Debates on education and migration mostly focus on children arriving in a new country.
However, there is much more to consider. Much happens and more could be done to support those who move back to their parents’ country of origin.
The number of children born abroad to Polish parents who then move back to Poland rose by 68% from 2015/16 to 2016/17. These children are frequently called ‘hidden migrants’ as, while they might feel like foreigners, never having lived in the country, they are often invisible because their names and spoken language are the same as those around them.
Migration researchers tend to focus on adults’ perspectives. The young ones are very often treated as ‘luggage’, which can be easily carried from one place to another. It is taken for granted that the ‘luggage’ will fit anywhere due to a common belief that children make friends, learn languages and adjust to new places and habits easily. Yet, children must be allowed to feel that they are active participants in important family decisions, such as moving countries.
In 2015, we conducted a study in cooperation with the Professor Bronislaw Geremek Centre Foundation focusing on experiences of children whose families were moving back to Poland. Some of them had previous experiences of attending school in Poland, some of them were either born abroad or left Poland as toddlers. However, what they had in common was that, coming with their parents to Poland, they had to leave behind their entire life built in the country of their parents’ temporary residence.
In our study, we interviewed about 30 families who had returned to Poland after a period of about 6 years on average in Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States. In each family, we talked with a child or a teenager, and a parent. We also interviewed teachers from the child’s new Polish school. All respondents met two criteria: they had returned back to Poland no more than two years prior to the interviews and had also spent at least one year abroad.
The findings of the study enabled us to produce recommendations for ways that teachers of host countries (i.e. countries that children leave before returning to Poland) can facilitate their students’ return migration process before it actually starts.
No matter the reasons for returning, teachers should be aware that both children and parents will most probably experience all types of emotions about the move: positive feelings of expectation and joy, but also difficult ones connected with uncertainty – sadness, anger, frustration and exhaustion. Sometimes the reality of returning to Poland does not meet neither children’s nor parents’ expectations. Children are experiencing a lot of uncertainty, fears and emotional upheaval. Parents should allow space for talking about children’s emotions and let them express the way they feel in their own ways, by talking, painting, playing music or drawing, even hugging or having some time alone. Parents can also use books that have exercises helping children to express their emotions and that tell stories about moving. What is important is to build a realistic image of Poland and life there. As children are used to spending holidays in Poland, they associate it mostly with pleasure, but a move to live there will also mean going to school and fulfilling associated responsibilities.
One of the biggest tasks and challenges for parents at the beginning is to choose a school in Poland. This is not easy and not all parents make informed decisions. Teachers should try to arrange a discussion with parents about the steps they can take before registering their child in a new school, such as: making contact with the selected school in advance, talking with the head teacher and future teachers, asking about the program and available support (additional Polish lessons, school psychologist, etc.). It is also important to take the age of the child into consideration – usually younger children adapt more easily. It is also better for the child if he/she starts school at the beginning of the school year, as it could make it easier for them to integrate.
Just before the child leaves school it is worth considering organizing a farewell party. Creating a scrapbook with pictures of classmates, and exchanging contacts would be a good idea, allowing to, on one hand, close this stage, but, on the other, maintain important relations.
It is important to encourage parents and new teachers to cherish children’s talents and individual skills but also their knowledge of the language and culture of the country where they were living before. This will strengthen the children’s self-esteem and help them integrate with the new peer group.
Summing up, as return migration may not be the easiest experience to go through, there are many things teachers and parents of moving children can do to make this experience as smooth as possible. Good luck!