Aspiring Towards Certification

2019 marks another significant milestone: the launch of SPAN certification

By Doug Ota, SPAN Founder and Chair

If 2018 marked a milestone for SPAN thanks to our establishment as an official non-profit, 2019 marks another significant milestone: the launch of certification, and a means of recognizing schools around the world that address transitions well.

Over the 2019-2020 school year, SPAN will be pre-piloting a framework and process for a school to become officially recognized as a ‘Certified Safe Passage School’. We are grateful to the three international schools who have agreed to participate, since their collaboration in such an early phase should help shape a certification process that is clear, user-friendly, and therefore effective. 

This pre-pilot of the certification process is the logical fruit of a natural growth process at SPAN. Since our landmark first SPAN Pre-Conference at FIGT in The Hague in March 2017, a vast amount of thoughtful energy has gone into three sequential areas:

  • building and maintaining a Board of Directors centered around a clear sense of purpose.
  • identifying and implementing the legal structure for our nascent organization that best fits that purpose (i.e. non-profit).
  • shaping a certification process that reflects our core beliefs and values.

We at SPAN are intimately familiar with the psychological evidence indicating that people develop and learn best when they feel safe, supported, and seen. Certification should reflect that knowledge. By participating in certification, we want the people and teams working hard to address transitions at schools to feel safe, supported, and seen—and decidedly not policed. Fundamentally, SPAN believes good transitions work should be celebrated.

After the 2019-2020 pre-pilot, an official pilot process for certification will be offered to a broader group of schools in the 2020-2021 school year. Those two school years should see the refinement of an online certification platform that allows schools to upload evidence of their good work for students, parents, and staff, across the arriving, staying, and leaving phases of the year. We foresee that schools will be able to seek three types of certification status, depending on their level of proficiency:

  • Aspiring – for schools with an interest in developing solid transition programs 
  • Developing – for schools making progress in developing solid transition programs 
  • Mastering – for schools demonstrating solid transition programs in all domains

Our aim is to open up the official process to become a ‘Certified Safe Passage School’ in the 2021-2022 school year. If your school or one you know has an interest in participating in the 2020-2021 pilot, please let Claudine Hakim, our Certification Chair, know by completing our Contact form.

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The Safe Passage Attachment Study at International Schools



In 2014, Drs. Douglas W. Ota published Safe Passage: What Mobility Does to People and What International Schools Should Do About It. This book provides a rationale and framework for addressing transitions at any school with turnover.

In the process of writing the book, a compelling question developed. Could the experience of transitions—which includes both moving and being moved away from— be eroding students’ ability and willingness to develop deep relationships?

Referred to as “attachment security” in the psychological literature, this ability to develop deep relationships is important because it has been linked to long-term health. Securely-attached people outperform their less-securely attached counterparts in every domain of human functioning across the lifespan.

The SPASIS study will examine the relationship between turnover and attachment security. What happens to attachment security at international or internationally- minded schools whose populations are more stable, versus those where populations are subject to more turnover?

These questions have never been rigorously and empirically examined.

Together with one of the leading attachment researchers in the world, Professor Marinus van IJzendoorn of Cambridge University, Erasmus University, and Emeritus Professor at Leiden University, and with practical support from the Council of International Schools (CIS), the proposed study employs gold-standard measures in the field of psychology to answer the above research question.

The most rigorous empirical studies are characterized by randomization. CIS has provided valuable assistance so that the SPASIS study can apply randomization even at the level of school selection. (Students at schools who agree to participate will also be randomly selected.) The CIS database was augmented with expertise from local heads of school. Through a rigorous process applied to all potential schools, six schools were randomly selected in two countries, Vietnam and the Netherlands.

Data collection is targeted for the fall of the 2019-2020 school year.

A community’s participation in a scientific study is a major consideration. The SPASIS study has been cleared by the Ethics Committee at Erasmus University (EC-DPECS).

