’s Beaut Buddies: A school-based peer-support transition program trains mainstream buddies to work cooperatively with transitioning students, hosts welcome days and produces welcome kits.

2. Catholic Education Melbourne (CEM) New Arrivals Program allows consultant EAL teachers to meet the needs of newly arrived students and their classroom teachers in regional areas. The program includes grants for eligible schools to employ a sessional EAL teacher.


A series of transitions shows how your students will have been exposed to a series of forced transitions prior to arriving in Australia and, post-arrival.

Hiorth’s indicators of good transitions outlines three aspects of schooling critical to students’ transition students’ from English Language School to mainstream schools

Effects of refugee experience upon children’s learning and development provides a holistic approach to assessing children’s learning and development needs.

Transition and enrolment checklist is a useful tool to guide your school’s preparation.

Enrolment steps supporting students of refugee backgrounds outlines steps to meet the needs of students of refugee backgrounds

EAL Provision for Newly Arrived Students and Virtual EAL New Arrivals Program (VNAP) are available for students in Victorian rural schools that cannot access an English language school.

The Refugee Health Practice Guide includes information about the health needs of children of refugee backgrounds.

DET’s Transition to School Resource Kit equips teachers in schools and early years services to develop effective transition processes to enhance outcomes for children.

The Early Childhood Access and Participation Project: Talking with Chin families from Burma about Early Childhood Services supports policy makers and service providers to encourage dialogue between early childhood service providers and families from refugee backgrounds.