Hosting If You Don’t Have Children: Why Not?

An acquaintance asked me recently, “what is it like to host an exchange student if you don’t have any children in the home?” It’s a question we get sometimes. People worry that perhaps they are not qualified to be a host family if they don’t have children living at home.

What’s the answer? Well, it’s like any family that has one child in the home who happens to be a teenager. That’s the nutshell response.

The longer answer is that every family is different, and every host family is different. So hosting an exchange student is different for every family, regardless of whether you have teens in the home already, whether you have young children, whether you have adult children who no longer live in the home, or whether you have no children at all. If you are reading this blog post, I’m sure you can think of families you know who have one child in the home. Are all of those families alike? Of course not. Are they still a family, with one child? Of course they are.

For some people who don’t have children in the home, having an exchange student means having an excuse to travel around their region when they haven’t done that before (or at least haven’t done it in a while) and showing the area to their student. Another host family will host a student and maybe cannot travel much for a variety of reasons — and they and their student will still have a positive experience, learning about each others’ world. For some parents, having an exchange student when you don’t have children in the home is a way to learn what having a teenager is like. For others, it’s a way to keep liveliness in the home; perhaps their children are adults and the parents like having the energy of teens in the home. Other parents enjoy having their student to themselves and being able to have deep personal conversations that might not be possible with multiple children running around; many students find that having their host parents to themselves has benefits as well.

We’ve hosted over a dozen exchange students, starting when our children were in elementary school and continuing when they were in college and beyond. As a result, we’ve had students whose memories of our family is that of being the older teen with younger host siblings, students whose memories are that of having host siblings close to their own age, and students who remember a family with adult children who sometimes come to visit.

Our life with each exchange student was different every year — and our life was different from other host families in similar circumstances. One year with younger children, maybe we traveled quite a bit. The next year, maybe not. One year with no children in the home, we did lots of things as a family. Another year, our student would be very active at school and in the community. The dynamics, activities, and relationships differ for so many reasons — not just due to whether there are multiple children in the home.

Each family is unique, and your relationship with your student will be unique. Don’t host just because you do or do not have children in the home. Host because it opens up your world, teaches you about another culture, and helps you establish new relationships. Host because you want to share your home and your world.

Photo credits: Christopher Harris, Pixabay

Host Family Tips: How Can I Help My New Exchange Student in The First Few Weeks?

Bringing a student into the home is not an automatic “we will live happily ever after” situation. It requires work and time to build a good relationship. It amazes us every year to see the lengths that families go to welcome their students: taking them on excursions around the community, showing them the local high school, and just spending time with them. Even with such enthusiasm, however, it can be helpful to think a bit about how to direct your efforts.

Here are some of our basic recommendations.

Exhaustion

Your student may not be up for a major tour of the city when you pick him or her up. She may have just come from her home country, or she may have spent several days at an exchange program’s post-arrival orientation. Either way, she won’t have slept much. Food is generally appreciated; you might want to stop at a favorite eating spot on the way home or make sure to have something tasty ready at home.

camouflage-1297384_640Even if your student seems alert and says he/she is not tired, the change in time zones will cause fatigue and confusion in ways the student may not realize, and not just the first day or two after arrival. Listening and talking in a foreign language is physically exhausting, too. Don’t be surprised if your student wants to take naps for awhile even if she has had a full night’s sleep; this can continue for several weeks.

If you are thinking about inviting family friends and neighbors to a welcome party, you might want to wait a few days. You might think a party is a great idea, and the extended family may be excited about meeting your new family member. We’ve found, however, that meeting all those new people — with their many different voices speaking English in many different ways — can be overwhelming to teens struggling to stay on their feet and desperately trying to understand what is going on around them.

