Caution and Hope for Boarding School Students 

Tanya crossman
When TCK Training released our white paper, Caution and Hope: The Prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences in Globally Mobile Third Culture Kids, we knew we were only beginning to scratch the surface of what we could learn from the data we had collected from 1,904 individuals who completed our 2021 survey on developmental trauma in globally mobile Third Culture Kids. This is part of a series of blog posts that looks a little deeper at certain sub-groups represented in the data.

Caution and Hope for Boarding School Students 

In our survey of nearly 2,000 people who grew up internationally, we discovered that 17% (nearly 1 in 5) of those who grew up attending boarding school were at high risk of adverse outcomes in adulthood. In this blog post, we go through the data from our white paper "Caution and Hope" that applies specifically to boarding school students: things that are hard to hear, along with what we can do to cultivate long term thriving for children at boarding schools.

One of the demographics we used to sort the results from our 2021 survey of Adverse Childhood Experiences among TCKs was core educational experience. We asked respondents to list all types of schooling they received, as many TCKs move between schools - and school types - during childhood and adolescence. We also asked them to choose one category which represented the core experience they identified with; 12% identified boarding school as their core experience of education.
Almost all respondents who selected boarding school as their core educational experience also self-identified as missionary kids (MKs). For this reason, it is helpful to compare the statistics of boarding school students not just to TCKs generally, but also to MKs specifically.
Indeed, only 2% of those outside the missionary demographic selected boarding school as their core educational experience, compared to nearly 20% of missionary kids.


Missionary kids overall had similar mobility patterns to the whole TCK sample. A little higher in some areas, but not much different. For this reason, as we consider mobility we will compare the mobility patterns of boarding school students to the MK group only, as this is a more apt comparison.

Boarding school students had higher incidence of extreme mobility in all three metrics we looked at: countries lived in, location moves, and house moves. As we will discuss later, a higher incidence of high mobility is a concerning pattern.

Boarding school students were a bit more likely to live in multiple countries than other TCKs, with 29% living in four or more countries, compared to 23% of TCKs overall.

Boarding school students were much more likely to experience multiple location moves than other TCKs, with nearly two thirds (64%) moving locations eight or more times before age 18, compared to 38% (one third) of all TCKs. This means a typical boarding school student can expect to move locations at least once every two years throughout childhood.
Boarding school students were also more likely to move house than other TCKs. Nearly half (45%) of boarding school students moved house more than 10 times before age 18, compared to one third (33%)of all TCKs. Only 5% of boarding school students moved house fewer than five times during childhood, compared to 14% of all TCKs.
Adverse Childhood Experiences

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) have been researched for decades, establishing links between high ACE scores and negative health outcomes in adulthood. The number we pay most attention to is the percentage of a group with 4 or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). In the largest study on ACEs, 12.5% of Americans had a score of 4+. In our study, 21% of TCKs generally, and 17% of boarding school students specifically, had an ACE score of 4+.
This suggests that the risk is a little bit lower for boarding school students than for TCKs overall, but (as seen below) on par with missionary kids as a whole.
When boarding school missionary kids are compared to non-boarding school missionary kids, there is a very small difference (higher among boarding school MKs). In any case, while missionary kids (including boarding school students) have lower ACE scores overall than TCKs generally, 16% is still higher than scores among geographically stable Americans in the CDC-Kaiser study.

PCEs And Preventive Care

We titled our white paper “Caution and Hope” because although it can be hard to face the reality that so many students in our communities are experiencing extreme mobility, unresolved grief, and Adverse Childhood Experiences, there are proven practical ways to support them. 

There is also so much preventive care we can do to help children process the experiences of grief and loss that go along with transition and mobility, and living in communities where their friends also move away. A key finding of “Caution and Hope” was that when extreme mobility is present, the rate of high-risk ACE scores rose from 1 in 5 TCKs to 1 in 3.
31% of boarding school students reported extreme location mobility, and 26% reported extreme house mobility. These high rates of extreme mobility among boarding school students are not surprising, but the correlation of high mobility with high ACE scores means we need to take these transitions very seriously. Boarding schools are critically placed to provide essential transition care for boarding students as they arrive, depart, farewell family, and lose friends as they move on to other locations.

A child who goes through many Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can still thrive in adulthood if their childhood is also filled with Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs). There are seven types of PCEs. Three of the seven are based in the home; four of the seven are based in experiences of community outside the home.

Boarding school students experience regular disruptions between their parental/home environment and their school/peer group environment, complicating the provision of these PCEs. Consciously and deliberately considering how to educate and train both staff and parents in the importance of PCEs, and creating systems that support provision of PCEs, will improve long term outcomes for boarding school students.
Bethell and her coworkers found that having higher counts of PCEs was associated with 72% lower odds of having depression or poor mental health overall as an adult; that those with higher levels of positive experiences were over 3.5 times more likely to have healthy social and emotional support as an adult; and that accumulation of the seven PCEs shifted the outcome positively in adulthood.

Caution and Hope:
The Prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences in Globally Mobile Third Culture Kids
Many boarding schools are already providing elements of preventive care and protective factors, without necessarily understanding how crucial these elements are to the long term health and wellbeing of their students. Making education and training available to parent groups and others who form the community around students outside of school also has a large impact on student wellbeing, both in the short and long term.

TCK Training is here to help. We have curricula, workshops (in-person and virtual), training (live and asynchronous), community groups, memberships, and everything else you need to support staff, students, parents, and your wider community.

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