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The Forgotten TCKs: How Can We Help Children Whose Best Friends Move?

By Tabitha Davis and Caitlin Tegenfeldt
The Forgotten TCKs: How Can We Help Children Whose Best Friends Move?

Third culture children are known for experiencing repeated loss as they go through transitions. Counselors now work with students and families before their transitions to help them through the goodbye progress by using the RAFT (Reconciliation, Appreciation, Farewell, Think destination) approach, as outlined in Third Culture Kids by Dave Pollock and Ruth Van Reken. But what happens with the students left behind? How do we, as educators, support our students as they deal with the sense of grief and loss provoked when a close friend moves away? This article will explore how we can identify and support students that are left behind. Every August we welcome a new group of students into our classrooms. At the same time, we tend to assume that returning students will not need social support in transitioning to our grade level. Unfortunately, these assumptions can be incorrect. Identifying students early on who are grieving an interrupted friendship helps us to set up support systems, such as pairing a left-behind friend with a new classmate. Teachers from the previous year can help in the identification process by flagging students who they know will be affected by such loss. Counselors should also play an active part in passing along this information. At the end of the year, when class mixing takes place, schools need to prioritize keeping students with their friends whenever possible, especially when a child is going to be losing a friend. I have experienced class mixings in which little thought is given to the relationships of the students, but rather the priority is placed on separating troublesome students, or academically dividing classes. The first priority should be to ensure, if possible, that each child has a strong friendship in place. Third culture kids (TCKs) go through enough loss and grief that year-to-year transitions should not add to the list of emotional challenges. Whenever possible, allow parents to see class lists in advance of the start of the year, so they can prepare their child and possibly set up playdates with new classmates before the school year begins. According to Tanya Crossman, students dealing with the loss of friends who move away go through four main stages. The first stage is isolation; this is when a child that has lost a friend feels as though there is now a gaping hole where their friend once was. Often, this isolation phase can be more intense for the stayer than for the leaver, since the stayer is surrounded by places and memories that are a reminder of the now-absent friend. Teachers can be proactive in supporting a child that is in the isolation phase by helping to identify classroom buddies or taking the opportunity to pair a child that has lost a friend with a new student. As teachers, it is good practice to initiate a few buddy pairings for these students, increasing the possibility of a relationship growing. Educators and parents must also accept that this is a normal phase of adjustment. Through our interviews, we found this stage of isolation lasts between a few weeks up to a year. It seems that the older the child, the longer this phase of isolation may be, but there was great variance. Following isolation, students enter the engagement phase. This is when students start making an effort to meet others. Those having lost a friend may move into this phase more quickly because their routines and involvement in community activities are already well established. I know of one teacher who met personally with parents in the hope that they would encourage a particular child to sign up for the school musical. The parents were extremely appreciative that the teacher had taken the time to contact them and encouraged their child to participate. This helped the student move from the isolation phase into the engagement phase. Being aware of some of the struggles that TCKs face when a best friend has left is the first step to helping the child. Next, teachers, counselors, and school administrators need to set up buddy programs and engage in thoughtful class mixing, to help students develop new relationships. Finally, showing support, understanding, and acceptance will help the student to work through the first two stages of isolation and engagement. Caitlin Tegenfeldt and Tabitha Davis are colleagues at the International School of Yangon and have gravitated toward one other through their passion of understanding and supporting third culture kids.

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