Confusion and Hesitation

It’s normal to feel stressed or anxious in a new place and to feel overwhelmed by the “foreignness” of it all. Many students arrive thinking they will not have adjustment difficulties. They think they know the US from having been here on a vacation, perhaps, or from watching so many TV shows and movies. They arrive … and suddenly they realize that streets are different, stories are different, houses are different, and the way people walk and talk are different. They panic, sometimes consciously but sometimes at a deeper level.

Let your student know that it is OK and normal to be homesick, and that you can help them. Encourage your student to talk about how he or she is feeling. Try to get them involved in something to keep busy: read a book, watch movies or TV shows in English to work on language, talk walks to get used to the neighborhood, go to the mall. Ask your local contact if it’s possible for your student and others in the program to get together.

Language

Students must have a reasonable command of English in order to be eligible to be an exchange student. That doesn’t mean they are fluent.

Students in the beginning will likely understand anywhere from 70–80% of what you and others say. It’s the 20-30% they don’t understand that causes miscommunication and results in host families and students complaining about each other. Your student may nod at everything you say, either because he is sure he understands (and he probably really believes he has understood the important parts) or because he doesn’t have a clue but is too polite to say so. Speak slowly, be careful about using slang or idioms, and be prepared to repeat yourself on the same subject several times. Your student’s brain is literally working full-time trying to translate. Feel free to ask your student to restate a key point back to you to make sure it got through.

Start Conversations

Host families often tell us in the beginning of the year that they think their student is quieter than he or she comes across in the student’s application. The same students will tell us they are too nervous to talk and so remain quiet. Don’t assume that the quiet hesitant student you may see the first few days is the “real” person.

You can help your student to start talking. Have you heard of a conversation jar? Put possible conversation topics onto strips of paper and put the topics into a jar. In the evenings at dinner, pull one out at random and make everyone say something about the topic. You can easily find conversation jar lists online (sample lists here and here), or come up with your own! Another idea is to ask your student to come to the dinner table prepared to talk about a “story of the day” from the news.

Start Small

Take your student on errands. Things that may not feel like a major excursion for you — or a fun one — will be new for your student. Grocery shopping can be an event in itself. See if your community has a store specializing in products from your student’s home country; perhaps you can buy ingredients to make his favorite meal and learn something about your student’s culture and cuisine at the same time.

Show your student around the house and begin to explain how things “work” in your family. Does he have laundry yet? Talk about the washer and dryer. When do you want him to change the sheets on his bed? Explain where you keep the sheets and where to put dirty ones. If your student goes for a walk or takes the bus into town while you are work, do you expect her to tell you ahead of time? Explain, and tell her why it’s important.

ice-cream-1101396_640Take a walk with your student around the neighborhood and show him key spots and interesting places. Is there a park nearby, and is it OK if she goes for a walk or run on her own through the park? How far is the grocery store — can she walk there? Do you have an extra bike she can ride (with a bike helmet)? Show her the way. Where are the post office and the library? For teens, snacks and “hangouts” are important; show them where to get ice cream or frozen yogurt, if you have a good place nearby.

In short, think about what you might want to know in a brand-new place, and try not to make assumptions about your student’s personality or what he or she knows or understands. Watch her, listen to her, and get her involved at school. Talk about conflicts early. Following these recommendations now can help you set the tone for the whole year.

Charitable Tax Deductions for Host Families

Many families hosting J-1 exchange students may not be aware that if they itemize their taxes, they can claim a deduction of $50/month for each month the exchange student lived in the family’s home. This deduction should be included in the charitable contribution section of one’s tax return. The key elements of this deduction are:

  • The student must have been in the home for most of the month; if it was only a week, don’t claim it!
  • For two students, a taxpayer can claim two deductions.
  • The deduction is taken over two tax years. That means for 2015, a taxpayer would list the months during 2015 that the exchange student lived in the home. Next year, the taxpayer can claim the 2016 portion.
  • Taxpayers do not need a letter of confirmation from their exchange program to claim the deduction. However, If you want a confirmation letter, the organization with which you work should be willing to give you one.