For more information, please contact Doug Ota, SPASIS principal investigator, at

ACAMIS Professional Learning Weekend

Building Safe Passage Sustainable Transition Programs that Reduce the Impact on Learning and Relationships Caused by Mobility
Two-day ACAMIS Weekend Workshop
Hangzhou International School, China
November 16-17, 2018
Essential Learning Question:
In the face of the mobility and turnover that typify many international school communities, how can we build and maintain the kinds of schools that support optimal learning and attachment security?
Research clearly demonstrates that people learn better when they feel safe. Research also clearly connects attachment security to better outcomes across the lifespan, in relationships, work, and physical health. This “SPAN Primer” workshop provides a comprehensive understanding of the issues at stake when people move or are moved away from. The workshop starts at the micro level, reviewing the psychological, neurological, and biological issues at stake when the stress of moving strikes. The workshop then “pans out,” linking these issues in increasingly broader fashion to the realities of how schools work. Participants examine i) how mobility has affected them personally and why they are invested in building effective transitions programs; ii) how to build and actually maintain such programs for the long term; iii) how networks of schools can and must collaborate in order for any school to be optimally effective; iv) the challenges that exist before schools can collaborate; and v) how SPAN strives to resolve these challenges by developing effective global best practices and policies.
Target Audience:
This workshop is intended for those who develop, implement, or support transitions activities or programs at schools or networks of schools: school leadership, counselors and pastoral care specialists, admissions directors, teachers, empowered parents.
Why isn’t more being done to address transitions at international schools? Moving hurts, and we withdraw from pain. Transitions programs are difficult to build and even harder to maintain; the programs themselves are subject to transitions: when key players move, programs erode.
David Pollock warned that “you have to grieve well to leave well.” But no single school can address grief on its own; how a new student fares at your school depends partly on how well he or she was helped to leave their last school. Developing a program that helps your students enter and leave well should be a primary focus.
Safe Passage Across Networks, or SPAN, envisions a world where students can move to and from (international) schools in ways that support their emotional health. This work is timely. Students at our schools are ideally positioned to continue to develop the capacity to understand those who think differently. Such a capacity will always offer the world a way forward. If we want to increase the chances that international school students will go on to do generative things with their educational experiences—for their communities and for the planet—helping them graduate with intact attachment systems and the ability to successfully transition is a very good place to start.
Workshop Outcomes:
  1. Participants will gain a visceral grasp on why they care about, and are invested in, addressing mobility.
  2. Participants will understand what happens inside the brain and physiology of somebody stressed by moving or being moved away from—regardless of appearances on the outside.
  3. Participants will grasp the empirical connections between this stress and learning outcomes.
  4. Participants will understand what is meant by attachment security, and the importance of attachment security for long-term human health and well-being.
  5. Participants will understand why it is likely that many school practices in the domain of mobility may be inadvertently contributing to attachment insecurity in their students.
  6. Participants will grasp key parameters for building effective transitions programs at their schools.
  7. Participants will craft strategic plans and visions for developing or improving such programs.
  8. Participants will understand why single schools cannot build truly effective programs in isolation.
  9. Participants will develop and innovate ways of building networked transitions programs at collections of schools, building on ACAMIS and beyond.
  10. Participants will understand the role and vision of SPAN, and what they can do to become a certified Safe Passage school in the future, should they so desire

Find out more

EARCOS Professional Learning Weekend Overview


Two-day EARCOS Weekend Workshop, November 10 & 11, 2018

The largest study in educational research history demonstrates that moving harms learning.  But this finding is incomplete.  The EARCOS workshop provides a comprehensive overview of the field of transitions at international schools.  Moving from the personal to the practical, the Workshop traverses these questions:

  • What impact has working at international schools with a high degree of turnover had on you personally?
  • What does mobility do to the human brain?
  • How does this impact relate to current findings in psychology, neuroscience, and even medicine?
  • What frameworks exist for how schools can and should be addressing mobility?

