10 Ways Teachers Can Support Third Culture Kids

by Lisa McKay on June 24, 2015

I was talking to the principal of an international school recently, and he had never heard the term “Third Culture Kid” (TCK).

This really surprised me. By now, after more than three decades of research dedicated to understanding the impact of growing up globally mobile, I had assumed that those working with TCKs would at least be familiar with the concept.

Since this conversation, I’ve been thinking about what I want my children’s teachers to understand about TCKs. What are the basics they should know? And how this knowledge could prove helpful to them as they guide these children in the classroom and on the playground?

Key Points About TCKs For Teachers

 

The late Dave Pollock provided a good definition of third culture kids:

“A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background”

The childhood lifestyle of TCKs (one high on cross-cultural experiences and mobility) impacts development patterns, fosters certain character traits, and influences the way these children typically interact with others and form relationships. These characteristics often become more pronounced in older TCKs and on into adulthood (a four-year-old TCK, for example, may seem anything but flexible, mature, and socially competent).

3 Typical Areas Of Strength For TCKs

There is now a significant body of research that identifies some of the typical strengths and areas of challenge associated with growing up in more than one culture. Here are some of the strengths/benefits that the third culture kids often develop over time:

  1. Flexibility/Adaptability

Over time, TCKs learn to blend effectively into new places and adapt to new settings and experiences. Many TCKs become so skilled at doing this that they are akin to chameleons—easily adjusting their dress, language, and style of relating to reflect their surroundings.

  1. Maturity/Perspective

TCKs often seem more mature than their peers–particularly in the ways they interact with adults and how they view the world. Their diversity of life experience tends to broaden their perspective and cure them of black and white thinking at an unusually young age. This, combined with the acute observational skills that help them adapt to new settings, tends to make TCKs skilled at picking up on nuance and seeing more than one side to situations.

  1. Advanced cross-cultural communication skills and general social skills

Third culture kids become practiced at communicating with those from other cultures and backgrounds. When it comes to making friends, they tend to have the ability to form unusually intense connections with others fairly quickly. In part, this tendency to form fast and deep relationships comes about because TCKs often jump straight to talking with others about universal life experiences such as passions, hobbies, family and relationships, rather than trying to connect around more culturally-bound topics such as TV shows and sporting teams.

3 Common Areas Of Challenge For TCKs

  1. Unresolved grief and loss

Dave Pollock once claimed that, “Most TCKs go through more grief experiences by the time they are 20 than mono-cultural individuals do in a lifetime.”

When TCKs move they often leave behind pretty much everything and everyone who has shaped their world—their house, school, friends, church community, relatives, and more. These sorts of massive life upheavals can be particularly tough on children. Children lack the life experiences and sense of time that help enable adults to put moving into perspective. And children often lack the self-awareness and emotional vocabulary to communicate about the impact of these drastic changes.

  1. Inner insecurity

Many TCKs become excellent at adapting and “blending in” where they find themselves—they become practiced at taking their cues on dress, speech, food, and do’s and don’ts from their surroundings. However, other TCKs tend to define their identity through difference—they despair of ever really fitting and choose instead to embrace being different and define an identity around that. Whether TCKs generally “adapt” or “define themselves through difference” this process tends to take effort and come at cost.

Some TCKs never feel completely comfortable, relaxed, or at home anywhere—they must always spend some extra energy monitoring their surrounds to feel like they know how they “should” act.

Some TCKs fail to develop an inner sense of stable values, preferences, and sense of right and wrong.

Some TCKs end up feeling a bit like cultural or social frauds. They know that on the surface they appear to fit in, but they don’t feel that their cultural or social knowledge extends “bone deep”—the way it seems to for true locals or some of their peers.

  1. Real or perceived arrogance

Particularly when they move back to their passport country or to the developed world, TCKs can be perceived as arrogant. Their ability to see things from multiple perspectives can make them impatient and judgmental with others who don’t seem to view the world as broadly. Because of their breadth of life experience, TCKs can also come to view themselves as more cosmopolitan, smarter, and globally aware than others.