We’re not able to give legal tax advice on this. We’re just providing the information because we know from experience that many families are not aware that the deduction is available. Talk to your accountant and to your exchange program for more information. You can also review the IRS publication that explains it all: IRS Pub 526 (see page 4).

 

Scaring Exchange Students Straight

“Scared straight” programs were encouraged in the U.S. in the 1970s as a way of deterring juvenile crime. The idea was to show kids what prison looks like, and maybe they’ll decide “that’s not where I want to be.”

Taking high school exchange students to visit your local prison probably doesn’t serve much purpose. But there certainly are exchange students who need to be “scared straight.” We had such a student in our home for about two weeks over Thanksgiving. We’re not really following the “scared straight” model, not literally; hopefully, we come across “nicer” than that. But we do focus on giving the teens advice, a lot of it compacted into a short period of time.

In this case, the student was in the midst of the first part of a move – namely being asked to leave her initial host family. There are many reasons why a student might need to be moved. While not a precise figure, perhaps 15-20% of exchange students move during their year. Host parents lose a job, a host parent becomes ill, the students develops allergies to a host families’ pets. Sometimes, the “match” just doesn’t work, and the students doesn’t fit into the host family’s lifestyle. Sometimes miscommunications snowball from small things into bigger things, to the point where trying to fix it doesn’t make sense.

In the case of our Thanksgiving student, several factors contributed: miscommunications, poor language skills, a student’s “slowness” to adapt to local and family lifestyles, and student expectations that were not reasonable. The student’s expectation that it was the host family’s job to make the exchange year a success contributed to the problem. The host family tried to encourage the student, and the student tried to adapt. But she came from a city, and had difficulty adapting to a small town of 6,000 and a high school of 700 students.

Eventually, the host family reached their limit, and asked their local coordinator to come get the student. Because the local coordinators were already hosting a student from the same country, they could not legally have the student living in their home. So she came to us, shortly before Thanksgiving.

We’re not always popular with the 30+ students for whom we’re ultimately responsible. We’re the “boss.” We’re the ones who call you when you are in trouble. We’re the ones the kids don’t want to talk to.

We’re the ones who can, hopefully, help keep you from being sent home early.

What happened in the two weeks we shared our home with this teenage miscreant? Well, we think we scared her straight. She’s now in a new family, and seems to be doing very well. Fingers crossed.

In addition to the many students we’ve hosted for a full year, we have had many students come through our home for one week, two weeks, a month, or two months, while we or others look for a new host family. We teach these kids how to adapt, how to adjust, how to be a good ambassador of the exchange program and their country. We explain what they can do to change their behavior, and we are direct and honest in what they should not do in interacting with their host family. We help them see what they did wrong, if that is why they lost their host family. We show compassion. We repeat, again and again, the things they should do to be an exemplary exchange student – to be an “ambassador” of their country.

How does this translate into practical terms? It means we’re constantly talking; indeed, we have a reputation for talking all the time. We talk about everything and anything, ranging from small talk to big issues. It means we talk about table manners. We insist on “please” and “thank you.” It means, if a student is on his smartphone while we’re all watching TV, gently saying “please turn it off.” If the student says he is texting with his mom or a friend, we smile and repeat that there are times to talk to friends and mom – and there are times to focus on your host family. It means that we explain that if you go out, you ask first. You tell us where you are going, and you text to say when you will be back, because we’re “training” you for what to expect from an American host family. It means we expect you to help set the table, fill the dishwasher, and to do your own laundry (and to first ask how to do that).

It means we expect our students – and while they are with us, they are “our” students – to be at their best. The hope is, that the practice will become the reality in a new host family

In this case, we started out facing negativity. “I don’t like being in such a small town,” and “The people at my school are not friendly,” and “I don’t know why my host family asked me to move, I didn’t do anything wrong.” “No one likes me,” and “it’s a boring place.”

