The Second Half of the Exchange Year: All Fun and Games? 

 January 10, 2014

By  Laura Kosloff

The second half of the exchange year is the perfect time to relax with your student and enjoy the relationship.  By now, your student knows your house rules, is familiar with how things work at school, and probably has made a few friends.

So nothing to worry about, right?  I certainly hope that’s true, and I am sending good 2014 vibes to all my host family readers.  But the work continues! To keep up the success between now and May or June when your student returns home, here are a few concrete tips.

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.  Perhaps the student forgets to get up in the morning – and we’re told that she has missed the school bus once or twice a week for several months now.  Perhaps he 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 at least a dozen times.  Perhaps the family has a teen already, and the host parents tell you that “Joe and Francisco have been arguing ever since the day Francisco arrived.”

This is the time of year when undercurrents come to the surface.  Parents have tried to address issues rationally on their own, using their own experience and common sense. They may feel they know teens, or they 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. 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 believe in this stuff.  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 your student.

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, actually; 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.

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.  Use it! Check your student’s grades online periodically and talk to your student about what you see.  Missing assignments? Find out where they are or if your student has even done them.  Poor grade on the last test? Ask what the problem is, and try to get your student to think about his or her study habits.  Feel free to contact your 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; sometimes the information on who are the exchange students has not made it to the teachers.  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 for you require that homework be completed before fun happens, and that you can establish household guidelines for what happens if poor grades show up on a report card.  In the case of an exchange student, who is here on a U.S. government visa that requires the student to pass all classes, there can be significant consequences for failing classes; that doesn’t mean, however, that all students have the motivation to do it correctly without assistance.

Talk to your student’s local program coordinator and ask for advice.  Don’t just assume you can turn your student around by yourself; regardless of how many teens you may have raised or dealt with yourself, it’s different when you’ve brought a new child into the family who hasn’t lived with you for all of his or her 16 or 17 years.

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

I’ve said this before, and it’s worth repeating.  It’s fine for a teen to be the kind of person who is happy to hang out with the family.  But for an exchange student, there are limits to that. The 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.  Just like for your own children, having a good balance is key.

It’s way too easy for the students to retreat into their bedrooms, rather than trying to hang out with the family all the time, or going to school events where they may not know many people.  Don’t let your student do this, even if in the first half of the year they seem happy.  Try to encourage your student to go to a school event – go the school play or watch a varsity or junior varsity basketball game.  Go with them perhaps – that’s not a bad idea either!  Discourage closed doors even if they tell you it’s normal for them back home.  Explain that you understand it might be normal back home, but remind your student that while on exchange, hanging out in your bedroom with the door closed prevents any interaction.  Have family members get together after dinner to watch a favorite TV show periodically – maybe have “family movie night.”

It’s not a bad idea to sometimes require your exchange student to come with you on errands, perhaps especially if he or she is a bit of a “homebody.”  Even the grocery store, dry cleaners, or the mall may be different from what your student is familiar with back home – and regardless, it gets them out of the house 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.

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