Mitigating Risk Factors for Boarding School TCKs

LauREN mCCall and 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 were only beginning to scratch the surface of the data we collected from 1,904 individuals who completed our 2021 survey on childhood trauma in globally mobile Third Culture Kids. In our second white paper, TCKs at Risk: Risk Factors and Risk Mitigation for Globally Mobile Families, we looked at 12 risk factors and ways to mitigate these risks. This article is part of a series of blog posts that looks a little deeper at certain sub-groups represented in the data.

Mitigating Risk Factors for Boarding School TCKs

In the course of our research into Adverse Childhood Experiences among globally mobile young people, we learned a lot of difficult truths about what boarding school students experienced. This blog post will discuss the prevalence of various types of abuse and neglect, but no graphic descriptions. 

According to our research, TCKs who were primarily educated in boarding schools were four times more likely than Americans to experience emotional neglect. Our survey also found that nearly 1 in 3 (27%) of boarding school TCKs experienced sexual abuse, and 43% experienced emotional abuse.
Internationally mobile families and children are often viewed as privileged, and therefore not at risk of ACEs, PTSD, or other mental health struggles. This data suggests the opposite.
Among the demographic factors we collected were the primary reason the family moved internationally, and their core educational experience. The education types were: local/national school, international school, Christian international school, boarding school, and homeschool. We found a strong correlation between sector and 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.
For this reason, we are using two types of charts in this blog post. We compare risk factors in different educational experiences, but also compare the rates seen in boarding school students to both missionary and non-missionary groups overall.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) 

Research into ACEs has taken place worldwide across 25 years. The ten ACE factors are divided into Child Maltreatment (abuse and neglect directly suffered as a child) and Household Dysfunction (factors affecting the childhood living environment). The ACE questionnaire asks about childhood experiences without using the words "abuse" or "neglect" - helpful for catching abusive or neglectful experiences a person would not label that way themselves. We often compare our results to the CDC-Kaiser study of 17,000 Americans, as this is the largest ACE study done worldwide to date. Comparisons with other global populations can be found in our white paper.

We saw consistently different results across categories among TCKs born before/after 1980 – with the Boomer/Gen X generations on one side, and the Millennial/Gen Z generations on the other. This also delineates the groups who were/were not impacted by the internet during childhood. 


Abuse is broken down into three categories: physical, emotional and sexual. For physical and emotional abuse, the ACE question asks only about instances within the home. 1 in 5 (20%) TCKs who primarily attended boarding school experienced physical abuse at home, while nearly 1 in 3 (27%) experienced sexual abuse, and 2 in 5 (43%) experienced emotional abuse at home.
Boarding school students experienced slightly higher rates of abuse in all areas compared to missionary TCKs, overall. 20% experienced physical abuse, compared to 16% of missionary TCKs; 43% experienced emotional abuse, compared to 40% of missionary TCKs; and 27% experienced sexual abuse, compared to 23% of missionary TCKs overall.
Over time, reported rates of all types of abuse decreased. Boarding school TCKs born after 1980 were less than half as likely to be physically abused (11% vs 27%), and only one third reported emotional abuse, compared to half of older boarding school TCKs (33% vs 49%). Sexual abuse also decreased, though only from 29% to 24%. While this trend is encouraging, it still leaves 1 in 4 boarding schools TCKs experiencing sexual abuse before the age of 18.
[B]oarding schools have been especially vulnerable to abuse because they are very isolated…They often developed a culture and religious rhetoric of control and discipline.
While child-to-child sexual abuse was not included in the original ACE study, it is worth noting due to the lasting effects on survivors. Adult TCKs who reported child-to-child sexual abuse also had higher rates of emotional abuse (65%), adult-to-child sexual abuse (44%), and emotional neglect (54%). 30% of boarding school TCKs reported experiencing child-to-child sexual abuse, the highest rate found among all school sectors. 

Child-to-child sexual abuse did decrease over time among boarding school TCKs, reducing from 32% among older generations to 27% among younger generations. Child-to-child sexual abuse is a sign that further support may be needed; TCKs who reported child-to-child sexual abuse also had higher rates of emotional abuse (65%), sexual abuse (44%), and emotional neglect (54%). 
Another risk factor not included in the ACE questionnaire is grooming. 68% of TCKs who reported grooming also reported experiencing child sexual abuse. 34% of boarding school TCKs reported grooming behaviors directed toward them by adults. 36% of Boomer and Gen X boarding school TCKs experienced grooming, compared to 31% of Millennial and Gen Z boarding school TCKs. When one third of the student body experiences grooming, this is an issue boarding schools need to address.
During the review process of our survey, experts connected to the international school world discussed the problem of grooming behavior in school settings and particularly a lack of data concerning the prevalence of this. We added a question on grooming in order to gain data about this important issue, even though it would not add to ACE scores themselves.