Two weeks later, our “miscreant” is in a new family. By the time we moved her, she was asking questions like: “when can I move? I want to get back to school!” and “have they finished the paperwork yet? How long will it take?” She was smiling a lot, and made jokes.

Success happens. But it takes effort. That’s what we do — or try to do, at least. The hoped-for happiness of the new placement is balanced by the sadness of the first host family. Due to no fault of their own, they lost a student, with whom they had hoped to have a long-term relationship. Moreover, we don’t enjoy being the “bad guy.” But hopefully we’ve saved the exchange year for the student, and avoided an early trip home. If so, we’ve done our job.

Photo credit: Joshua Earle

 


So What Do We Talk About With Your Exchange Students At the Beginning of the Year?

Practical Tips for Host Families (and Students, Too!)

The U.S. government requires that J-1 visa high school exchange students have both pre-departure and post-arrival orientations. These meetings cover U.S laws, program rules and regulations, expectations for behavior, how to ensure students’ health and safety, and practical tips for success.

We’ve been having our post-arrival welcome orientations with exchange students in our region over the past couple of weeks, including a larger group meeting last week. It occurred to us that our readers might find some of these “tips” useful. What follows is a summary of what we talk about with the students in these arrival entry meetings. Details on meeting content may vary from program to program; while U.S. laws remain the same, some program rules vary, so check with your own program contact representative.

What’s the overall theme?

We ask students if they can give us one word to describe the key message for success, or one phrase that they think would describe everything. Usually, they’re pretty good at getting it, and this group did not disappoint us:

** One word: Communication.

** One phrase: “Don’t suffer in silence!”

Who do you talk to if you have a problem?

We try to make sure students understand that it is not rude to ask questions about house rules, family customs, and the local way of doing things. It is good to ask your host family these questions, so that students will know what to do and how to act. Moreover, it can be a great way to start a conversation about cultural similarities and differences.

** If students are uncomfortable talking to host parents, or feel they might hurt someone’s feelings, or don’t understand a particular rule, we encourage them to contact their local coordinators and ask them the question.

** We explain to students what the local coordinators do (also sometimes called local representatives or local liaisons depending on the program). We describe how they help support students and host families during the exchange year.

** We repeat several times to please not hide issues, no matter how small. Talk to someone. Don’t say to yourself “it’s too small to bother my host parents, my coordinator, and my counselor at school.” It’s never too small, and we don’t want small issues to become big issues.

Culture shock and homesickness

We explain to the students what we mean by culture shock. We talk about how it is normal to feel stressed or anxious in a new place and to feel overwhelmed by the “foreignness” of it all. We let them know that it is OK and normal to be homesick, and that we can help them get past the feelings. We encourage the students to talk about how they are feeling with their host families and their coordinators, and to let the adults around them know if they are feeling stressed or anxious. Most of the students in our group last week admitted they have felt some element of culture shock and a few admitted they have been a bit homesick. As coordinators, we were pleased rather than disturbed at these admissions, as it suggests the students are trying to be honest about how they are feeling (and were willing to talk about it even a little bit).

** We tell them (and host parents, too) that homesickness can occur at any time.

** We talk about what they can do if they are feeling anxious or sad. Talk to host parents about it, stay busy! Go out for a run or a walk. Do something with your host family. Get involved with activities, clubs, or sports at school. Share something from your culture with your host family.

** We talk about limiting time spent talking with or chatting with friends and family back home. Host parents can help with this. It’s OK to limit Internet time, for example, or to require students to turn off their smartphones at a certain hour. We get questions every year -– and have had a few already this year -– to the effect of “but she’s not my child, can I require her to do what I require my own children to do?”

