How to Help Your Exchange Student Adjust to Life Here in the U.S.: Tips for Parents

Recently I wrote about the communications challenges and cultural shocks that teenage exchange students face at the beginning of their academic year.  Today I thought I would expand on some concrete “tips” for helping them through this period.  These tips can help families and students move on to the next stage in their relationship now that everyone is beginning to get to know each other and students are getting used to life in a U.S. high school and American family.

Be understanding of the difficulties in adjusting to a new life, but be firm about the need to be a contributing member of the family.

At this point in the exchange term, students and families are beginning to settle into a routine. This is good – but beware of falling into a negative pattern, or of failing to keep those communications lines open.

  • Continue to push your student into the host culture.  Don’t let him stay home all the time, even if he seems comfortable with being a “homebody.”  Take your student everywhere, including to the grocery store or dry cleaners.  Even the shopping mall may be different from what your student is familiar with back home, and can be a way to start conversations and talk about how things are different.
  • If your student has not yet done so, push your student to get some regular exercise.  Your student can join a sport at school or sign up for a recreational or city league team.  Suggest that she start her own individual exercise or sport activity – she can go for hikes, take the dog for a walk every day, or go for a run on a regular basis.
  • If your student does not want to join a school sports team (or even if he does), try to get your student involved in a non-academic school activity.  How about a club – chess club, international activities club, Spanish or German club? One of my students last year revitalized the German club at her school, and used her interest in becoming a teacher to help use the club as a means of teaching German to her classmates. It was a hit; more students came each month, and the American students helped create games for learning the language.  Have your student join the Key Club or sign up for drama, either as a class for the next term at school or perhaps through a local theater.
  • Encourage your student to hang out and socialize with the family.  Don’t let them spend too much time in their bedroom by themselves, and discourage closed doors even if they tell you it’s normal for them back home.  Perhaps set up a place to do homework in the kitchen or living room.  Have family members get together after dinner to watch a favorite TV show several times a week.

It’s OK to set rules for your exchange student as if he or she was your own teen.

In fact, it’s not just OK — it’s critical.  The sooner you can get past the notion that your student is a guest in your home, the better off you and your student will be.  Give your student a printed list of the household chores you expect him or her to do. Explain how to feed the dog and where the clean dishes should go.  Be clear that you expect everyone to do their homework before getting on Facebook to chat with friends.

Stick to your rules.

Follow through on consequences.  These teens are not visitors – they are members of your family.  Normal consequences for failure to follow family rules, such as losing one’s cell phone privileges and not being allowed to go out with friends, are OK – and advisable — for your exchange student as much as they are OK and advisable for your own child.  Don’t fall into the trap of thinking “It’s not fair for me to impose a consequence on someone else’s child.”  This isn’t your child’s friend; it’s your exchange son/daughter.

If you think your exchange student is having a problem at school, talk to your student and your program contact. 

Just the other day, I had a conversation with a student who currently has an F in one class and is barely passing another.  She was shocked by the F, as she felt she had done the work in class and had participated in class. It turns out she had not turned in a number of assignments, and seemed surprised to learn that this matters.  She knew (sort of…) that she should turn them in (and I’ve mentioned it to each student several times), but it had STILL not registered on her that this really was important.  (In fact, it turned out she had completed several of the assignments and they were sitting in her notebook.)  Regarding the other class, she said she was able to do most assignments during class time and admitted she did not do any reading or studying outside class. That may be normal for them back home – it usually won’t work here.

No matter how often I remind the students at the beginning of the year to turn in their assignments and that they may have to spend more time than their American classmates doing the reading since the vocabulary may be unfamiliar – around this time of year I get panicked calls from students and worried calls from host parents about a low or failing grade.  Now is the time host parents can help clarify their expectations regarding school.  The educational expectations of the host country system may be very different, and the language barrier may be harder than they thought it would be.  Exchange students may be afraid of failing, and of the possible disciplinary process that could result, since they are required to pass all their classes to remain on good standing with their program and government visa requirements.  They may have difficulty keeping up with constant homework assignments, as back home they may not be required to turn in assignments every week.

The student I mentioned earlier? I told her no more TV until she had done all the missing assignments and had communicated with the teacher.  I also told her that yes, I do expect her to do school work outside the classroom, even if that means you stay up until 11 pm reading the material. I made it clear I expected her to spend the weekend working.  To her credit, she did.

So set the rules, don’t back down, use appropriate consequences, and don’t hesitate to call your program representative.

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