Integrating children returning from abroad into Lithuanian schools – a team effort

School children
School children Fotolia Photo

Although Lithuanians living abroad return to Lithuania throughout the year, families with children usually arrive before autumn – the timing of their return is determined by the start of the school year on 1 September. How well the children integrate into the Lithuanian education system depends not only on the readiness of the schools but also on the parent’s attitude, experts say in a press release.

According to the Ministry of Education, Science and Sport (MESS), 430 children from abroad returned to Lithuanian schools during the last school year (2021-2022) to study in pre-school and general education programmes. There are no definitive figures yet on how many of these children will return to school on 1 September. However, Mindaugas Malcevičius, Deputy Headmaster of Šiauliai “Sandora” Gymnasium, notes that the number of children returning from abroad to schools is increasing every year.

“Until 6-7 years ago, we had no pupils returning from abroad at all. Later, 1-2 children per school year would join. Last year, we had ten children enrolled in our school, and we don’t know yet how many more will come this school year, as some children arrive in the middle of the school year”, comments Malcevičius.

Šiauliai “Sandora” gymnasium is one of 69 schools that have joined the network of schools with experience in working with children who have returned or arrived to Lithuania, initiated by the Ministry of Education and Science and the programme “Create Lithuania” four years ago.

“There is now a whole system in place to integrate the child who has come to school. Many things depend on which class the pupil will be in, whether they speak Lithuanian, or whether they have been studying at a distance in a Lithuanian school while living abroad. Naturally, the integration will be easier for a pupil entering Grade 1, even if they do not speak Lithuanian, than for a future eighth-grader who does not speak Lithuanian,” says Malcevičius.

After the first interview with the parents of the prospective pupil and an understanding of the child’s situation, a plan is drawn up for the educational process at the school, involving classroom teachers, teachers, child development specialists, and the Child Welfare Commission. A comprehensive plan for the child’s integration includes both specific timeframes and milestones, when progress will be measured and how help will be provided if needed.

“Preparing the classroom itself is also very important to make it as easy as possible for classmates to accept a newcomer returning from abroad. We have also organised an Italian evening where a child from Italy had to join a class – learning about the culture and traditions of other countries allows children to make friends faster. We also assign a volunteer classmate to help the newcomer find their feet in the first few days,” says the Vice-Principal.

A positive parental attitude is essential

Parental involvement is also crucial for a child’s integration at school – not only do they help prepare for the new school year, but they also need to take an active interest in the educational process.

“A child spends almost half of the day in the school environment and most of the time with their parents, so only teamwork can bring good results. On the other hand, if parents are not involved in the educational process, the child’s integration is slower, and it is harder to achieve the desired result. So it’s not only the children who get homework but also the parents,” says Malcevičius.

According to Rasa Perednienė, a child psychologist and psychotherapist at Vilnius Lithuanian House, the role of parents in integrating a child who has returned from abroad into a Lithuanian school is extremely important.

“Parents should ensure that children feel safe and have a clear understanding of the situation – this improves children’s psychological resilience, which is needed to cope with stress. For example, if we are eager to meet friends and look forward to new things, we experience short-term stress, which is normal – it gives us energy and helps us integrate into our new environment. Whereas long-term stress, which turns into constant anxiety, causes children to shut down, avoid new things and even become detached from reality,” says the psychologist.

For this reason, parents should inform their child as early as possible about the upcoming changes – by visiting the school, discussing how to get there, the daily routine, and any other issues the child may have. The more your child knows, the safer and more confident they will feel and be ready for the change.

“It is important for parents not to pass on their worries to their children – if parents worry about everything, how can the child feel safe? The same happens with showing displeasure or criticism – children quickly pick up on their parents’ negative attitudes,” says Perednienė.

Younger children find it easier to accept change because they are more egocentric and curious, so it seems to them that the whole world revolves around them. Primary school pupils also tend to learn a new language and make new friends more quickly, which helps them adapt to their new environment.

“Older children with life experience have a harder time – they are already comparing themselves to their friends, their new surroundings and the achievements of others. In addition, a change of environment can make them mourn broken relationships and friendships, especially teenagers, as this is also their first romantic relationship,” comments R. Perednienė.

Opportunities to adapt the programme to the child’s needs

Integrating children into the Lithuanian education system should not be a reason for them to hesitate to return to their home country, says Malcevičius.

“There are plenty of schools in Lithuania that are ready to accept children of emigrants. If we received calls from regional schools four years ago about what to do with children who have returned from abroad, now we have a perfectly functioning system and experience on how to integrate these children into the education process successfully”, he says.

While enrolment is usually handled fairly quickly, it is advisable not to leave it to the last minute.

“Even before returning to Lithuania, parents should find out which school they would like to enrol their children in – whether the desired educational institution is ready to accept them, what compulsory documents need to be prepared, and what the children themselves will need to start the education process as smoothly as possible once they arrive,” comments Edita Urbanovič, the head of the Vilnius Office of the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM’s) project “I Choose Lithuania”.

She said that children returning from abroad receive a 30% increase in their school bags, and parents can also apply for psychological or other specialist help.

“One of the ways to integrate more easily into the Lithuanian education system is to attend Lithuanian language schools while still living abroad or to start attending a distance education programme in Lithuania. This helps children maintain the required level of learning, as the curriculum abroad is often different from that in Lithuania and improves their language skills, especially if the family speaks more than Lithuanian. It is also possible to choose levelling classes, arrange extra Lithuanian language lessons, and create an individual learning plan when you return – giving returnees every opportunity to settle in as smoothly as possible,” says Urbanovič.

It is recommended that children continue their favourite extracurricular activities in schools or private institutions and participate in various extracurricular activities in Lithuania.

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