Cultural differences that students may find to be a challenge

We ask the students to tell us what they find to be the strangest and the most difficult things to get used to in the time that they have been in the U.S. so far; we usually hold the meetings about a month or so after students have arrived, so they have had time to see some of these “strange” differences. We get the expected comments about cars in the U.S. are bigger than back home and grocery stores have so many more choices that students don’t know how to make a decision on which toiletry item to buy. On the more difficult issues:

** We talk about curfews. In the U.S., curfews for teens are common; indeed, in many cities and towns curfews are set by law. Most of the students in our group said that this is different from back home, and admitted that it is hard to get used to the idea that you must be home by a certain time or you will get in trouble. They found it difficult to accept that host parents can tell them they are “grounded” if they don’t follow the curfew rules.

** In the U.S., parents often expect their children to tell them where they are going and to ask (not announce) before a teen goes out with friends. Many exchange students are not used to doing this. We talk about how customs are different, and that “freedom” as they define it may need to be earned by developing trust.

496619997 teen and gadgets** We explain to the students that Internet, computer use, and cell phones are privileges, not rights. Their host parents have the right to set limits on how long they stay on the Internet in the evenings, for example. If students don’t follow host family rules, host parents can take away their cell phone or their laptop for a while, as they might well do if their own children did not follow family rules. Students sometimes feel that no one can take away their laptop or their phone, because those items belong to them, not to their host family. We explain that taking those items away for a day or a few days if a teenager doesn’t follow a family’s rules is a common consequence in the U.S., and that if they believe a particular punishment is unfair they should talk about it with their coordinator.

School Differences

At the beginning of the school year, many exchange students think school is easy. This group was no different. They were positive and enthusiastic, did not feel they had very much school work, and were confident school would be easier than it is back home. Many of them admitted they do not understand everything the teachers are telling them, but did not feel they were missing anything significant. We tried to help the students understand that they probably are missing key parts of the conversation.

** We encourage students to go over syllabuses and class requirements. A note to host parents: in our experience, students often do not understand how important this is, and they do not understand that requirements may be different in different classes (how much a mid-term is worth, how much homework is worth, does participation count? etc.).

467588985 homework** We talk about how homework here in the U.S. is work you do at home AND how most of the time you have to turn it in to be graded.

** We talk about how they are required to pass every class. We explain to students how they can help get those passing grades. We remind them that if they understand 80% of what the teacher is saying, that’s great – but they need to find out about the other 20%, because they might be missing the key points of every lecture, when a major assignment is due, or what’s on the next test.

Getting your driving license

Getting a driver’s license is an issue dear to teenage hearts everywhere. Teens from other countries often are not aware of how difficult it can be to get a driver’s license here in the U.S. They often feel that it’s worth it even if it is a challenge. Some exchange programs prohibit any student on their program to get a driver’s permit or license. Since our program allows it, we go over the guidelines. We explain that some school districts prohibit exchange students from getting a drivers’ permit. Students who are permitted to get a driving permit must pay for their own insurance. We explain that this could be expensive for a teenager.

We’ve previously written a blog post on this specific issue; interested students and host parents might find the additional detail useful.

Traveling without your host family

Travel rules differ from program to program,  For our students, we explain that students generally may not travel overnight alone, that they must travel with an adult over the age of 25, and that the adult must be approved by the program. This generally requires criminal background checks, and for longer trips may require that the adult(s) go through the entire host family screening process. School trips are generally allowed, with appropriate permissions from parents. Host parents and students should contact their own program for the rules that may apply to them.

Program Rules and Regulations

At our welcome meetings, we review the U.S. government and program rules and regulations. The students should have heard these rules before in their home country; we cheerfully repeat them again! Key points we make at these meetings include:

** Students need to be an active member of their host family. We tell them to participate in the activities their host family does – not just go along, but also actively participate and show interest.

** Do their chores around the house, and do them well! If they have never cleaned a bathroom before — ask host parents how to do it right. If they have never cooked before — maybe start with something easy, like spaghetti.

** No drugs, no alcohol. We always spend some time on this one. It can be a difficult concept for students who may be allowed to legally drink at the age of 16 or 18 in their home country. We try to help them understand that the consequences of breaking U.S. law can be severe; in their case, they can be sent home and lose the school year.