However there is also another, more complicated, dimension to this issue of arrogance. Marilyn Gardner puts it like this: “Arrogance is often insecurity by another name. When the third culture kid feels ‘other’ they resort to coping mechanisms. This can come off as profound arrogance and result in exactly the opposite of what they really want – cause further alienation and feelings of being ‘other’ when what is longed for is connection and understanding. This can turn into a vicious cycle for the TCK and needs to be addressed for what it is – a deep insecurity with who they are within the context of their passport culture.”

10 Ways Teachers Can Support Third

10 Ways Teachers Can Support TCKs

 

We’ve just covered three typical strengths and three common areas of challenge for TCKs. There are many others, but since this is a blog post and not a book (for a good book on TCKs click here) let’s move forward and look at things teachers can do to support their TCK students.

I offer these suggestions with great humility. I am a psychologist who specializes in stress, trauma, and resilience. I grew up as a third culture kid. I am the mother of two young third culture kids. However, I am not a teacher. In fact, I often look at the teachers in my son’s preschool classroom with something akin to awe. I’m not quite sure how they manage to stay consistently positive, energetic, and calm in the midst of that chaos, much less implement a strategic teaching program.

Also, all TCKs are different. I don’t pretend that all TCKs would benefit from all of these suggestions. However, I do think that the cyclical uprooting and replanting experiences that shape TCKs (and the resulting personality and social characteristics you see in many TCKs as they mature) suggest that certain types of guidance in the classroom may be particularly helpful for many TCKs.

So, disclaimers aside, here are some specific ways that I think that teachers could help support the TCKs in their care.

  1. When a TCK first arrives in your classroom, pay particular attention to asking them about themselves

Where has the TCK come from? Where have they lived before? What are some things they miss about their old school or home? What are some things they are coming to like about their new school or home?

In the aftermath of an abrupt transition, a TCK can feel that they have lost a large chunk of their identity. Their old life feels like a dream, and their new life can feel exhausting and overwhelming. Some kids go on and on about where they’ve come from (and often alienate other children with these tales). However, particularly for the TCKs who have gone silent about their past, take some time to ask them some questions.

Just by asking and listening you are already supporting your student. Your TCK will feel better understood and cared for because of this interest. However, you can also go a step further and build on your TCKs experiences.

Consider involving your TCK student in teaching others about their passport country or places they’ve previously lived. Design some classroom activities around the customs, geography, or culture of the countries that your TCKs are familiar with and give them a chance to shine (or at least feel some ownership) in front of their peers.

  1. Give them extra time, attention, and help during the first couple of weeks.

New students have to learn the rules of a new school as well as a posse of new teachers and peers. That’s already a daunting task. Your new TCK is also trying to learn a new culture, a new city, and a new house. So pay extra attention to your new TCKs and try to ease the burden of all that extra processing where you can.

Make things explicit. Tell them about the classroom rules and routines. Talk to them about things that you do regularly that they may never have done before (for example, do you say a pledge at the start of the day? Do you sing hymns? Does your child have to join in with these activities or can they pass? What are the procedures about completing and turning in homework, and around discipline?). When you see TCK students looking lost or uncertain, help them understand what’s going on around them.

  1. Try to help them make friends

Having some friends is foundational to most children’s happiness and emotional health, so do what you can to facilitate those social connections for your students. This is particularly essential if your TCKs have come in mid-term or mid-year, after children in your class have already made friends with their peers. Many TCKs may be quite practiced at making friends by the time they are in late high school, but making friends may not come naturally at all for some TCKs, particularly the younger ones. These “socially struggling” TCKs may not join group activities, may prefer to play by themselves, and may come across as withdrawn, uncooperative, depressed, angry, or disruptive.

