As the new term starts there are often discussions about the questions not to ask UK children on their return to school. The experiences students have had over the holidays will be mixed - some good and some not so good. But what kinds of challenges face their international counterparts? What are the questions that may unsettle these children and how could it impact their wellbeing?
Having worked in schools all around the world, taking my own children with me, I asked them what question they most dreaded. In unison, they answered, “Where are you from?”, with an accompanying eye roll. What are they supposed to say to that? They could not agree on the right answer and while it sparked an interesting debate at the dinner table, I could see a longing for that answer in their eyes.
The Welsh word Hiraeth captured exactly what they were feeling - a desire for home, but one that may not even exist. Given they had moved so many times, how would they know where their ‘home’ was? It is ambiguous where identity lies for any individual, but there is now a growing number of children whose identity is rooted in the absence of roots itself. The places they have travelled, the languages they speak, the worldwide friendships they have – all positive on the face of it, but it can come with a price that goes un-noticed by the accompanying adults.
Third Culture Kids
Much has been written about kids who grow up internationally or as they are commonly called ‘Third Culture Kids’. If you go back to the 1980s, Grosjean described the concept of cultural identity as being rooted in the football team you support and little else. He went on to note that the cultural cues we all rely on were more important than language itself when it came to integrating successfully.
Shared experience can create community even in the face of limited language skill or understanding. As a teen, to lose your connection with the peer pop culture of your home country or even city can leave you without any effective avenue to integration. There are often in-jokes or cultural anchors that may circulate, and Third Culture Kids will never really understand them. They essentially don’t have the shared experiences that build community or understanding.
While the concept of Third Culture Kids is a sort of community in itself, belonging to a group that doesn’t belong can feel like a consolation prize to some. Belonging and community are regularly identified as an integral part of wellbeing – Maslow’s hierarchy being perhaps the most recognised embodiment of this.
Feeling different, alone, unsafe and uncertain are often feelings that go undetected in schools – but they can be crushing. Nick Jensen of Kiwitahi School, New Zealand describes children as ‘...little geniuses…’ when it comes to masking their feelings and this would certainly correspond to my time working with youngsters.
Avoiding uncomfortable conversations
In schools, we are busy. As parents, we are busy. The tricky conversations that go beyond “How was school?” require care, energy and time, and they are fraught with risk and discomfort. Maybe we choose to do it tomorrow and then tomorrow never comes. As time passes, we hope children will adapt, we hope they will cope.
Our children often give us what they think we want to hear – they themselves fearing the uncomfortable conversations around feelings. Maybe they don’t know how to articulate their fears, or maybe they just haven’t worked out that talking might help. Whatever the reason, time is often not the healer we would like to think. Hope itself is not an effective way to address issues of wellbeing.
The opposite can often be true, too. For some children, anxiety and distress can be apparent – but a more worrying issue can be where a child slowly moves towards indifference or more worryingly numbness. Numbness is the one thing that worries me most as it is often the first and most serious red flag, perhaps signalling a decline in wellbeing and the start of a journey towards something far worse. This slow journey can go unnoticed, particularly in the more transient world of Third Culture Kids. The indifference can be viewed as a child being quiet and the absence of distress can be seen as a positive, but that would be remiss.
Are we doing all we can in our classrooms and playgrounds to support our students with their wellbeing? Or are we reluctant to act based on hunches alone? Might we not have time for that conversation this week, or could we even feel ill-equipped to address issues that are beyond our expertise? What would galvanise us for that first tricky conversation? When would we feel we had enough information to act? How do we find that information? Is a hunch enough to push the difficult conversation beyond our comfort zone? These are the questions we now need to ask ourselves.
Understanding the individual
We have the chance to support young people with their development, with their journey to become people ready to cope, people with those life skills that may support their study and work long-term, people with the resilience to deal with the vagaries of life and the blows it inevitably delivers.
Every statistic is a child, every experience is something that shapes a child’s view of the world. If we accept that wellbeing issues are actually individual stories of joy, tragedy, sadness and recovery, then this should bring our practice into sharp focus. Within the world of Third Culture Kids, this is perhaps more urgent than elsewhere. Here, young people face the regular and repeated loss of friendships, a new set of rules and conventions every couple of years, or even just the removal of those things they tend to seek comfort in – that would be coffee and bookshops for me, and I missed both while I lived in China and my wellbeing suffered for the lack of that very thing.
Nick Jensen’s approach was unusual, Kiwitahi School is small, the teacher-student ratios high and yet he still saw the need to look beyond the obvious. For generations gone by, data has sometimes been viewed as usurping teacher judgement, but Nick Jensen thought otherwise. The data gave his teachers the starting point they needed for those tricky conversations. Nick was adamant that without it “we would be blinkered, driving blind and trying to fix problems that we thought we needed to fix rather than knowing we are dealing with the right areas.” Education is just too precious not to listen to the data, life chances are made and lost in those formative years and as educators we are duty bound to give the most informed support we can.
If we seek to understand the child and see wellbeing as the end itself, the priority above all else, perhaps then – and maybe only then - will we be getting close to doing all that we can all for the children in our care.