Emergencies and Issues No One Likes to Talk About

This is always a difficult part of the entry meeting. It’s difficult because no one, either adults or teens, like to talk about things going really wrong during the exchange year, such as medical emergencies, teens being diagnosed with serious long-term health issues, or any kind of abuse.

** We remind students that their host parents are there to talk to and that we hope that they are beginning to feel comfortable talking to their host parents and host siblings. If there is a problem they cannot talk to their host parents about for any reason, please call us. If there is an emergency or serious issue, please call no matter what time it is.

** We talk about how it is important to speak up if they feel they are being mistreated in serious ways — physical violence, feeling unsafe, and sexual harassment/abuse.

** We talk about their health. We talk about how having a balanced diet, and how their bodies may need to adjust to different foods here. We ask them how much Coke or Pepsi do they drink, and do they know about the effects of caffeine. We encourage them to get some exercise and to get enough sleep.

Communicate, talk, and speak English!

We end with what we start with – the concept that communicating is the key to their success. Some will have listened to everything we talked about; some will forget until they get one of those progress reports from school or their host parents get upset. We will be there to help!

*This blog post is linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.com. Check it out and visit some new blogs you may not have seen before on international travel, education, and more!*
**Photos copyright Thinkstock.com

We Would Love to Host an Exchange Student, But Our Children Are Too Young – True or False?

Potential host families have a number of initial reactions when approached about international youth exchange and the idea of hosting a student:

  • We can’t afford to pay for an exchange student’s travel expenses, or his school fees, and think about how much teenagers spend on snack food, going to the movies, etc.! (Answer: host families are not responsible for students’ personal expenses.)
  • We are planning a trip to California / Florida / Texas at the holidays, so we can’t host. What would we do with an exchange student? (Answer: Why not take her with you? Ask the student’s parents and in many cases they will pay for the trip to give their child more exposure and opportunity.)
  • What if there are problems, such as the student not understanding our family’s rules about curfews, dating, or expectations about chores and homework? We can’t be expected to do that on our own all year. (Answer: that’s what the program is for and is expected to help with. Use the local coordinator and ask for help!)

myths and facts 485017745 (2)But one of the most common ideas we hear when we talk to people about hosting a student is the assumption that the only good American host family is one with teenagers in the home. Here are some real quotes from our personal experience:

  • “My kids are in middle school, they’re too young for this.”
  • “We would love to have a student, but it’s too early. We need to wait until our daughter is in high school; we know that’s the best time to host.”
  • “I think you must be mistaken in contacting us, our children are in elementary school. You should contact the high school parent-teacher association so you can find the right families. So sorry someone made a mistake!”
  • “I would love to talk to you. Are you sure you want to talk to me, though? My children aren’t the right age. I’m sure you prefer families with teenagers?”

Our children were 9 and 11 when we first hosted a boy from Germany. If we had assumed that “our boys will learn more about a student’s culture if we wait until they’re teens,” and that “there’s no point in hosting a teen now when we don’t have teens,” we would have been just plain wrong.

  • We would have missed the opportunity for our older son to learn what it means not to always be the oldest and the “first in line” for everything. There was a huge value in him sometimes being the “middle son.”
  • Our younger son would have missed the opportunity to team up with the exchange student in ways that avoided lots of cases of sibling rivalry.
  • We would have missed the change in family dynamic when you have three instead of two, and the opportunity for there always to be someone with whom to kick a soccer ball, watch an action movie, or play video games.
  • We would not have learned things about teens that came in handy later on: managing computer use and cell phones, how to handle a teen slinking in late with no good excuse, how to say “no, you can’t go” and not feel awful, and how to say “no” even when you do feel awful. Our own children complained as they grew older – “it’s not fair – now we can’t get away with anything!”
  • We would not have learned so quickly that intelligent teens can make really dumb decisions, at least preparing us for the future with our own children.

