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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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”).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.