Impact of Significant Childhoodnature Experiences on Environmental Identity Formation for Globally Mobile Children Attending International Schools

  • Rianne Carolina van ZalingeEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Springer International Handbooks of Education book series (SIHE)


How do globally mobile children, especially Third Culture Kids (TCKs), with their mobile lifestyles, form their environmental identities? Through their many relocations, they are constantly in a state of flux in their ever-changing lives. Therefore, as these expatriate children move in and out of various countries, cultures and schools, they may experience significant life experiences (SLEs) and learn who they are within their prevailing/temporary culture.

The nature of challenges faced by TCKs, the role international schools play in environmental identity formation and the creation of childhoodnature experiences in TCKs will be explored through my own lived experiences as a TCK. By framing an autoethnographical exploration of SLEs as a globally mobile child through photographs and poems, I will illustrate my own lived childhoodnature experiences growing up as a TCK in international schools in eight different countries before the age of 18.

Myers (1997) and Chawla (1998) identified the importance of both the outer environment of the physical and social world, and the inner environment of people’s own interests and feelings. Consequently, they recommended that additional research was needed exploring the influence of the inner environment in shaping an individual’s SLEs.

For TCKs, this inner environment is critically important in shaping their SLEs but sadly, within international schools, this is often overlooked. To support TCKs in achieving much needed harmony, support, stability, understanding, and attain a sense of belonging, strategies will be identified to assist staff and students of international schools.


TCKs Identity formation Environmental identity Expatriate children Sense of belonging Mobility International schools 


When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.

– Viktor Frankl (2006, p. 112)

As Frankl (2006) so eloquently stated, if you cannot change your situation, then try to change yourself. In an ever-increasingly globalized world, this represents an important theme in this chapter as creating an identity and a sense of belonging, are major challenges for Third Culture Kids (also known as TCKs). TCKs are globally mobile children who neither grow up in their passport country nor are citizens of their host country and are therefore part of a third culture.

In 2015, the number of people living outside their country of origin had reached 224 million (United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, 2016), highlighting that international mobility is becoming a distinctive feature of today’s society with people/families moving voluntarily or involuntarily across the globe. Due to their mobility (refer to the chapter “Third Culture Kids and Experiences of Places” by Picton and Urquhart elsewhere in this Handbook), globally mobile children such as TCKs find that some of the greatest challenges they face is in creating a sense of identity and a feeling of belonging (Bennett, 1993; Hoersting & Jenkins, 2011; Picton & Urquhart, 2018; Pollock & Van Reken, 2009).

The focus in this chapter is on the frequent mobility of globally mobile children (TCKs) from expatriate families. For instance, this includes children of international organizations and companies, foreign embassies, NGOs, the armed forces, and charities or missionary programs. In many cases, the children of expatriate families that move frequently for work or careers are often forced to move and it is their voice that needs to be heard. It is through my own experiences growing up as a TCK in an expatriate family, attending international schools and describing my own childhoodnature experiences that I will reflect upon.

International schools represent an ideal option for expatriate families in that they cater to students who are not nationals of the host country (Wechsler, 2017). These schools provide a comprehensive cross-cultural education that immerses students in multiple languages and gives them access to a global, mobile community that is defined by its internationalism and provides a unique cultural identity. Furthermore, international schools are generally more focused upon cultural identity than on a student’s birthplace (Buchanan, 2014). Globally, there are 8,600 international schools, serving 4.5 million students and employing more than 420,000 teachers. According to the International School Consultancy (ISC), demand for international schooling is rising rapidly. Thus, in the next 10 years, the number of international schools will double to more than 16,000 schools to cater for 8.75 million students worldwide (Wechsler, 2017).

For those TCKs, who relocate often with their parents, mobility is simply a part of life. These children encounter multiple cultural settings due to their frequent mobility and thus experience a cross-cultural lifestyle (Downie, Koestner, El Geledi, & Cree, 2004). By cross-cultural, I mean that they experience their host country’s culture, their parents’ culture, and their own third culture.

Most studies dealing with environmental identity has centered on traditional schools and schooling. Consequently, there is a relative dearth in research dealing with the role of international schools in the creation of a sense of belonging in TCKs (Ota, 2014), and even less about their role in promoting a TCKs’ childhoodnature and significant life experiences (SLEs). Thus, for TCKs, creating a sense of belonging is more complicated than for children who have lived in one place all their lives because TCKs move between cultures and countries often and therefore identity formation is a complex issue for them. Yet, both their families and the international schools that these TCKs attend can play a key role in whether a child successfully creates a sense of belonging within their new community (Ota, 2014).

Consequently, questions arise about the opportunities for expatriate children to develop an environmental identity in a foreign context, especially when frequent moves occur? In the following sections, I will discuss the context of international schools and the nature of TCKs and then apply an autoethnographical lens to reveal my life as a TCK and reflect upon how my own SLEs were shaped to create the person I am today.

International Schooling and Environmental Initiatives

An international school can be loosely categorized as one that promotes international education in an international environment (Nagrath, 2011; Wechsler, 2017). This is usually achieved by following an international curriculum, such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) or Cambridge International Examinations.

