Student well-being and high school transitions: Five big ideas in the context of the Coronavirus
Student well-being and high school transitions: Five big ideas in the context of the Coronavirus
Student well-being and high school transitions: Five big ideas in the context of the Coronavirus

The pandemic has brought uncertainty, loss and hardship to many students graduating from high school this year. In this post, we share five ‘big ideas’ that are emerging in transition programming in the context of the Coronavirus. We also share an overview of key findings from a recent survey of 134 high school counsellors based in 52 countries, plus an opportunity to be involved in a new CIS project to hear directly from students about how schools and universities can support their well-being in transition, and lots of links to resources and research. 

Five big ideas

Transition is everything. This is true whether we’re grappling with remote working, planning student orientation, or supporting students with higher education decisions. There are common challenges for students, but travel and visa restrictions, and anxieties about well-being and accommodation are weighing on the minds of international students.

Susie March Affiliated Consultant

Dr Eleanor Parker (left) and Susie March (right) draw on their collective expertise and discussions from a recent CIS webinar—Key considerations for schools & universities during Coronavirus: How to support student transition to higher education—as they share some of the things emerging in transition programming in the context of the Coronavirus. (CIS members can watch the webinar in the CIS Community portal).


1. Working with students as active partners

We talked in the webinar about the importance of the student voice and enabling our students to shape their transition experience. How do we do this sensitively while taking account of the loss that they (and we) are experiencing?


One student, Jordan Madge, who has worked with the Technology Enhanced Learning team at the University of Bath, has this to say about the benefits of student partnership:

“Producing information is one thing but ensuring [it] actually engages with students can be the challenge […] My skillset has expanded technically, but I have also gained a range of interpersonal skills though collaborating with members of staff.”

Genuine student-partnered work, with appropriate support and recognition mechanisms, must be a key consideration in transition programming. We should ensure engagement is inclusive, avoiding emotional labour of our marginalised communities.


2. Actively promoting community-building and a sense of belonging

We’re rarely in a meeting where this is not on the agenda. These ideas are central to the recently published principles for planning student support in Covid-19, from UK mental health charity Student Minds.

At the University of Bath, responding to what our students told us about the importance of engagement with peers and staff, we’re exploring how we create a sense of belonging in blended environments (inside and outside of the curriculum), including when our communities may be split geographically.

Being clear with students about expectations of behaviour sets the tone for the culture of a community. We must all make clear commitments regarding what we find acceptable and unacceptable, especially in the online space.

Relationship development (including with mentors) is also key, and sexuality and relationships education needs to be carefully supported in an online environment.

How can we ensure our departing Seniors acquire the skills and knowledge that will contribute to safe, healthy, and positive relationships—ones that shape their attitudes as they transition to their new adult lives?


3. Identifying and responding to skills and confidence gaps and vulnerabilities

We know from both sides of the school/university desk what our students struggle within the transition to higher education, e.g. culture shock.

In universities, we’re reflecting on what students have missed, how vulnerabilities may have been exacerbated, and whether known transition issues (like the move to more independent learning) will be of even greater significance.

We have discussed mental health issues for university-age students, which we know can disproportionately affect our Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities. Research shows that “just under half of students who report experiencing a mental health condition choose not to disclose it to their university and there is widespread acknowledgement in UK policy that transition is central in a whole-university approach to a transparent culture around mental health.

A culturally sensitive response to support is needed, as is flexibility of access. Universities globally are offering mental health and well-being support in a variety of formats, in part to acknowledge the potential barriers to disclosure in certain communities. At the University of Bath, online emotional counselling and well-being support has been piloted, offered in languages most commonly used by students.

However, the danger here is the deficit model and making our students feel at a disadvantage. As planners, we may need to think in terms of ‘gaps’, but it’s important we value our students’ strengths and acknowledge their new skills, to help mitigate against a potential increased sense of imposter syndrome. As one of the webinar contributors reflected: ‘It’s about re-framing.


4. Planning for gaps in emotional and social learning

How can we account for possible gaps in students’ social and emotional learning?

Our final-year students have quietly slipped away. For many, there was no graduation fanfare, no emotional hugging of class-cohorts and, more critically, no opportunity for schools to consolidate on previous Social Emotional and Life Skills classes. These would have delivered those last-minute messages about managing outside of the school’s bubble, including specific conversations about preparing for life within a different country’s culture, at a new college or university, in the first job or during a gap year.

We can learn from activities across the CIS community which have aimed to mark this ‘sense of an ending’.


5. Restoring and promoting student agency

Agency has been taken away from us in myriad ways.

Dave Busby, an academic skills specialist at the University of Bath, sees an opportunity to restore agency, building the sense of capability crucial to early university success by:

”Developing a high sense of student self-efficacy (e.g. how can I use this information and apply these skills?); creating a strong sense of self-awareness and identification with the topic (e.g. How does this apply to me and my learning?); self-regulation and goal setting (e.g. what are my short and long term goals?); and emphasising the importance of creating a social identity with other learners.”