Help create opportunities for your TCKs to have fun, connect with, and learn about their peers in small-group or one-on-one settings. For older students you could use group or partner work, or get-to-know-you exercises or games to facilitate this. With younger students, consider taking a more active role in how you encourage them to connect with fellow students (and how you encourage fellow students to connect with your new TCK and “share” “co-operate” “practice kindness” and “play well together”).

  1. If your TCK can’t speak the language, do your best to have a translator available

If your TCK student can’t speak the language you teach in, do your best to have a translator close by to help during their early days. Things will be hard enough for your young TCK as they work to learn a new language. They should at least have someone they can ask where the toilets are.

  1. Teach about “identity” “differences” and the “TCK experience”

TCKs can really struggle to form a clear sense of identity. Some TCKs won’t even know which country they’re from or where they were born, much less have internalized these concepts. As an example, my three-year-old has already lived in five houses on three different continents. I’m still trying to persuade him to accept that he has a last name (he often insists that he is “just Dominic”). I have yet to get him to consistently and correctly tell me which country he currently lives in. We haven’t tried to explain the concept of Australian and American passports yet.

You can support your TCKs (particularly your young ones) by designing activities that explore identity—family tree, country and culture of origin, personal likes and dislikes, etc.

Also, if you teach a lot of TCKs then you have a group of students who have come from very diverse backgrounds. The way they see the world (even down to what’s right and wrong, how you handle conflict and anger, what’s honorable and what is shameful) will be different. Explore, acknowledge and celebrate social and cultural and other differences in your teaching. Also, teaching about the term “TCK” the common experiences of TCKs can help TCKs realize that they are not alone. That realization can be very powerful and healing.

  1. Help TCKs understand their host culture

Help orient your TCK by teaching about local traditions, foods, customs and other things related to the country you are in.

  1. Realize that the word “home” may be loaded and confusing

The concept of home is confusing for many TCKs well into adulthood. I spent three years writing my memoir, Love At The Speed Of Email, primarily to untangle that particular word. I know I’m not alone in my deeply felt struggles on this front. Many TCKs are deeply confused about where home is (and what “normal” is) and deeply unsettled by that confusion.

  1. Connect a TCK that is having difficulties with a qualified school counselor and/or extra academic support

Sometimes your struggling TCKs will be obvious—they are the kids who are “acting out”. Their frustration, insecurity, and anger can be very evident. Sometimes, however, a struggling TCK will stay silent, put their heads down, and do their best to disappear. Look out for your TCKs (and other students) who appear isolated from their peers or whose academic work is not on par with their apparent abilities.

Support your TCKs who are struggling academically by connecting them with tutoring resources that can help fill in any gaps in their education (this is often a particular problem in math and science subjects). If your TCK is also struggling emotionally and socially, seeing a school counselor (if there is one) for a season may really help a TCK student in their transition.

  1. Mark the end of the school year and the coming transition—into summer and into the next year.

TCKs go through many transitions, often without much time to process them. You can help your students by recognizing that goodbyes are particularly complicated for most TCKs. Help them with the transition to a new class and teacher at the end of the year by acknowledging this transition as the year concludes. Talk about goodbyes. Share with your students what you have really cherished about the year, allow kids to share what they have enjoyed (or not), and how they feel when they have to say goodbye and move on. Explain what they can expect next year.

  1. Do not waste time arguing with a three year old when they insist they’re in an entirely different country

This may only be applicable to anyone who teaches my eldest TCK, but … don’t waste time arguing with a child who insists they’re in Thailand when they’re actually in Vanuatu.

If such a child refuses to change their mind after two or three exchanges on this topic then they either (a) just need to be right, or (b) they really need to believe they actually are in Thailand during that moment. Either way, speaking from experience, it’s a battle not worth fighting. There will be others that are worth fighting. Trust me.

There is a lot more I could say on this topic, but I want to turn the floor over to you.