One of the many great advantages of an international school is that students are more open to people from all walks of life. In the very fabric of their education, students are exposed to a multitude of cultures, languages, religions, and values. They learn how to adapt quickly to change and how to form and nourish fast friendships. This promotes a broad-minded spirit and a multicultural attitude of acceptance. Indeed, with multiculturalism and International Baccalaureate (IB) qualifications, international schools might not be traditional, but they certainly reflect the future of education in a truly globalized world (Wechsler, 2017).

The rapid growth has corresponded with the proliferation of the title international placed on many schools that may possibly have the veneer of being international in name only. For instance, Nagrath (2011) reports that of the 345 new schools opened in 2010, 80 (or 23%) are offering one or more of the IB programs. Yet, what about the more than 75% of international schools those are not offering that program? What international program or curriculum are these new schools offering? Do they truly represent international schools? In 2009, the International Association of School Librarianship (IASL) developed a list of criteria to describe an international school. Although not all international schools would meet all of the criteria, most would meet the majority of the following eight specified criteria:
  1. 1.

    Transferability of students’ education across international schools

  2. 2.

    A moving population (higher than in national public schools)

  3. 3.

    Multinational and multilingual student body

  4. 4.

    An international curriculum

  5. 5.

    International accreditation

  6. 6.

    A transient and multinational teacher population

  7. 7.

    Nonselective student enrolment

  8. 8.

    Usually English or bilingual as the language of instruction (Nagrath, 2011)


In 2015, the International School Consultancy (ISC) estimated that four million students attend international schools in more than 8000 English-medium international schools in 127 countries worldwide, including children of all nationalities aged 6–18 years (Relocate Global, 2015). International schools and teachers follow a largely western educational curriculum, with the dominant cultural identity being American or British. In fact, many TCKs grow up speaking English with an American or British accent (Ota, 2014). In any given year, international schools can have 40+ nationalities attending their school, with yearly student turnover rates of 25% (Ota, 2014). Due to the high turnover of students, the sense of belonging and community is much more transient than in a local school. Consequently, both teachers and students live in an ever-changing and dynamic environment. With these frequent (re)adjustments to new locations, differing cultural norms and values, and various languages and schools, TCKs often struggle to create both a sense of identity and a sense of belonging (Moore & Barker, 2012).

Furthermore, the number of environmental initiatives evident in international school’s pales by comparison to local state and national schools. Some examples of national approaches: whole-school initiatives include programs such as the UK’s Learning through Landscapes (LtL), Canada’s Evergreen, USA’s Green Schools Initiative, New Zealand’s Enviroschools, Sweden’s Green School Awards, and ENSI’s Learnscapes focusing on greening school grounds and maximizing the potential of these spaces for quality educational and environmental experiences (Henderson & Tilbury, 2004). Environmental action and awareness initiatives do exist in the international school community; however, they are very sporadic. One example is the Eco-schools initiative (Eco-schools, 2014) which is one of a number of environmental education programs developed by the Foundation for Environmental Education. Eco-schools encourage and engage active young people to act for the environment in preserving and sustaining it. It starts from the ground up as it begins in a class and builds through the school and aims to ultimately foster change in the community. If achieved, schools can achieve certification and be awarded a Green Flag. Eco-Schools have been running for over two decades and now reach more than 15 million students in 59 countries worldwide. However, to date, only 31 international schools in 18 countries are registered.

Consequently, in all my experiences as a TCK and during my time in international schools (Table 1), the role of the international schools in developing any SLEs in me was negligible. In fact, the main source for the development of my environmental ethos was largely driven by my parents rather than my experiences in international schools. Despite there being times, such as at the 163 year old Woodstock School (an international school which was located at the base of the Himalayas) that the significance and its location, and the surrounding majesty of the natural environment was totally lost on me, despite being the perfect setting for the development of my SLEs. Mind you, as a young female at the age of 14, I was not only grappling with adolescence but struggling to make sense of my own world and where I belonged especially as a TCK in an international school in India. Furthermore, my younger brother who was about 11 years old at the time also attended the same school and loved being in nature and has since become a staunch environmental scientist. Thus, both our experiences differed at the same school, largely because, in my opinion, I felt that issues of adolescence and feeling very lonely clouded my judgment and my view of the world. I will reflect on these issues later in this chapter through my autoethnographic journey.
Table 1

My TCK journey from birth to 18 years (Father’s career sponsored by the UN)







6 months

Not applicable



4 years

International nursery

Kuwait City


2 years

Kuwait American

Kuwait City


2 years

Kuwait British



4 years

Karachi American


The Netherlands

6 months

Marnix Lyceum



1½ years

Woodstock International



1½ years

St. Andrews International



1 year

Winston Churchill


The Netherlands

1 year

Hogere Hotelschool

Third Culture Kids (TCKs) … Who Are They?

No generation before now has had so many of its members simultaneously living in, between, and among countless cultural worlds as is happening today.

Lois Bushong (2013)

Who and what are these TCKs? To fully appreciate the circumstances and issues faced by TCKs, it is important that the reader understands who they are. Based on the increasing scale of global movements of families and children, greater attention in the future will be needed to more fully appreciate and cater for the many issues faced by these globally mobile children and TCKs, to ensure a smoother transition for children into schools and also into the general community.

