Caution and Hope for International 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 International School Students

In our survey of nearly 2,000 people who grew up internationally, we discovered that 22% (more than 1 in 5) of those who attended international schools growing up 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 international school students: things that are hard to hear, along with what we can do to cultivate long term thriving for children growing up in the world of international 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 their international education. The largest group was those who chose International School as their core educational experience. 

Nearly one third (31%) of the 1,904 TCKs we surveyed attended international schools primarily. This is in addition to 20% who attended Christian international schools (including both larger Christian-worldview schools and smaller missionary schools). With deeper data analysis, it became clear that three educational types (Christian schools, homeschool, and boarding school) were primarily attended by missionary kids. When we looked at the non-mission kids in our sample, the percentage attending international schools rose to over half (53%).

When the percentage of total TCKs is compared to school choice, we get context on the 25% of missionary kids in the international school student group. This is half the number we would expect to see if the the overall percentages held. Instead, we see that every other sector is much more likely to attend an international school than the mission sector.


60% of respondents who attended international schools were born after 1980, making it a slightly younger group than other sectors. This makes sense, given the increase in international school availability and enrolments over time. This is a similar age presentation as seen in the children of International Business Families, who primarily lived abroad due to corporate transfers - another phenomena that has increased over time. That said, among the international student group an impressive 12% were born before 1960.


International school students were more likely to live in multiple countries before age 18, but slightly less likely to experience extreme mobility generally (move locations/houses more than 10 times).

Again, there is some similarity here with children of business families. International school students were more likely to live in multiple countries, and business families were less likely to experience extreme mobility, but the general pattern holds.

While 58% of business kids attended international schools, they form only 27% of the total group of international students in this sample, so their presence is not enough on its own to skew the sample.

ACE Scores

One of the key goals of our research was to attain a wide set of ACE scores we could look at through different demographic lenses. International school students, it turned out, had a very similar ACE profile to TCKs generally.
The number we pay most attention to is the percentage of a group with 4 or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). This is a risk factor established by decades of research, and is associated with negative health outcomes in adulthood. In the largest study on ACEs, 12.5% of Americans had a score of 4+. In our study, 21% of TCKs generally and 22% of TCKs who primarily attended international schools had an ACE score of 4+. This suggests that 1 in 5 international students are at risk of a series of negative health outcomes in adulthood.

PCEs And Preventive Care

These statistics can be confronting, but we titled our white paper “Caution and Hope” for a reason. 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). Existing research demonstrates that even when high ACEs are present, the presence of 6-7 PCEs drops the risk of depression in adulthood by 72%.

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. International schools are often hubs for community, providing places for not only students but also entire families to meet and befriend one another. This potential role in providing a protective buffer for long term student wellbeing should not be underestimated.
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
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. While the rate of extreme mobility was lower in international schools that some other sectors, it was still present. 31% of international school students moved location 8+ times before age 18: that’s a move almost every 2 years, experienced by nearly a third of the student population. International schools are critically placed to provide essential transition care for those arriving, those leaving, and those staying.
Many international 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. More importantly, the wider school community is often desperately in need of information that educators have often already have access to. Making education and training available to parent groups and others who form the community around students has a large impact on student wellbeing.

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 international students, both direct to students and through training your staff and your wider community.

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