Third Culture Kids - the role of international schools
Updated: Jan 15
Third Culture Kids
There are different terms used to explain third culture kids, such as “internationally mobile youth”, “global nomads” (McCaig 1992) or even “transculturals” (Willis et al., 1994). The concept of the “third culture kids” (TCK) was first introduced in the literature by Useem (1976), but became widespread after the publication of Pollock and Van Reken’s (2009) popular book of the same title.
Third culture kids (TCKs) are children who, for a significant part of their early years of development, do not grow up in their own parents' culture ('first culture') but live in one or more countries as visitors ('second culture'). they develop a kind of “third culture” (Pollock and Van Reken, 2009). This includes all children who grow up in transnational families as they move from country to country such as children of parents living in foreign countries for work. These children are exposed to a broader cultural impact. (Peterson & Plamondon, 2009).
The role and responsibility of the international schools
McNulty and Carter (2017) pointed out in their research that there is no adequate professional training for teachers and school staff working with these children, and educational institutions implement only superficial and basic training. They have a lack of knowledge about the social, emotional and psychological needs of third culture children enrolled in international schools and how the school’s teachers and staff can help them most effectively. In the absence of formal training, they have to rely on their own training and experience, which is a serious challenge.
While the professional development of teachers and school staff is an important milestone in supporting children’s optimal development and reflects the quality of curriculum and pedagogy, there is currently no study that examines the professional development of those working in international schools at multiple levels, from multiple perspectives,
An underlying source of tension can occur when third culture children search for a way to develop a sense of identity, to form relationships with others, to shape their own worldview (McNulty and Carter, 2017).
Although in some cases these children can be seen as victims of globalization, where culture and identity collide, it is through experience that they are able to build an effective, successful set of professional knowledge that is highly sought after in the international job market.
International schools play a very important role in constructing the identity of TCK's, and whilst there has not been significant research in the past, Asia is now leading this field. These schools share a number of common characteristics that third culture children interpret as normal. Teachers, school staff and students are multiculturally diverse, and personal change is constant and, at the same time a familiar scenario. The international school itself can be interpreted as a third culture (McNulty and Carter, 2017). This gives TCK's a sense of belonging, an opportunity to connect with others who have a similar background as themselves (Pollock & Van Reken, 2009).
Many teachers and school staff face difficulties in their own professional identities as teachers or mentors of third culture kids. In some cases, they may interpret themselves as a member of a lower-level expat group as an employee of a parent who, for example, does not live in special homes and condominiums like most expats (McNulty and Carter, 2017).
The schools also have a role in supporting the development of children's identity and helping them to develop a sense of belonging in the school community and to learn about the wider cultural environment. Cultural socialization is important, where practices teach children their own cultural heritage and traditions and strengthen their cultural pride.
According to Walters and Auton-Cuff (2009), cultural socialization is of paramount importance in the lives of third culture kids, as it is an expectation in their lives to adapt their cultural rules by navigating in an unknown cultural environment.
In this interpretation, international school staff play a critical role in facilitating cultural socialization, creating a protective barrier from being alienated from every single system they encounter (McNulty and Carter, 2017). Some international schools only employ teachers from that nation to support this, making it an important cultural input.
McCaig, N.M. (1992), Birth of a Notion. The Global Nomad Quarterly. 1(1):1.
McNulty, Y., & Carter, M. (2017). Do international school staff receive professional development training about third culture kids (TCKs)? Perspectives from faculty and parents. The routledge handbook on schools and schooling in Asia. Oxon: Routledge.
Peterson, B. E., & Plamondon, L. T. (2009). Third culture kids and the consequences of international sojourns on authoritarianism, acculturative balance, and positive affect. Journal of Research in Personality, 43(5), 755-763.
Pollock, D. C., & Van Reken, R. E. (2009). Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Revised Edition. Boston: Nicholas Brealey.
Useem, R. H., & Downie, R. D. (1976). Third-Culture Kids. Today's Education, 65(3), 103-5.
Walters, K. A., & Auton-Cuff, F. P. (2009). A story to tell: The identity development of women growing up as third culture kids. Mental Health, Religion and Culture, 12(7), 755-772.
Willis, D. B., Enloe, W. W., & Minoura, Y. (1994). Transculturals, transnationals: The new diaspora. The International Schools Journal, 14(1), 29.