The assumption that host families need to have teens of their own is simply mistaken. Certainly, for some families, depending on their particular circumstances, waiting to host an exchange student until your own children are in high school might make sense. Every family is different, with different lifestyles, work habits and schedules, outside interests, personal situations. But don’t make an automatic assumption that the only good host family is one with teens in the home — good candidates for host families come in all shapes and sizes. Don’t assume, without thinking it through, that the “right time” is when your 10-year-old turns 16; your 10-year-old may very well be more suited now for exposure to another culture than she will be in six years!

507918805 did you knowA host family is just that – a family. A family can have one or two parents. A family can have children living in the home or no children living in the home, or no children at all. A family can have teenagers, middle-schoolers, or toddlers. The U.S. government and the dozens of authorized exchange programs in this country encourage — with good reason — all kinds of families to host. The point of the exchange is not so a teenager from another country can live with a teenager from this country. Rather, the point of international youth exchange is for a teenager from another country to learn what it is like to live as American teens live and for all members of the American family to learn a little bit about another culture.

So think about this idea that the “right time” is when your children are in high school. Truth be told, the exchange programs often end up with more challenges when exchange students are in families with other high school students. The teens in the home sometimes feel threatened, or there is unexpected jealousy or unconscious competition. Teenagers can be insecure, and often are less welcoming than younger children. Those younger children usually adore and look up to their exchange student, and may embrace change more easily than many teens do. They’ll also be better prepared to have exchange students in the house when they themselves are teens.

To be a host family for an exchange student, you just need to want to share your own experiences and life, and expand your family’s horizons.

Photo credits: ©2015 Thinkstock.com.
*This blog post is linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.com.*

Second Half of the Exchange Year: No Problems, Right?

I wrote the post below at just about this time last year.  I’ve gone back to re-read it and it is so perfectly on-point for what we see that I’m re-posting it with only a few changes. I’ve talked to three students and host families in the past two weeks about issues that they have not raised in the past five months, but which they feel have been there all along.  They all say, “but I didn’t want to bother you,” or “I figured I could just deal with it by myself.”

Students: please don’t hold your concerns and worries inside, it won’t help you enjoy your exchange year or help you develop a long-term relationship with your host family. Families: same message! You don’t need to worry that you’re bothering your coordinator with trivial concerns. 

Your friend in student and host family success,

Laura the Exchange Mom

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The second half of the exchange year is the perfect time for exchange students and host families to enjoy the relationship that has been developing for 4-6 months.  By now, your student knows your house rules, is familiar with how things work at school, and probably has made a few friends. Students, you feel comfortable knowing that you have learned how the school system works, you know some of your host family’s lifestyle and habits, and you know your English has improved.

So nothing to worry about, right?  I certainly hope that’s true, and I am sending good vibes to all my host family and student readers.  But the work continues! To keep up the success between now and May or June, here are a few concrete tips.  While much of this is worded as if the message is to host parents, that’s not the case — it’s just for ease of writing the post.  Host families, students, and parents back home can all benefit from thinking about these issues.

If you think your student and one of your own children are not getting along, or if your student has a habit that is driving you crazy, don’t ignore it.

It’s not uncommon for host parents to suddenly announce in January or February that their student is driving them crazy and we need to do something about it NOW, or for students to call their program contact and start talking about problems in their host family that they have never mentioned before.  Perhaps we’re told that the student has missed the school bus once or twice a week for several months now and it’s causing a huge family conflict.  Perhaps the student leaves clothes around the house, or food trash in his bedroom – both of which teens are notorious for doing – and we’re told he’s been doing it since September and the host parent has reminded him countless times.  Perhaps the host parents tell you that “Our son and our student have been arguing ever since the day our student arrived.”  On the students’ side of the equation, students who have told their coordinator every month that they love their host family suddenly say they cannot and have never been able to talk to their host sister or host brother, or that their host sibling has bad hygiene and it makes their bedroom smell bad, or that there are certain host family lifestyle issues that they cannot get used to and which are causing the student to be homesick.