The concept of Third Culture Kids (TCKs) was first introduced in the 1960s by Ruth and John Useem. They:

… defined the home culture from which the adults came as the first culture. They called the host culture where the family lived the second culture. The shared lifestyles of the expatriate community they defined as an interstitial culture or culture between cultures and named it the third culture. Children who have grown up in this culture are called third culture kids. (Pollock & Van Reken, 1999, p. 20)

Pollock and Van Reken (1999) defined a TCK as:

A person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years living in one or more countries outside their passport country because of their parent’s occupation. The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Elements from each culture are incorporated into the life experience, but the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar experience. (p. 19)

However, the concept of culture is a contested concept and notoriously difficult to define. Apte (1994) (p. 2001) summarized the problem as follows: “Despite a century of efforts to define culture adequately, there was in the early 1990s no agreement among anthropologists regarding its nature” (Spencer-Oatey, 2012).

A typical notion of culture is that it is formed by the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society. It is the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and understanding that are learned by socialization (Zimmerman, 2017). Thus, TCKs are formed by many cultural aspects: firstly, by their parents’ culture; secondly, their host country’s culture; and thirdly, by their peers, international school, and mobile lifestyle that all contribute and strengthen their TCK identity.

Despite the first (parents) and second (host country) cultures being tangible, social constructions, the third culture is temporary and intangible, and constantly changing as TCKs move and connect with other TCKs going through the same transcultural experiences. This third culture, more than the first or second cultures, gives TCKs both a sense of belonging and being understood (Lijadi & Van Schalkwijk, 2014). In the third culture, the sense of belonging comes from the shared expatriates’ internationally mobile experiences despite the differences in nationality, cultural background, or ethnicity.

First a Sense of Belonging, then an Environmental Identity

SLE research, initiated by Tanner (1980) and continued by numerous others (e.g., Chawla, 1999; Myers, 1997; Palmer, 1993) suggests that several factors occurring during childhood strongly influence one’s environmental interest and can lead to an active role being played in environmentalism during their life. These factors include: positive outdoor experiences as a child with respect to nature; positive (adult) role models that create these outdoor experiences; and reading nature books (Stevenson et al. 2014).

However, Chawla (1998) states that more attention should be paid to your inner (physiological, personal) environment rather than just the outer (physical) environment. Furthermore, my position is that only once your inner state is at peace and feels safe, can you start bonding with others, which is when learning and identifying with someone/something can occur. This is best illustrated using Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” (2006), a motivational theory within psychology, that provides a five-tier model of human needs. It contends that people are motivated to achieve certain basic safety and physiological needs which take priority over others (Fig. 1). For instance, our most basic need is for physical survival, which is the first thing that motivates our behavior. Once that level is fulfilled the next level above it motivates us, and so on (McLeod, 2017).

Jose, Ryan, and Pryor (2012) state that “there is general theoretical consensus among the diverse array of researchers that a perceived sense of belonging or connectedness is a basic psychological need, and that when this need is satisfied it brings about positive outcomes.” (p. 236). If children’s basic needs are met, both physiological and safety needs (Fig. 1), then they start creating friendships and a sense of belonging to their environment. A sense of belonging is needed before you can identify with an environmental ideology to be integrated into their identity.

It is therefore important to understand how an environmental identity is created. Clayton (2003) argues that environmental identity is part of your self-concept, namely, that it is a part of you; making you feel at one with nature, based on memories of past activities, or an emotional bond, that ultimately affects how you see and behave in the world. Furthermore, he highlights the importance of positive outdoor experiences in helping to form an emotional attachment with your environment. Stapleton (2015) identified, in relation to environmental education, that in early childhood, children start to learn what their society expects them to be and to do and to develop personal responses to this. Thus, merging one’s personal identity (goals, values, and beliefs) with one’s cultural identity (sense of belonging to a group).

The examination of environmental sensitivity, the openness to environmentally friendly behavior, and the development of environmental commitment through life events came into focus in the 1980s, with experiences in nature (or outdoors) being the most significant factor in the development of an environmental identity (Chawla, 1998, 1999; Palmer, 1993; Tanner, 1980). Furthermore, the role of childhoodnature experiences, which can be family holidays, summer camps, or outdoor activities were also significant. Palmer (1993) concluded that “outdoor childhood experiences led to their concern for the environment” (p. 29) and SLEs. They have less importance in domestic research (Hofmeister-Tóth, Kelemen, & Piskóti, 2012), but their role is important in the study of life events. Also, negative experiences as influencing factors appeared in research studies (Chawla, 1999; Palmer, 1993; Palmer & Suggate, 1996), which refer to perceived environmental issues. Chawla (1999) examined which life stage the given life experiences have the biggest influence. Outdoor experiences, family members, and education clearly have the biggest role in childhood. These results are confirmed by Hofmeister-Tóth et al. (2012), adding the possible positive effects of belief and religion. During the university years, friends and education have the most intensive influence. In adulthood, the influence of organizations and communities become an encouraging factor.

Stevenson et al. (2014) suggested that SLEs research highlights that role models, time outdoors, and nature-related media can help to promote pro-environmental behavior; however, most of this research is qualitative. Furthermore, it is evident that among middle year students in the USA, life experiences appear less important than promoting small class sizes and addressing challenges associated with lower incomes in schools (Stevenson et al. 2014).