In other words, how can the challenges of mobility be harnessed for their transformative, positive potential? And if this is an issue that no single school can address on its own—for the simple reason that students, families, and teachers move around—how should networks of schools be working together?

Doug Ota’s warm, highly personal, and very practical two-day workshop helps you arrive at answers to these questions, so that you can make substantive inroads in improving how mobility is addressed at your schools—and beyond.  Doug’s hopeful message is that, by understanding the issues at stake in mobility and how to address them, we can harness the vast potential for growth in a life moving amongst cultures—both for our students and ourselves.

Provisional Schedule

The workshop cycles through four strands for considering work on transitions.

* Important note: for descriptive purposes, these four strands are temporally located in various portions of the two-day workshop.  In reality, the workshop will use a great deal of sound, video, and music to cycle continuously through these strands, moving the entire time between stories, neuroscience, attachment, and practice. Doug seeks—metaphorically at least—to deliver one coherent composition that you can take with you, adapt, and play at your own schools.  (Don’t worry, though: no singing required.)

Day 1: Why?

Strand 1: “Stories”

Saturday morning, November 10, 9am-12:30pm

We are wired to tell, and remember, stories.  Work on transitions is only effective when the stories are personal and real.  Because “that which is most personal is most universal,” Doug taps experience from his own life to share his rationale for his own commitment to this field.  Throughout the two days, participants reflect upon and share their own investment in this work.  Only by creating and fostering a climate where it is safe and normal to struggle with change and loss can we possibly, as educators, do the same for our students and families. Don’t worry, though: Doug understands emotional safety!  Participants only share if and when they want to.

Strand 2: “Neuroscience”

Saturday afternoon, November 10, 1:30-3pm

The largest study in educational research history (Hattie, Visible Learning, 2009) showed that mobility is associated with decreases in learning.  While Hattie’s work provides the best evidence to date in favor of the development of transitions program, this evidence remains indirect. What actually causes the decreases in learning that Hattie documented?  The “Neuroscience” portion of the workshop takes you on an integrative tour of recent findings in neuroscience and psychoneuroimmunology, right down to the telomeres at the end of your chromosomes.  What do synapses and chemicals have to do with mobility at international schools?  Potentially everything! If we’re not careful, we could be placing our clientele—and ourselves—on non-optimal developmental pathways that are literally getting under our skin.  This portion of the workshop arms you with the facts you need to persuade decision makers and communities that transitions are worth addressing.

Strand 3: “Attachment”

Saturday afternoon, November 10, 3:15pm – 5pm

While often innovative and exciting, much of the research and programming on transitions at international schools has been only weakly informed by what is arguably the most sweeping development in psychology in the last fifty years, namely attachment theory.  This portion of the training provides you with a primer on attachment theory, so that you understand in your bones why it is that those with secure attachment thrive more in life, be that at work, at home, or in one’s physical body.

Day 2: How?

 Strand 4: “Practice”

Sunday, November 11, 9am -12:30pm, 1:30pm-3:30pm

So what do you do about all of this?  Armed with the educational, neuroscientific, and psychological research you need to persuade decision makers and communities, this portion of the training fills your toolbox.  The goal is to send you out the door armed with practical tools to build powerful transitions programs for students, parents, and staff.  What do you need to consider in building such a program?  What about maintaining such a program, so that mobility doesn’t erode the very Team designed to beat it?  What about the fact that people come and go, confronting us with the challenge of what happened at the last school—or what will happen at the next?  How can we develop programs that transcend school walls, so that our students’ attachment systems are safe wherever they go, be it Singapore or Santiago?  How does SPAN’s vision address that challenge.

Doug Ota and the entire Safe Passage Across Networks (SPAN) Board of Directors—the majority of whom will be present at the workshop—look forward to welcoming you to this workshop.  Whether you are a seasoned veteran or new to the journey, in SPAN workshops like this one, we hope and believe you will find a home for your commitment to transitions, and that you will leave with a song in your heart.

