By Ana Vela
When we think of the holidays, we think about being with family. Well, what if your family is in a different country? You then travel hundreds, even thousands of miles to be with your loved ones. That’s what paisanos, about 2 million people, do every year. Paisanos (countrymen) are Mexican citizens who live and work in the United States and travel to Mexico to visit family. For paisanos, this migration can start as early as one week prior to Thanksgiving, returning to the U.S. after New Year’s.
When I was growing up, we were considered paisanos, as my father would drive us from our home in Virginia to spend the holidays in Mexico. I recall other paisano families leaving before the school holiday break to get a head start on the long drive to Mexico and to spend as much time with family as possible. While it’s wonderful to spend an extended amount of time with their families, taking children out of school before the designated break can have a serious impact on them as students.
Schools who serve students from paisano families understand the setbacks these students experience when they return to school. El Valor, the second-largest provider of early childhood education programs in Chicago, plans for this every year. “Sometimes families leave for a whole month,” says Clara Lopez, vice president of El Valor. “It’s important to build awareness around the importance of attendance so families can make better decisions. Routines are everything for a child.”
The Mexican government established a Paisano Program to help make travel to Mexico during the holidays as smooth and safe as possible. Yet, there is no information regarding the impact to U.S. students during this migration. Here are some tips to share with your students’ parents to prepare for a successful return to school:
Do not take your child out of school before the holiday break. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, attendance is an important factor in student achievement. Each day your child misses class is a day that your child misses an opportunity to learn and may fall behind, making it more difficult to catch up. If you have no other option, then at least notify the school and your child’s teacher of his or her planned absence so you can work together to ensure your child does not fall behind academically.
Keep up the routines
Although it may be challenging during travel, try to keep some level of consistency for your child such as bedtime, meals, reading, and learning activities. This will help your child have a smoother transition when he or she returns to school. Contact your child’s teacher for ideas to help him or her continue to learn while traveling. “At El Valor, we hand out educational goody-bags to families filled with books and activities to provide some level of comfort for the children,” says Lopez.
Take advantage of the quality time
Life can get busy. Use the substantial travel time to catch up with your child. Ask about school, friends, and how he or she is feeling. It’s also a great time to discuss your child’s cultural identity and encourage practicing his or her native language.
According to an article in The New York Times, “Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.” Being bilingual also prepares your child to succeed in a globalized job market.
If some of your students’ families have already made the decision to leave school early, the best you can do is to encourage the parents to make every opportunity a learning experience for the student. After all, it’s an exciting time for them. I myself still hold on to the fond memories during our paisano travels.