In addition, there is support for the importance of childhoodnature experiences and experiences obtained in nature (Chawla, 1999; Palmer, 1993; Tanner, 1980), with 36% of positive experiences coming from one’s childhood and another 24% being based on high school experiences. The importance of role models also appears to be significant, while activities learnt from parents and grandparents were the most salient among family memories (Piskóti, 2015).


Chawla (1998) stated that “…research into SLEs is only as valid as the autobiographical memory on which it is based” (p. 363). Therefore, autoethnography can thus be a risky means for researching SLEs as the subject’s memory can be faulty, especially if it describes details of vague memories produced a long time ago. (Simone Blom provides some additional ethnographic research elsewhere in this Handbook.) However, in my case, I feel my memories are a very relevant source of information because they encompass significant moments in my life. “Events of high personal importance produce more vivid and accurate memories than events of low importance” (ibid., p. 363).

The methodological approach that I took in this chapter was rather straight forward. I chose an autoethnographical approach largely because it allowed me to use self-reflection to explore my personal experiences and the development of my environmental identity within the social context at the time and to also connect my autobiographical narrative to wider cultural and social meanings. I also wanted to explore and reflect upon my own lived childhoodnature experiences as an expatriate child in international schools.

I was inspired by the approach that Hopkins (2015) used of framing personal memories and critical points in my TCK journey through poetry. The focus of the poems was guided by Hanauer (2010) where I was directed to select provocative points to generate stimulus material upon which to shape my commentary for scrutiny.

Furthermore, poems and images were combined to generate richness in my ethnographic journey. Provocative prompts were used in combination with photographs that characterized the five critical stages of my cultural transition (Pollock & Van Reken, 2009), which include: involvement, leaving, transition, entering, and re-involvement.

The issue of identity formation interests me because of my own globally mobile upbringing as a TCK. As a dual Dutch/Mexican citizen, I struggled with my identity upon returning to my passport country, the Netherlands. This was supposed to be my home, and yet, it did not feel that way at all. By the age of 20, I had lived in 11 different countries and moved more than 18 times; plus, I attended five different schools in five different countries during my 6 years of high school, all of which classifies me as an Adult Third Culture Kid (ATCK) (Tarique & Weisbord, 2013).

The Early Years

Let’s start at the beginning. My name is Rianne Carolina van Zalinge. Just looking at my name alone you would say that I am Dutch. My name sounds Dutch, I look typically Dutch (blond, blue eyed), however, I also have Mexican citizenship, and I only lived in The Netherlands a few months until I turned 18. Internally, I am as Dutch as most expatriates living in the Netherlands!

I was born during my parents’ first posting abroad in Mexico. My father worked as a fisheries biologist for the United Nations, which meant that we travelled extensively around the globe. I was born in Mexico and at the age of 3 months, we moved to Indonesia (Fig. 2) where my brother Robert was born a few years later. I am told that I spoke Dutch, English, and Indonesian before the age of four. Many memories must have been unconsciously imprinted with lifelong effect, because in Indonesia our garden (and many others) were covered with bougainvillea’s, frangipani’s, bananas, and palm trees. To this day, I have a weakness for many of these. My everlasting love for the tropics and ginger-red cats stems from those first 4 years of my life in Indonesia.
Fig. 2

My life in Indonesia (Ages 04). From top left clockwise: My (visiting) grandfather and I, the only blond blue eyed girl, surrounded by locals; Tira the daughter of our housekeeper, who was my best friend; lots of outdoor activities like horse riding; preparing for a picnic with my friends; Tira and I playing with interesting things found in the garden

When I was almost 5 years old, we moved to Kuwait (Fig. 3) where I started kindergarten at the American International School. How I loved my school! But after 2 years we were told there was a new posting for us, so we packed up and sold everything only to be told at the last minute that the project had been extended for another 2 years, so we were not leaving. Unfortunately, my brother and I could not go back to our beloved school and to our school friends and classmates (as our places had been filled), so we had to go to another school. I hated wearing school uniforms at this (new) British International School and having to make new friends when my old friends were at a school so close by! We also had to move to a new house, but that made less of an impression on me than having to change schools.
Fig. 3

Life in Kuwait (Ages 48). From top to bottom: Checking the safety checklist before setting off into the desert; visiting a local family; going for a camel ride

My other memories of Kuwait were of our family trips into the desert and sealing the windows and doors very tightly to stop sand from getting into our house during one of the many sandstorms we had. If you did not get to the windows in time, you would end up scooping sand out of the house for the rest of the day!

A vivid memory I have is of always being looked at and touched by the local people. They had often never seen a young blond-haired girl before. This feeling of being different typified much of my upbringing in Asia and Africa. As it turns out, many TCKs experience this, as it contributes to one identifying with what one is not, rather than what one is (Easthope, 2004, 2009). It was now that my sense of cultural marginality (Schaetti, 1996) was formed. I did not feel part of my host country, nor my home country, so I did not really belong anywhere except with other TCKs in our own third culture world.