What tips do you have for your children’s teachers?

What do you want your kids teachers to know about TCKs?

What have you seen work well to support TCKs in the classroom?

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About Lisa McKay

Lisa McKay is a psychologist and the award-winning author of the memoir Love At The Speed Of Email, the novel My Hands Came Away Red, and several books on long distance relationships. She lives in Laos with her husband and their two sons.
  • Marilyn Gardner

    Fantastic post Lisa – thank you! I will spread this widely. I think back to my own TCKs return to their passport country, not to mention mine, and what a disadvantage they had moving to an all-white New England town, where people hadn’t moved in centuries. The general mindset was if you didn’t come on the “boat” (how they referred to the Mayflower, then you will never belong. It was pretty traumatic on all sides. I gave up trying, and that didn’t help anyone. So thank you!

    • Yeah, I went through a couple of those types of moves myself. The one that still makes me wince when I think about it was moving from Zimbabwe to Washington DC halfway through grade 11. Awful.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      That whole “on the boat” thing is almost scary!

  • Marilyn Gardner

    Oh and advice: Don’t try and deny the research. I’ve heard so many people cynically say “there really isn’t any difference. Everyone feels the need to belong. Everyone goes through insecurity.” And while I would never deny the common human experience, I get annoyed when evidence-based research is ignored!

    • maia manchester

      YES!!!!!!!!!! Thank you!

    • Agreed.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Ignoring research is annoying in any area . . . And it’s shocking that people would actually say this. Even on an intuitive, surface-level observation this makes no sense. Of course there are differences in moving around instead of staying put! Not to mention all the confused culture crossing and the poweful, complicated systems that dictate a TCK’s life. That comment is crazy!

  • Cultural Detective

    Thank you for this, Lisa. Easy, practical advice to help bring out the best in an increasingly large and very talented segment of our world’s population. We are passing on your post.

    • You’re welcome. So glad it’s helpful.

  • maia manchester

    Consistancy between teachers in how they deal with homework, dicipline, and things classroom structures I think is really crucial so that TCKs are trying to learn a new culture, a new school, and trying to figure out what the norms are for every single class. And for me growing up, I think just someone bothering to take an interest in who I was made the whole world of difference in everything. Thank you for this post. I might put these on my desk in every classroom I teach in to keep me focused on what is really important for the TCKs to be who they are, not just learn what they need to learn.

    • Consistency sure does help a lot, but is so impossible to control some of these intangibles across cultures (or even within some schools??). And I agree that someone taking an interest makes a world of difference!!

      • maia manchester

        Oh, I agree it is difficult. I meant mostly within schools, or at least within grades. I know a lot of schools have one teacher for maths and sciences and another for history and english and I have seen kids struggle because one teacher does things one way and the other does it another way and going between the two does them in.

        • YES!! Consistency within schools is achievable and reasonable to request, I reckon!!

  • ptilinopus

    I became a TCK at age 8 when my family moved to Papua New Guinea. I identify with the cyclical uprooting and moving. One effect I observed in myself and others has been an inability to form long-term close friendships. As the article comments, TCKs can rapidly form intense friendships, but doesn’t note that when the TCK moves again, these friendships tend to recede almost as quickly. In my case as an adult TCK who, like so many others, continued life in other cultures, this has shown itself as, when I move on, the focus becomes on present relationships/friendships; previous friendships are not out of mind, but move to the background. One may not even try to keep in touch. Mono-cultural friends may feel hurt by this. By the same token, when meeting up again, one tends to expect the relationship to resume where it left off, even years later – which is often not realistic. Another way one might express this is having a large number of acquaintances, but very few (long-term) close friends. With children, the first break/move after becoming a TCK may the worst (worse than the initial move overseas), because the child’s initial acceptance of the change, and forming of new friends in the new environment is disrupted. Subsequently, and subconsciously, the child will often not commit to new relationships in any deep manner, to avoid being hurt when the inevitable move comes. The child may seem to form a close (intense) friendship, but the “chameleon” quality referred to in the article is in operation, not a deep commitment.

