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Third Culture Kids Need Help with Transitions

By Antonio Morales

There has been a rapid increase in the number of families moving from their home country to foreign countries due to employment, education, or military assignment; these global nomads are often called expatriates, or expats. During the 2006–2007 academic school year, it was estimated that about 273,000 students were enrolled in one of the 520 identified international elementary and secondary schools in 153 countries (International Schools Services 2007). The children who accompany their parents or guardians on the global excursion are called Third Culture Kids (TCKs). The educational need of TCKs becomes apparent and the international schools TCKs attend affect their transition into the multinational arena, in particular, international schools.
International schools populations are characterized by (a) multinational composition; (b) high student turnover due to parents’ employment; (c) students will not complete their education in the country the international school is located; and, (d) students’ cultural development will be influenced by the culture of the host country (Langford 2012). Therefore, it is imperative that international schools have in place programs that will assist TCKs’ transition into their culturally rich, diverse environments.
In 1963, the Useems coined the term third culture kids (TCKs) and pioneered the research in this field. However, other researchers have provided a concise definition of TCKs, such as Pollock (1999), who defines the TCK as:
An individual who, having spent a signi?cant part of the developmental years in a culture other than the parents’ culture, develops a sense of relationship to all of the cultures while not having full ownership in any. Elements from each culture are incorporated into the life experience, but the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar experience.
The development of relationships is affected by TCKs’ transient lifestyles, as it becomes “too difficult to formulate solid and lasting relationships because there is an internal desire or restlessness to ‘change the scene’ every few years” (Tokuhama-Espinosa 2003). Mclachlan states that TCK’s mobile lifestyle may challenge their establishment of relationships during their adult life (2007).
Although there are benefits to living overseas, there have been studies reporting issues and problems faced by TCKs. For example, Pollock and Van Reken (2001) claim that students transitioning from schools and countries during their adolescent years experience difficulties at this stage of personal and cultural development. International schools must be sensitive to the challenges of managing transience during TCKs’ transitional period.
Diversity is an inherent characteristic of international schools, not only in learning styles, but in cultural identification. For the purpose of this discussion, an international school will be considered an institution “specifically established to cater for students from a wide variety of cultures who are likely to be internationally mobile as their parents move from country to country... the staff also represents a mixture of nationalities... Such schools normally teach an international programme of study or one or more national programmes (Chesworth and Dawe 2000; Hayden 2006).
The mobility of TCKs is inherent in their lifestyle and a few international schools have implemented transitional programs in assisting TCKs’ transition. Pollock and Van Reken (2009) describe a transition experience as consisting of five stages: involvement; leaving; transition; entering; and involvement. Risch (2008) revealed that one out of five international schools had no transitional programs and those that did were established in easing transition to the school. In a subsequent study, Bates (2013) focused on the success or failure of three components in particular: professional development, orientation and departure programs, and the use of transition teams. The results of this study suggested the lack of transitional programs in schools. Consequently, it is crucial that developing a comprehensive support program for students in transition is necessary to the success of TCKs.
In gauging the effectiveness of transition programs, Bates investigated three common transitional forms of support for TCKs in international schools: professional development, transition teams, and orientation and departure programs. She concluded that more schools offered orientation programs for arrival than departure and only one school offered transition support teams. However, all three programs were viewed as successful. In summary, Bates’ findings were consistent with those of Risch, suggesting a “lack of awareness for the problems associated with transition and TCKs.”
The need for qualified teachers and staff—in particular, counselors—has increased due to the growing number of international schools. In a recent exploratory study that examined international school counselors’ view of students’ mental health needs, their own professional needs, and challenges and opportunities in their relationships with parents, teachers, and principals, it was revealed that coping with cultural transitions, lack of professional development, and lack of knowledge of counselors’ professional role, respectively, were the major challenges faced by international school counselors (Inman et al., 2009).
Carolyn Reeves (2006) offers a comprehensive transition support program for international students and their families, which includes a proactive student involvement group responsible for planning ways to help new and departing students; orientations for new families; a “Welcomer” for every new student; ongoing support for parents; and meetings with counselors prior to departure.
Although Reeves’ program is not comprehensive, it can serve as a foundation for international schools interested in adopting transition programs for their students and parents. Reeves advised, “No matter how challenging the situation is for families, with the right support and guidance, attending an international school can be a very positive experience.”
Antonio Morales is a high school teacher for QSI International School located in Shenzhen, China and is currently working on an Ed.D. at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.

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