During the first Gulf war, I remember going to school hearing the jet planes fly over-head and dropping bombs in Iraq just a few kilometres away. This was a very scary time for us all. Especially because my family and I had visited the lovely Marsh people in southern Iraq on several occasions (Fig. 4) and my heart ached to think about what they must be going through amid all this war. When we went back to that area after the Gulf war was over, we found the marshes had been drained and all the marsh people had been killed by Saddam Hussein’s army. I felt terribly saddened to think of those lovely families all having been wiped out.
Fig. 4

Visiting the Marsh people in Iraq by gondola (top); The houses of the Marsh people built from dried grasses and reeds (bottom)

After Kuwait, our family moved to Pakistan (Fig. 5), where my brother and I had the most wonderful time at the Karachi American School (K.A.S.). I attended this school from age 8–12, when my identity was being shaped. It was all rose-colored unfortunately, because after my first year there (I was 8 years old), my best friend Monique moved away, and I felt very lost and lonely for many months after that. I remember thinking, “OK, I need to find other friends, but I will never again become such good friends with someone, because I don’t ever want to feel this bad again.” This was my first (conscious) step that I took to keep people at an (emotional) distance to protect myself from getting hurt. Many TCKs describe finding it hard to bond with people out of fear of losing them again.
Fig. 5

Life in Pakistan (Ages 812). Walking in the hills of northern Pakistan (top); Activities at K.A.S. (Olympics and Nationality Day) (bottom)

At the age of 12, in the first year of high school, I also began to see things differently, as it was the first time that I sensed the importance of an international school, TCK identity, and my sense of belonging. All my friends attended the school and my after-school activities also took place there. Basically, everyone and everything I loved happened there – except my parents. The school gave me a sense of belonging as I belonged to the K.A.S. family. It was my community, my family when I was away from my parents.

The Dutch Stopover

At 13, I arrived in the Netherlands for a very temporary stay. My mother, brother, and I moved in with my grandparents while my dad worked at the UN headquarters in Rome, Italy, for a few months. I went to the Marnix Lyceum School in Haarlem but never really tried to fit in because I knew we would be leaving again soon. I did make friends, but I was very aware of the fact that they were transient relationships. In fact, I was very excited when we heard we would be moving abroad again.

Off to the Himalayas I Go

After leaving Pakistan, and spending 9 months in the Netherlands, my brother and I were sent to a boarding school in the Himalayas, India. I was 14 then and it broke my heart. This was the first time in my life that I felt utterly, truly alone. The reason was that for the first time ever, I was separated from my parents. For many TCKs, myself included, family provided the most important relationship, representing the only stable factor in an ever-changing life (Lijadi & Van Schalkwijk 2014; Gilbert, 2008). Being separated from them felt like I had lost my one rock, and I felt completely lost. This was all during my teenage years, which did not help.

Imagine the magnificent Himalayan mountain range. The snow caped mountains, winding rivers, lush forests, more stunning nature than you can imagine. Beautiful, isn’t it? … But at 14 years of age it was anything but wonderful. I remember looking out over the Himalayas one morning on my way to boarding school thinking, “This is beautiful, but I feel so alone. I don’t belong here.”

I recently discovered the 2011 Academy Award nominated short film called “The Road Home” by film-maker Rahul Gandotra, which is based on the exact boarding school that I went to in the Himalayas in India, called Woodstock (Fig. 6). It tells the story of a boy who is Indian, looks Indian, but doesn’t feel Indian (because he grew up in Britain), and tells how he gets bullied and misunderstood because his looks do not match his inner identity. He, like me when I returned to the Netherlands, was a hidden immigrant (McCaig, 1996). He wants to run away, to escape back home, only to find out he is not British either. This is a classic example of when one’s inner and outer environment (Chawla, 1998) are not synchronized, one is not at peace. I did not have a sense of belonging at all, therefore I felt very lost and lonely, resulting in a feeling of alienation with my community, surroundings, and my environment. Any outdoor activities (hikes and camping trips) my teachers organized were lost on me because I did not want to be there. I did not feel safe, secure, loved, or a sense of community. Feeling so much negativity toward my surroundings made any attempts to develop an environmental identity fall on deaf ears. Here, again, is an example of how well Maslow’s hierarchy of needs’ triangle (Fig. 1) portrays reality: because my basic needs had not been met (i.e., feeling safe, secure, and loved), and thus I could not enjoy the environment I was in.
Fig. 6

My years in India (Ages 1415). From left to right: Woodstock school in Mussoorie, India; The foothills of the Himalayas, where the school was located

I was also strongly influenced by both my father, grandfather, and the schools and places where we lived. My father is a keen bird watcher and, like his father, an avid environmentalist. Many of my childhood memories were of us as a family being rounded up to have a weekly bird-watching day. Even when I was 12, I often battled with my parents because I felt I was being forced to do something I didn’t want. The fact that it was a forced activity worked counter-productively as I resented these outings more and more. I was not a fan of bird watching, and consequently, I started building my identity by what I wasn’t, rather than what I was (Easthope, 2009).

If my outdoor experiences (bird watching and my boarding school period in the Himalayas) had been under more positive circumstances, they could have been valuable and critical steps towards building a lifelong environmental identity (c.f., Chawla, 1998; Palmer, 1993; Stevenson et al. 2014). However, because they were shrouded by my negative state of mind – symbolizing a period in my life when I felt lost and lonely – this valuable learning and identity building process was lost.