177233568 need helpThis is the time of year when undercurrents come to the surface.  Parents and students have tried to address issues on their own, using their own experience and common sense. Host parents may feel they know teens.  Students may feel “it’s a small issue, it shouldn’t bother me.”  They may feel it’s not fair to bother the exchange program coordinator because they know the coordinator has a full-time job, they may not have a good “bond” with their coordinator, they may feel guilty and responsible for the problem, or they just don’t want to admit things aren’t “perfect.”

Forget all of that.  Parents, you think you know teens? Maybe so, but you’ve brought a foreign child into your home – it’s OK to brainstorm for advice.  You think it’s a small issue? It’s the small issues that aren’t addressed that turn into big issues. You think it’s not fair to bother your coordinator? It’s what we signed up for — we’re here to help work out the kinks.  You don’t feel you can discuss the issue with the coordinator? Then talk to the coordinator’s supervisor or the program’s national office.

And as far as the situation not being perfect – of course it’s not, it’s life!  It takes work to make a good relationship, and brainstorming about solutions is never a bad idea. You might not get the perfect answer, but you’ll get ideas on how to better communicate with each other.

If you think your exchange student is having a problem at school … what would you do if it was your own son or daughter?

It’s common, as students and host families enter the second half of the exchange term, to worry less about school and grades, and for students to think “nothing can happen to me now, what can they possibly do to me when the year is more than half over?”  Well, a lot can happen, 78773669 F gradeactually; in every exchange program every year there are students who get sent home late in the exchange year for behavior or academic reasons, sometimes just weeks before the end of the term.  Right now, as the semester is ending in Oregon, several students are receiving messages from their coordinators that if they do not pass all their classes, they may not be allowed to go on a particular trip they signed up, or they will be put on academic probation.

Host parents can help keep an eye on their student’s progress, and help prevent such negative consequences. Many high schools in the U.S. now have online grading systems, and both students and parents get a log-in code at the beginning of the year.  Both host parents and students can use this!  Parents can check their student’s grades online periodically and talk to the student about what you see.  Students can help keep track of their own work, which can help them learn the impact of missing key assignments or of getting a poor grade on a test because they did not spend enough time preparing for the exam. If a student is missing assignments, it will be visible on the online system.  If a student has received a poor grade on a test, both student and host parent can see this long before the end of the term so that parents can ask what the problem is, and try to get their student to think about his or her study habits.  Host parents should feel free to contact their student’s teachers, just as you might for your own children. Explain to the teachers that you are the host parent and make sure the teachers know your student is not a native English speaker.  Encourage – and require – your student to take responsibility by going in to see the teacher during office hours before or after school.

Remember that as a host parent, it’s OK to require that homework be completed before fun.  Students, please remember that it is reasonable for your host parents to establish household guidelines for what happens if poor grades show up on a report card.  Talk to your local program coordinator and ask for advice.

Don’t let your exchange student stay home all the time, even if she seems comfortable with being a “homebody.”

It’s fine for a teen to be the kind of person who is happy to hang out with the family.  But an exchange student is here to experience U.S. culture, and to learn what it’s like to be an American teen.  That includes school activities and events, as well as participating in host family activities.  Host parents should remember that just like for your own children, having a good balance is key.  Students need to remember that spending time on “ordinary” host families activities is expected, whether it’s watching the family’s favorite TV show or going for a hike on the weekend.

It’s way too easy for students to retreat into their bedrooms.  Don’t let your student do this; even if he or she has seemed happy so far, staying by oneself in the bedroom and not interacting with others is not a recipe for success.  Students, go with your host parents on errands and short trips.  Even the grocery store, dry cleaners, or the mall may be different from back home and may help start a good conversation.  Those good conversations will lead to more good conversations, and help continue and improve the communication – which will lead to continuing the relationship you have started to build in the first half of the year, and which we hope will last a lifetime.