Neglect is defined through the lens of perception, where a child feels/worries their emotional/physical needs will not be met. While physical neglect is often seen as an extension of poverty, in the ACE context it is not just about what the child has access to but also about their security that provision will continue in the future. In the case of emotional neglect, a child feels unloved or unimportant – whether or not their parents actually do love them. In cases of physical neglect, a child feels their physical needs may not be met – even if they are always fed and cared for. This can look like worry that they will not have enough food, shelter, clean clothing, protection, or medical care.
14% of TCKs who primarily attended boarding school reported physical neglect, consistent with the rate reported among missionary TCKs overall, and higher than the rate reported by Americans (10%). 2 in 5 boarding school TCKs (41%) reported emotional neglect, nearly four times the rate found among Americans, and slightly higher than among missionary TCKs overall (37%).
Household Dysfunction 

Household dysfunction encompasses household adult mental illness, parental violence, parental divorce or separation, household adult incarceration, and household adult substance abuse. Incarceration was so low among TCKs that we have not included it in this summary.  
Household Adult Mental Illness

Household adult mental illness is an ACE assigned to anyone who had an adult living in their home during childhood who was depressed, mentally ill, or attempted suicide. 1 in 3 boarding school TCKs (32%) reported that an adult with mental illness lived in their childhood home; this is more than 1.5 times the rate reported among Americans (19%) but slightly lower than the rate reported among both TCKs and MKs overall (39%).
Among boarding school TCKs, the rate of adult household mental illness slightly decreased over time (30% vs 33%), while all other education types showed a sharp increase. That said, older boarding school TCKs had the highest rate of adult household mental illness of all education types.
Given that boarding students spend less time in the home, and homeschooled students spend more time in the home, it is possible that these schooling experiences influenced their exposure to adult mental illness in the home.
While boarding school TCKs reported the overall lowest rate of adult household mental illness compared to other education sectors, this was still three times the rate seen in the US. These comparably high rates of household adult mental illness among TCKs demonstrates that many expatriate families are under stress, especially those who move abroad for work, and they need support. 

Parental Violence

Parental violence is defined as a child being impacted by, even if not actually witnessing, violence toward a mother/step-mother or father/step-father. 3% of boarding school students reported parental violence. Boarding school TCKs experienced parental violence at less than a quarter of the rate found among Americans, and at a slightly lower rate than missionary TCKs (5%).

While parental divorce/separation was 23% in the CDC-Kaiser study, it was much lower among TCKs. All education sectors saw a decrease in the divorce rate over time. Fewer boarding school TCKs than missionary TCKs overall experienced parental divorce/separation before age 18, but in both cases the numbers were very small (0.5% vs 1.5%). This said, a very small divorce rate does not necessarily guarantee stronger marriages.
Substance Abuse

Substance abuse as an ACE factor required that an adult living in the home was an alcoholic or used illicit drugs. 2% of boarding school TCKs reported household adult substance abuse, slightly less than the 3% of missionary TCKs overall.
Risk Mitigation

While some of this data can seem pretty disheartening, there are ways to mitigate the risks we’ve talked about and remain hopeful. In order to raise thriving children and meet their needs, globally mobile families need specific support. These challenges and risks are not unsolvable or reasons to despair, but rather reasons to take action in intentional ways that reflect the urgency of the matter.

In TCKs at Risk we outline a number of ways that organizations can protect children and support families. For example, additional research into Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) gives a roadmap for effectively buffering children from difficulties they face.
Simple intentionality in parenting, policies, and procedures can mitigate the risk and increase the chances of positive, healthy outcomes for Third Culture Kids… When a person had four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences, also having at least six of these Positive Childhood Experiences lowered the risk for depression in adulthood by 72%.
With 17% of boarding school students reporting 4 or more ACEs, these buffering protections are particularly important (Source: Caution and Hope for Boarding School Students).

Child protection is essential, and school-wide strategies should be put in place to safeguard children. The child protection strategies a school offers is an important factor for parents to research and consider when choosing a school for their children. While child protection laws differ from country to country, many international schools are holding themselves to higher standards than ‘required’ by national law. Accreditation bodies are also beginning to include child protection standards in their requirements.
Robust child safety policies don’t end with hiring or initial onboarding but also include ongoing frequentative trainings in child safety principles for everyone who might encounter children. This training sets up an expectation of how children should be treated, including prevention or ‘above-reproach’ strategies, such as not being alone with a child. These safeguards can help people without intent to harm to succeed in their best intentions, can help people identify suspicious behavior, and can promote healthy vigilance in the protection and safeguarding of children.
High mobility was correlated with high-risk ACE scores in TCKs; while 1 in 5 TCKs overall were at risk, 1 in 3 of those who experienced high mobility were at risk (Source: Caution and Hope).
[H]igh 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.
Many families receive little to no intercultural or transition training pre-departure, if at any time during their international assignment, unless they find and fund their own training. When boarding schools take up the opportunity to educate their school community about the risks of international life and how to mitigate these risks, this preventive care improves outcomes for everyone. 
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…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.
Whether you are a parent, educator, or school administrator, TCK Training is here to help! We offer a range of training and support, both organization-wide and for individual families. We have a full range of virtual and in-person services for international schools, including our Virtual Training Courses for International School StaffPreventing TCK Neglect as an Organization, and Sexual Abuse Awareness Training.

We also offer faith-based resources that Christian international schools may find helpful – especially those serving missionary communities: Faith-Based Resources for TCK Care, Discipling Missionary Kids,  and Biblical Foundations on MK Care

Parents seeking direct support can benefit from workshops such as Raising Healthy TCKs, Understanding Emotional Abuse and Neglect as a Parent, or Risk Prevention for Highly Mobile Families.

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