Having said that, I cannot negate the fact that my father and grandfather’s ethos as biologists and environmentalists strongly formed my love and respect for nature. I agree with Erikson (1980) that role models (in my case my father and grandfather) strongly influenced my moral compass. Despite the experiences I went through being lost on me, during my angry teenage years, the seeds planted as a child were not in vain, because a few years later, when we lived in Africa, my love for the environment came rushing back.

Interesting to note is that my brother (who is younger than me and is not as emotional as I am), quite enjoyed the solitude of the Himalayas with its rugged nature. He has gone on to work as an environmentalist for his whole career and engages in bird watching as his main hobby in his spare time.

The African Sojourn

At the age of 15, after a short intermezzo in the Netherlands, we moved to Malawi (Africa) (Fig. 7). This country opened my heart to environmentalism, as our house was on beautiful Lake Malawi and we had our own private stretch of beach. Every weekend, when my brother and I were home from boarding school, we would invite friends over and go surfing, canoeing, diving, or just chilling by the water. SLEs were generated during these few positive years of living by the beach in Malawi which opened my heart again, and all the positive seeds about nature and the environment which were growing inside me.
Fig. 7

My years in Malawi (Ages 1516). Clockwise from top left: Our lovely private garden/beach in Monkey Bay, Malawi; Inviting friends over to spend the weekends in Monkey Bay with them; Swimming in Lake Malawi (together with crocs and hippos) with my beloved dog, Candy

Creating My Sense of Belonging

My identity was constantly (re)molded throughout my various moves, yet after a while, I always created a new home and sense of belonging wherever I went. Even if I knew I would not be staying very long, it was important that I feel attached to a place, school, or people to feel safe, and thus at home.

I get restless, if I live in a place too long and yearn for the feeling of adventure that a new move will provide. I love exploring this beautiful world we live in, but as a typical TCK, I feel a sense of belonging everywhere a bit, but nowhere totally. I always thought, when will I truly be home? However, I have found that home is where my family is. When I have my loved ones around me, this is when I am truly home.

The Stages in My Life through Poetry

These five poems that I have written each symbolize a stage in Pollock and Van Reken’s (2009) five stages of transition that I experienced when moving: Involvement, Leaving, Transition, Entering, and Re-involvement.

Stage 1: Involvement

Sand crunching under my feet as I walk along the beach sipping my coconut

Having good friends to laugh and hang out with, in the thatched beach hut

Feeling relaxed while taking the canoe out, back home as the light is dimming

Having naughty monkeys steal my sunglasses while I had gone swimming

Experiencing the paradox of seeing such poverty everywhere

Yet when listening to the people singing, I feel their happiness and joy in the air

Tagging fish for an important fisheries project in Monkey Bay

Banana and palm trees swaying in the wind during another warm, sunny day

Petrified when noticing a hippo coming up next to me while I stand motionless on a surfboard

Feeling the relief when my friends save me and my heart rate is restored

Swimming alongside beautiful fish as I learn to do deep sea diving

Feeling that I’m not just surviving, but I’m thriving!

Summary: Truly my happiest state of being. Feeling connected with my environment on all levels (social, personal and physical, inner and outer) is when I am most content.

Stage 2: Leaving

Saying goodbyes

Sadness hangs heavy in the air

Weighing heavy

Knotted stomachs

Farewell all that is known

All that is loved, all that is cherished

Grieving at what will soon be lost

But somewhere, deep inside

Feeling the fluttering of anticipation

Of what is to come (Fig. 8)
Fig. 8

Saying Goodbye (…all too often)

Summary: Grieving for the loss of friendships, home, school, climate, and all that is familiar. Stepping into the great unknown.

Stage 3: Transition

Airports are my second home

Watching people come and go

Symbolic of my life

I come and go too

Arriving, staying and leaving again

Always in transit

Mobile, fluid, global citizen

Always on the move

It’s what I am used to, what I have always known, what I have become (Fig. 9)
Fig. 9

Endless waiting at airports during my many travels

Summary: Living in limbo. I have neither the home I just left, nor the one I am moving towards. I am in no-man’s land.

Stage 4: Entering



New life

New chances

Bit scared

Bit tired

Putting on a brave smile

Here we go again

But this time will be different because I am home

Summary: Mixed feelings. Exhilaration one moment and loneliness the next. Excited and sad. Happiness and loss. Starting to get to know the unknown.

Stage 5: Re-involvement

I am torn – if I am not Dutch, then what am I?

Where do I belong now?

Breaking down and rebuilding my identity

I become a chameleon, fitting in when and where I want to

Doing it so well I lose sight of who I truly am

Trying to create new friendships, a new home

Connecting with other expatriates

I am not Dutch, I am a global citizen

My home is everywhere yet nowhere (Fig. 10)
Fig. 10

Reconnecting and rebuilding my Dutch identity playfully with my work colleagues (top and middle); and with my family near the tulip fields (bottom)

Summary: Trying to fit in. Where do I belong? Where is my home? Can I make this my new home?

Final Reflection

Hoersting and Jenkins (2011) observed that when TCKs returned to their home country, they may grieve and feel a sense of loss over the relationships and environments they left behind in their previous home. In addition, TCKs (myself included) often identify with their nationality more strongly when abroad than when they are in their home country. This is because when abroad, their nationality becomes a way of setting themselves apart from their peers, because their peers come from all over the world. Once they return home, they find out that the identity they had built up for themselves abroad, in my case the fact that I was Dutch, is false.