About Doug Ota – SPAN Chair, clinical child psychologist, author, speaker and consultant

Doug Ota’s father was Japanese, while his mother traces her ancestry to England. Their divorce showed him and his brother how to operate between worlds. The loss of his stepfather and brother grounded Doug in grief. He has made a career out of wondering where he—and others—belong.

Doug migrated east to study religion at Princeton, then further east to study Clinical Child Psychology at the University of Leiden, going on to become a child psychologist with the Dutch Psychological Association. For many years, he was a counselor at the American School of The Hague. He now works in private practice.  Doug is completing his Ph.D in psychology with a professor at Leiden and Cambridge Universities, trying to develop the empirical argument for transitions programs at international schools.

Half of Ota’s professional activities are devoted to counseling adolescents, individuals, couples, and families ( The other half is devoted to building programs and systems that address the challenges and opportunities of mobility at international schools. He is the author of Safe Passage: What Mobility Does to People and What International Schools Should Do About It.  In 2016, Doug was the Founding Director of the non-profit organization Safe Passage Across Networks, or SPAN.  SPAN’s mission is to refresh, equip, and connect transitions care providers around the globe, and to establish processes to certify schools that deliver excellent transitions care.

Call for Article Contributions

What’s Happening At Your School?

As the leaders in supporting and connecting school-based programs addressing mobility, we want to know what’s happening at your school. We are seeking guest posts for our website and newsletter from transition-care providers – administrators, educators, counselors, admissions, human resources, parents and students – that inform, motivate and inspire schools to prioritize healthy student, family and staff mobility within and between schools. This is a great opportunity for you to ‘blow your own trumpet’ and share with us your school’s (or a school you have recently been a part of) best practices for supporting your community as they navigate the triumphs and trials of living and learning between and among cultures.

Article contribution criteria:


Word Limit
300-500 words

Choose one of the following transitions (for either student, family or staff):

  • Pre-arrival
  • Arrival/Orientation
  • Stayer
  • Leaver
  • Information between your school and the sending/receiving school

You may choose to write from a personal perspective or provide an overview of your program and the outcomes you have observed. Please respect the privacy of others.
You may write more than one submission if your school addresses more than one of the above transitions and/or key stakeholders.

Send your submission, in the text of an email, to and attach a high-resolution photograph of your school’s transition program at work. Label your photo with your school’s name in jpg or png format.

Please include:

  • In the subject line, the words ‘Here’s What’s Happening At [your school’s name]’
  • In the body of your email, your full name, job title/key stakeholder role and the city/country where your school is located

Disclaimer: We cannot guarantee we will publish all submissions on our website or newsletter but may use the content as examples in combination with other schools.

Sharpen your pencil and get writing! We look forward to being informed, motivated and inspired by what you are doing at the coalface to provide transition care for your school community and beyond.


SPAN is excited to share that our Chairman, Drs. Doug Ota, will be presenting at the EARCOS Professional Learning Weekend hosted by the Taipei American School on November 10-11, 2018. Should you have interest in attending the weekend, please look at the more detailed information below or click here for the program flyer. Our entire SPAN Steering Committee will be attending the weekend and we look forward to connecting with others who are committed to helping students thrive through their transitions.

Audience: K-12 Counselors, Teachers, Administrators, Admissions Personnel, and Parent Volunteers involved with transitions at their schools.

Participants will:

  • Engage in personal fashion with what “transition” means at international schools;
  • Understand transition through recent findings from psychology and neuroscience;
  • Discuss how transition affects the entire school, and is therefore an opportunity for the community;
  • Learn best practices for programs for students, parents, and staff that go beyond individual school walls;
  • Plan to build transition programs that are effective, will endure and will assist your school to become a Safe Passage School, if it so aspires.

Registration Deadline: October 30th, 2018​​​​​​

Please click here to complete your registration. ​

Contact Peter Kimball ( or Dr. Dan Long ( for questions about logistics and the workshop schedule respectively.