By Kirsten Durward , the PYP Co-ordinator at KIS International School
‘Third Culture Kid’ (TCK), and ‘Global Nomad’ are terms increasingly heard in our International Education world as we attempt to describe and understand some of the students we care for. Thailand being a country which attracts both long and short term expatriates, we have a wide range of mobile and established expat students in our school communities, all of whom have different experiences and needs. But one element is key across all groups and ages of students, and that is to establish a sense of belonging, at home, school and in the wider community.
Depending on the family context, children who have been raised here for a long time, may well feel this is where they belong, no matter how much ‘home’ cultures have been shared or experienced. Parents need to understand that their children will identify differently (or not at all) with their country of origin. However, they may also experience a sense of not being fully accepted by the host culture either, which can lead to strong identification with the school and their educational peer group.
For families experiencing short term transition, many factors come into play: cultural and linguistic change can be challenging, the age of the child makes a difference; younger children tend to be more flexible, while teenagers can have emotional reactions and need more support finding friendship groups within school and beyond.
Students who have habitually moved a lot may appear to adapt quickly, but don’t be fooled. The external chameleon can hide a confused identity, attempting to mold themselves into acceptability so as not to stand out, while mourning the loss of a friendship group or familiar hobby. The other extreme can be attempting to maintain a social, academic or sporting identity in an environment with different competitive standards or established role holders. These and any other reactions merit our understanding.
For all of these groups a major challenge can be ‘returning’ to the ‘country of origin’ whether to re-settle or for further study. Culture shock in these situations can be extreme with the expectation to know and follow cultural norms which are alien to you, and a lack of peer group with similar experience. You may look and sound like you belong, but you have no sense of belonging. For myself, I only feel at home in a multicultural environment. Like many TCKs, I identify more with people than with place. And yes, my school experiences had a lot to do with that!
A quality international school can provide support in all of these situations. Security and relationships are the two most important aspects for us consider. Schools need to be safe spaces filled with open hearted, responsive, listening educators. The school is the community which offers stability and a sense of belonging. Everyone needs a friend, so partnering children with different peers and encouraging them to join extracurriculars will help them find their niche. An effective school helps families in transition by providing community links and reminders to keep familiar routines going, even in a temporary space. Studies indicate that most schools are strong with supporting entry transitions, but more attention needs to be given to leaving transitions, preparing students and families in advance, particularly if this involves moving out of the international community.
Children pick up on their parent’s emotions. If the parents are calm and positive, the children are more likely to be too. Parents may need reminders and support from the school to involve their children in honest conversation about their contexts, to provide information and answer questions, or indeed, to take care of their own needs, particularly when dealing with change. The saying goes ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ in our case: it takes a school community to support a family’s needs.
There are many benefits to growing up ‘among worlds’. Flexibility, resilience, global perspective, intercultural understanding and linguistic skill are all positive attributes which can contribute to a successful life. And moving past all other concerns, you develop an inner sense of stability, an ability to take care of yourself. Personally I would not have had it any other way.