This leads to the complication of being a hidden immigrant. As McCaig (1996) so eloquently explains:

The children’s culture is basically an international one with an overlay of the passport culture. They therefore often feel like hidden immigrants when they reach “home.” Because they look and talk as if they should belong, their outlook, actions and lack of knowledge of local and cultural trivia are often bewildering to those around them who do not know (or care) that they have lived abroad. (p. 111)

Being a hidden immigrant was an added and unexpected pressure, both from the locals and the pressure I put on myself. When I arrived back in the Netherlands, both the locals and I expected me to be Dutch. However, when my outer environment (my nationality and physical looks) did not match my inner environment (my lack of feeling at home, my English accent, and my distinct feeling that I was not Dutch), I felt more torn than ever before. Consequently, at the age of 18, I was in a full-blown identity crisis. The identity I had built up all my life abroad turned out to be false. I might be Dutch, but I did not feel Dutch. That is when I knew I had to rebuild my identity from scratch.

I fled the country to travel to Australia, New Zealand, and Cambodia, only to return 4 years later. I came back to study Cultural Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Amsterdam and I have lived in the Netherlands ever since. The reason the second return to the Netherlands was more successful than the first was because of my lowered expectations. I knew this time I was not coming home, I was simply moving to the Netherlands, similar to any other country, which was my way of coping.

What Can International Schools Do to Promote a Sense of Belonging and SLE in TCKs?

Feeling accepted and comfortable somewhere is, of course, very important for all teenagers, but for TCKs even more so because in addition to the usual teenage identity crises and hormonal surges, they must cope with adjusting and readjusting to a new home every time their parents move. A new school which is familiar and welcoming helps them cope with the new living environment faster.

The children’s expatriate world is mostly revolving around their school. International schools are a hub of TCK activity and take up a large part of a child’s social life. There are large amounts of after-school activities organized, which sometimes even take place on weekends. Inter-school activities are frequent, with all kinds of sporting competitions taking place. This strongly enhances the school feeling like “we are one big family.”

Since international schools form such an important part of a TCK’s life, it is bound to be an integral part of their identity. Identification can sometimes take place in the form of idealizing the dominant culture of the school that the children are attending.

If the majority of life is spent in activities connected with the school, the child will tend to become more American than their own nationality. Once again the school plays a key role in the cultural development of the young person. (Smith, 1996, p. 209)

Schooling and after-school programs are a major route to the development of an environmental identity (Colvin, 2013; Stevenson et al. 2014; Colvin Williams & Chawla, 2016). These programs can create a sense of belonging to a community and to the environment, which will lead to a respect for the environment and link it to a child’s identity. Since international schools are such an integral part of a TCKs identity, this is a very important route to take when installing a sense of belonging and identity with nature in children. My environmental identity was shaped by the international schools that I attended, as discussed in my autoethnography earlier in this chapter.

Combined with living in a host country, international schools help to strengthen a child’s perception of the world being a multicultural place. For many TCKs, living abroad is synonymous to attending international schools. The schools are often seen as a safe haven, a constant factor in a frequently changing world. What creates a bond between TCKs and their school, is their perception of being different from the locals (and thus creating a we vs. them identity) and sharing a transient lifestyle. All TCKs experience having to survive in a strange country and that creates mutual understanding. This TCK identification and affirmation seems to replace the importance of nationality for these children. Thus, as I experienced during my time abroad, TCK children appear to identify with expatriates firstly, and their nationality secondly (McCaig, 1996).

Steps for International Schools in Managing TCKs in Transition

How can international schools and teachers optimally facilitate TCKs in their transitional process of arriving, staying, and leaving (see Fig. 11)? Transition programs need to be established to help these TCKs cope with the constant emotional flux of entering, staying, and leaving that encompasses and characterizes their lives: to help TCKs cope with the frequent moves and in handling the constant coming and going of friendships. The program should also help families to maintain and strengthen their family attachment bonds in all the five transitional stages of the move (Ota, 2014; Pollock & Van Reken, 2009).
Fig. 11

The process of adjustment when moving to another country (Source: Oh My God, 2014:; Barker 1990)

International school staff needs to help TCKs actively manage their “grief” to help them settle into their new life at the school (Ota, 2014). When leaving, grieving can also take place, and goodbyes need to be handled effectively for there to be some closure for the child, so they can successfully move on to their next location. International schools need to collaborate with other international schools so that the transition from one international school to another goes as smoothly as possible.

School counselors should not underestimate the unique difficulties experienced by TCKs when adapting to a new culture, with their continuous personal struggles to build and maintain relationships in their ever-changing lives (Lijadi & Van Schalkwijk, 2014). Ota (2014) highlights the importance of creating a safe harbour (he was referring to an international school) for children. Once children feel safe, they will start to absorb information and the learning, healing and sense of belonging process will start. Until they feel safe and secure, very little learning, healing, or feeling at home will take place. This is where Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (refer to Fig. 12) becomes relevant, as it highlights that one’s basic needs need to be fulfilled before progressing to the next level. If the lower, base levels (physiological, safety) are not met, the higher levels (feelings of belonging, community, school, education, etc.) cannot be addressed.
Fig. 12

Adapting Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Fig. 1) based upon my own experiences as a TCK. (Source of Maslow’s top left diagram: Finkelstein (2006)'s_hierarchy_of_needs.svg [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (])

With respect to teaching environmental education and nurturing environmentalism to children in international schools, one needs to make sure TCKs are in the right frame of mind (feeling safe and happy) so that they can best absorb and assimilate the information and experiences made available for them. Furthermore, the action component in environmental education is important in doing something positive for the environment, but at the same time, it is also helping in molding/creating their identity: the more they do it, the more their identity thickens (Holland & Lave, 2001).

