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Children and Families Research Centre

A double transition: Migrant children entering formal education in Australia

Amigo Maria


This is a qualitative study on the experiences of migrant families and school practitioners as newly arrived children between the ages of 5 and 8, start primary school in NSW. 

Contact Maria: or visit her staff profile at the Institute of Early Childhood

Two language groups -Spanish and Indonesian-were selected considering their growing representation in schools and their contrasting geographical and cultural backgrounds. Migrant families in the Northern, Eastern and Western suburbs of Sydney were contacted during a first stage of ethnographic fieldwork within migrant circles. During the project's second stage (still ongoing) 15 migrant families and 10 school practitioners servicing these families have participated in semi-structured and in-depth interviews.  

Preliminary Findings

a) General

  • Despite their dissimilar backgrounds both migrant groups have surprisingly parallel experiences of the transition into Australian primary schools.
  • New arrivals find that Australian schools and schools in their countries of origin differ significantly in terms of academic curricula and school life. This clash in educational systems has consequences for parents, teachers, and children. Migrant parents are confused about what teachers expect from both their children and themselves. They often feel anxious about the lack of clearly delineated academic goals and about their perception of a comparatively lower standard of academic achievement. On the other side, teachers may experience frustration when they realize that their goals and expectations are not always aligned with those of parents. Finally, because of this clash, children strive for a smooth settling into school while sometimes receiving contradictory messages from teachers and parents. 
  • Cultural diversity is respected and celebrated in Australian schools. However, a deep cultural sensitivity and an authentic understanding of cultural differences and how these differences shape each individual's identity and behaviour seem to be missing. A multicultural environment is defined in a limited way, as one in which other cultures are welcomed but not as one in which cultural differences become a substantial component of school teaching and practices. 
  • A migrant child in Australia is likely to feel different from his peers in many ways, but schools focus primarily on one difference only: their English competence. For the most part schools' efforts to support migrant children have concentrated on the provision of the English as a Second Language (ESL) program. And although this is a necessary scheme, it appears not to be sufficient. A broader approach that embraces other aspects of migrant children's lives could ease these children's transition into school.  
  • Although there are government initiatives to support migrant families and educational practitioners who work with them (such as the Sydney Region Equity and Families in Cultural Transition programs), only one of the interviewees (a parent) was aware of these.  In any case, these programs do not seem to be based on a two-way communication flow between migrant families and educational practitioners but rather seem to concentrate on either providing information to migrant families or improving learning outcomes in migrant children. 

Findings specific to each group of participants


  • Feel welcomed and respected in schools (more in public than in private ones).
  • Feel anxious about the academic goals for each grade not being strictly defined and hence are confused in terms of what teachers expect from their children.
  • Discover that Australian parents have a much stronger participation in school life than what they are used to and do not clearly understand what is expected from them.
  • Initially perceive schools in Australia as academically less demanding but over time appreciate the Australian school system as one that helps children become well-rounded individuals with good social and problem-solving skills. 
  • Are more concerned about the emotional and social challenges in their children's transition into school than about the academic ones (except for the language).


  • Report that limited English language is their main issue.
  • Most recount initial traumatic experiences, mostly related to their inability to follow directions or relate to peers.
  • Claim to have had a smooth transition. However, their accounts contradict their parents' who remember trying times as their children started school in Australia.
  • Feel frustrated about their inability to do work at the same level as their peers or at the level they were used to in their country of origin.
  • Identify themselves both with Australia and their country of origin. Pride about their background seems to be related to how densely represented their culture is in the school and how much effort the school puts into appreciating their background.

Class teachers and principals

  • Are enthusiastic about having migrant children and are eager to assist them in any way they can.
  • Would like to have more ESL teachers and translators in the classroom.
  • Would like to have ongoing training on multicultural education.
  • Complain that migrant parents put too much pressure on their children to excel academically and attribute this to their desire to succeed as a family in Australia.

ESL teachers

  • Due to limited budget feel their efforts are targeted only towards children who are most in need (those with very little knowledge of English).
  • Claim that even children who seem to have acquired a good level of English are likely to still be in disadvantage, and hence need continued support.

The transition into primary school of newly arrivals could be smoother for children, parents and teachers if:

  • There were a greater flow of communication between teachers and parents prior to the children's commencement of school and during the early terms. School practitioners could inform parents about the educational system in Australia, with special attention to those aspects that are usually taken for granted such as the main goal of primary school, the skills that teachers aim to develop in students, and the role that parents are expected to have within the school environment. Parents, on the other side, could be encouraged to communicate their children's prior educational experiences in their home countries, what the education system is like in these countries and what their expectations are for primary school. Parents and teachers could therefore work together towards aligning their goals so that children are not left vulnerable to contradictory expectations that can hamper their emotional wellbeing.
  • Schools were not only settings where differences are respected and celebrated, but also acknowledged, understood and incorporated into the curricula. This could be achieved by extra professional training encouraging practitioners to enhance their understanding of the implications of cultural differences at school beyond the immediately observable, and to reflect upon how their own cultural background shapes their identity, world view, and practices. At the same time the ESL program, which focuses on migrant children's deficiencies, should be complemented with comprehensive initiatives that promote a more positive view of migrant children, focusing on their strengths and cultural capital rather than on the abilities they lack.

Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR)
Macquarie New Staff Grant (MQNS)



Contact Person
Dr María Florencia Amigó

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