    • Oh, particularly agree with your last comment about chameleon quality being in operation not at the heart level!! Also your other comments about types of relationships ring very true, too. I’ve found that TCKs tend to jump into relationship faster and more deeply, but those relationships are often location dependant and can be put on hold just as fast. And I’ve also found that even close relationships with TCKs tend to plateau after a while… that there are levels that for all their apparent deepness many TCKs can’t (or won’t) plumb or offer.

    • Katha VD

      I agree! Especially in the last few months I’ve wondered a lot about TCKs and relationships. Even though we pride ourselves in going super deep very quickly, we still hide back. It seems like we’re bad with staying on the superficial level too long because we don’t have much time. Yet we also struggle to fully commit to something and let someone in because we don’t trust others our ourselvses.

  • Tracey

    This is great!! These are things I wish my kids’ teachers understood now as well as when they were little. I remember one teacher dismissing some behaviors that I recognized as TCK/transition/grief issues, and instead of supporting me and my kids (unknowingly) made me feel like a bad mom. So, here’s a question. . . . how do we spread this kind of info OUTSIDE of the gringo/expat community? Like you, I would be surprised at a principal of an international school being unaware of these things, but what about when our kids are in local schools in our host countries? Has anyone published this kind of stuff, say, in Spanish??? Also, I recognize more than ever that the majority of the kids I taught in California for several years fit the description of TCKs as well and I will pass this along to my teacher friends working with TCKs in public schools in the USA.

    • Gosh, I don’t know. To be honest, I wrote on this topic this week partly because the comment from the principal made me realize that there’s a gap in the teachers professional development network here that I can fill, so writing this post was partly preparation for teaching on these issues. But that’s at an international school. As far as extending it beyond the intl schools, I wonder if other schools would be more open if it’s packaged up in a broader offering related to “high-transition”. Then you could talk about TCKs as a subset of those dealing with multiple transitions (which applies to many kids from broken homes, military families, etc).

  • ptilinopus

    Another thought concerning kids in schools: There is a huge TCK community in most western countries, even Europe, that I believe is simply not recognised as such. I rarely see them mentioned in TCK discussions, which tend to focus on expats returning to the passport country. This community is the migrant community. I have worked (as a pastor) with churches in Australia with large numbers of families from developing countries. The children of these families need major support in schools, communities and churches, AS TCKs. They have all the issues of TCKs, and then some. At home they are often required to conform to their origin culture, language, mores and norms. Everywhere else they are expected to conform to the new country langage, mores and norms. There is frequently huge conflict between the two, and often a total lack of understanding both in the home and in school/community/church of the struggles they face. They are often treated as second-class citizens, looked down on, and generally given a hard time, such as I never had to face as a returning TCK… I’d like to see more dicussion on this. Just because they are usually classified as migrants doesn’t mean they are not every bit as much a TCK as the returning expat child!

    • Yes, migrant kids often face divides between school and home or host culture and home culture that are even more acute than those faced by most TCKs. And migrant parents can cling even more firmly to their traditions and languages in an attempt to hang onto some parts of their own identity even while they’re struggling to adapt to the new culture. This can be extra challenging for the kids who grow up more affiliated with the host culture.

  • Katha VD

    That was an interesting read! Always shocking to hear when people have never heard of the term TCK when they’re surrounded by them…
    I am a TCK and a teacher, so it’s definitely good to think about these things. I agree with your suggestions, teachers need to be aware of TCK challenges and unique characteristics they might be able to use in the classroom. And they should also teach the other classmates about it because a teacher can only do so much. Most of all, TCKs need other people their age to show them the host culture and see how they can fit in.
    TCKs need people who ask the right question, but who are also willing to listen. As long as it might take.

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