The challenges are considerable, but there are opportunities. Webinar discussions highlighted students’ increased self-reflection, reviewing of values and strategies to support their well-being. We must take time (and programme space) for students to acknowledge and process losses safely, supporting them with existing and emerging vulnerabilities.

Transition is a complex process that affects individuals differently. It is not an ‘initiative’ ticked off on a planning document. We can predict some of what our students will need, but we must remain responsive and flexible to their multiple transitions, working together across school and university divides within our CIS community.


CIS survey outcomes June 2020

Katryna Snow CIS Associate Director of Higher Education Services

We carried out a survey in early June 2020 which sought to understand from international school counsellors what the impact of the pandemic has been on the well-being of their graduating students. 134 counsellors based in 52 countries answered the survey and provided significant insight into the challenges that their students are facing, and how both schools and universities can do more to support the mental health and well-being of students who transition into higher education. CIS members will soon be able to access the full report in the CIS Community portal here for schools and here for universities.

Key findings:

  • International students are most worried about travel restrictions and immigration issues, missing out on extra-curricular activities and the social aspect of university life, and not learning as much if some or all classes are online. They are less worried about their ability to access well-being services or feeling ill-prepared as a result of the disruption caused by the virus. Counsellors also reported that students are concerned about issues relating to racism and xenophobia. This corresponds with discussions from counsellors at our recent webinar, who said that racial issues were occupying their students’ minds and impacting on their mental health.


  • There is a significant range of practices relating to if and when a counsellor shares information about a student’s mental health and/or history of abuse with the student’s university, and whether there should be a policy in place to regulate this. This is an area of confusion and concern for many schools and universities alike. We will be providing further guidance on this area in due course.    



  • Counsellors identify a range of leading practices in universities around the world. We will be reaching out to some of our member institutions that have been named, to understand more about their work and raise awareness of it amongst our membership.
  • We asked counsellors what they would like universities to know as they consider how best to support students who may be joining them in September. The responses include a wealth of practical recommendations, including:


Help them build relationships right away!

How best to continue the spirit of "the first six weeks" (so central to any residential campus in fostering community) throughout the entire semester and even possibly year as international students slowly come to campus. Many students are still processing a lot regarding their own goals, motivations, and potentially hard truths about their own character; this "reflection and reckoning" needs time to build up to

Make sure that you are reaching out to parents as well as they are more nervous than their children. Please make sure that they have housing if you need to close the dorms again.

Ensure knowledge of trauma informed teaching and learning and have this taken seriously … significant support for depression/anxiety that may not be understood by students culturally and may develop later in the first year at university as a delayed response to trauma.

Not to overburden them with webinar sessions. Q&A sessions with someone they can potentially meet in person as restrictions ease up would be more impactful and helpful than a series of live or pre-recorded webinars that aren't interactive.

These students are strong, but vulnerable. Be patient. They want the full university experience and it will take them time to adjust not only to the campus, but to the hybrid models of learning that are being prepared for them.


New project—get involved!

We will shortly be launching a project which aims to learn directly from students about their experiences of transition to higher education, and to hear from them about how they think schools and universities can do more to support them. If you are a CIS member and are interested in being involved in this project, please contact Katie Rigg.


Resources, research and training


About the authors:

Dr Eleanor Parker is Planning and Projects Manager (Skills) at the University of Bath (UK), where she has also held positions in student experience, student support and on inclusive curriculum. Her interest in international student transition and wellbeing extends throughout her career; she was Lecturer in Italian at the University of Oxford (UK), where she also led on student recruitment in North America. In May 2017, she was awarded the University of Oxford Students' Union Teaching Award for Outstanding Pastoral Support, nominated by her undergraduate students.

Susie March Affiliated Consultant

Susie March has worked exclusively with international schools for more than ten years across Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia delivering Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE). ​She supports and works with school leaders on policy development, curriculum planning and implementation, with the aim of improving CSE teacher training standards through professional development - making teachers confident and skilled in delivering an age-appropriate and whole school approach to the topic.  A Council of International Schools (CIS) Affiliated Consultant, she collaborates with CIS, offering training on strategies for addressing the educational elements of the new Child Protection accreditation standards; these include physical abuse, grooming, online safety, commercial exploitation and disclosure.

Katryna Snow CIS Associate Director of Higher Education Services

Katryna Snow is Associate Director of Higher Education Services for CIS. She works collaboratively with volunteers and partner organizations around the world to ensure the provision of high-quality membership and support services to facilitate international admission and guidance at the university level.

Student well-being and high school transitions: Five big ideas in the context of the Coronavirus
  • Research & data
  • Student well-being
  • University admission & guidance
Student well-being and high school transitions: Five big ideas in the context of the Coronavirus