Having positive and environmentally conscious role models and outdoor experiences are indeed important to children, but for any of that to make a difference and have a lasting effect on TCKs, they first need to be in the right frame of mind. This was clearly not the case for me as my mind set was not ready to embrace environmentalism, especially to the same degree as my TCK younger brother, who largely went to the same international schools as me. Furthermore, supporting and embracing the environmentalism messages provided by environmental role models such as my father and grandfather did not have any impact on my mind set at this time.

According to social practice theory (Hargreaves, 2011), for people to become lifelong environmental activists, their love for nature and the environment needs to become a part of their identity, which can only be achieved if they feel a sense of belonging to the environmental cause and to the natural environment itself. Therefore, greater focus is needed upon identity and culture in the interpretation of SLE research (Dillon, Kelsey, & Duque-Aristizabal, 1999). This would be especially significant in my experiences and also for TCKs within international schools.

Coping Mechanisms

TCKs may use coping mechanisms to interact with the host culture and social groups, mostly when they find that behaviors considered socially appropriate in one context, are not accepted in a new country or culture. Pollock and Van Reken (1999) mention that one of the major areas that expatriate children need to cope with is their unresolved grief. They need to identify and mourn the losses they have felt during their lives. It remains as an unresolved part of my experiences. I also felt that I really did not get a chance to grieve.

Children might appear to adjust quickly in the sense that they get used to their new life, but when adjustment refers to feeling at home somewhere, the process could take a lot longer, and many never feel a sense of belonging to the places where they are living (Bennett, 1993; Fail, Thompson, & Walker, 2004). As Pollock and Van Reken (1999) point out, these children mourn the loss of “status, lifestyle, … relationships, identity, role models and a past that wasn’t and a past that was” (Nette & Hayden, 2007, p. 436).


American-born Hopkins’ (2015) experiences as a TCK growing up in West Africa as a child of missionary linguists were summed as follows:

I never considered my African childhood Paradise, and when I returned after not quite a dozen years away, I felt comfortable, but not at home. I’ve moved on, or moved forward, or moved away, or something. (p. 819)

His account resonates in so many ways with my own autoethnographic journey. Of course, my journey represents just one voice and journey as a TCK; however, there are some key messages reported from the literature in the chapter that also arise. For instance, TCKs feel at home everywhere a bit, yet nowhere totally. Each move shapes them and changes them, therefore when revisiting their last home, they find out that they have changed and their previous home is not their home anymore. Thus, for many TCKs, the search for belonging/home is a life-long one. In my case, I feel that I still have unfinished business in my quest to find my home.

I have also explored some of the SLE research and its potential relevance to TCKs and addressed the many challenges arising from frequent relocation that many TCKs experience, including the impacts of/on international schools, through my own lived childhoodnature experiences growing up as a globally mobile child. It is clear from my dialogue that children need to feel safe and have a secure and nurturing learning and social environment where they feel a sense of belonging, before schools can try to develop an environmental ethos and SLE through environmental studies and environmental/outdoor experiences, as all these opportunities may well be lost on the students. This is true for both local/national and international school students; however, international school students have the added issues to contend with associated with being TCKs. Thus, it is vitally important that TCKs feel a sense of belonging to their international school/community, and that they feel safe and secure so that the next level of learning and identity forming in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Fig. 1) can take place to help integrate childhoodnature experiences into their identity and thus be able to have SLEs as part of their lifelong calling and engagement with and for the environment.

After-school programs are a major route in the development of an environmental identity (Stevenson et al. 2014). These programs can create a sense of belonging to a community by linking environmentalism to a child’s identity. International schools need to utilize this chance at cultivating a child’s environmental identity when given the chance. By introducing TCKs to positive outdoor and SLEs, they are paving the way for them to create personal attachments and identify with the environment and thus learn to respect and take care of it. Not because they are told to, but out of love for the environment. Ultimately, what is instilled in children, manifests when they are adults (Chawla, 1999).

Approaches have been identified to assist TCKs in providing much needed harmony, support, stability, and understanding for both staff and students of international schools. This can be achieved by looking at how one’s inner and outer world influences the construction and significance of one’s SLEs as articulated through my own TCK journey. However, there is clearly a need for additional childhoodnature research in many aspects of environmental educational research in international schools, especially further exploring the role of identity formation and its impact on SLE’s for TCKs.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of EducationSouthern Cross UniversityGold CoastAustralia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Debra Flanders Cushing
    • 1
  • Robert Barratt
    • 2
  • Elisabeth Barratt Hacking
    • 3
  1. 1.School of Design, Creative Industries FacultyQueensland University of TechnologyBrisbaneAustralia
  2. 2.The Eden ProjectCornwallUK
  3. 3.Department of EducationUniversity of BathBathUK

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