The Successful Exchange Student: What’s in a Rule? 

 October 31, 2014

By  Laura Kosloff

Two years ago, an exchange student in the Portland metro area was sent home early (October) for breaking the rules. What rule did she break, do you ask? What could a well-adjusted, smart, 16-year-old exchange student do that would result in being sent home a scant two months into the high school exchange year?

In her case, a simple question with a simple answer. The student picked up a $50 item from a display at Nordstrom’s and walked out without paying for it. Security guards picked her up as she walked out, and the police drove her to her host family’s home. As people say . . . thaaaat’s all, folks!

Any of us who are parents can understand the impulsive thought that may have entered the teen’s mind. Many parents have counseled their own teens through similar impulsive, bad decisions. But for that one impulsive, bad decision, an entire (and expensive!) exchange year was lost. And there was nothing anyone could do. It was more than just breaking the rules; it was breaking the law.

All reputable exchange programs have a disciplinary process. For ordinary and expected behavior issues, the disciplinary process will be progressive — that is, first the local coordinator will give the student a warning; then perhaps the program headquarters will issue a warning; and finally there may be a written and final warning with a specific time frame for either seeing behavior improvement or making a decision on whether the student should remain on the program. For matters involving the law, however, there’s not much leeway. Usually any police involvement means the student has earned a ticket home.463192477 - medium res

Discipline is most often needed for the vague categories of “poor behavior” or “teenage attitude,” which cover everything from miscommunication, to lack of fluency in the host country’s language and customs, to culture shock – not to mention normal teenage impulsiveness, forgetfulness, and undeveloped decision-making skills. In general, exchange organizations will bend over backwards to try and find a way to give a student a second (or third) chance, since we all recognize the difficulties in adjusting to a foreign culture and lifestyle.

As the Exchange Mom, I’ve written about miscommunications here, and about the difficulties international high school students face adjusting to life as a teen in the U.S. here and here. Culture shock may feel like an overused term, but the symptoms are real. “Behavior” problems we see in our exchange students are often linked to symptoms of culture shock, including:

  • homesickness
  • avoiding social situations and withdrawal from local friends and host family
  • inability to concentrate at school
  • physical complaints and difficulty sleeping
  • becoming angry over minor issues

Of course, culture shock and “I’m just a forgetful teen” are not workable excuses for poor or inappropriate behavior over a long period. We tend to be more flexible with our students when they first arrive; we *do* understand the difficulties and challenges they face. But after a month or two or three, our expectations are that they will begin to adapt. At that point, they have been part of a host family that has patiently walked them through their family lifestyle and guidelines many times, they have attended school for several months, and they have figured out the local social scene. So eventually, we expect our students – both those we host and those we supervise – to put some attention into concentrating in school, turning in their homework, following their teachers’ and host families’ rules and procedures, and asking for help if this continues to be difficult for them. At a certain point, teens can’t just say, “Sorry, I wasn’t thinking.

468583769 we can helpOn the host families’ side, families have to move from treating their student as a guest (since guests may sometimes be excused from certain family rules) to treating him or her as a member of the family. Moreover, even host parents who feel their student has fully integrated into the family often hesitate to discipline their student in any way because “it’s not my child, I really shouldn’t interfere with another person’s parenting decisions.”

For the exchange year to succeed, it works two ways. Students need to dedicate time and energy into the relationship, and cannot just constantly repeat “I forgot.” Host parents need to get beyond the feeling that they have no options. There may need to be consequences if the student doesn’t clean her room when asked, turn off the laptop at the designated time, forgets repeatedly to take out the trash, or uses inappropriate language. Even families who say “but I don’t need to do that with my own children” should think about the fact that their own children have lived with them for their entire lives. Your exchange student has had a month or two. Encouragement and positive feedback are great; by all means, use a reward system. But rewards may not be enough.

In our own home, we are trying out an approach that’s new for us: we will be introducing a yellow card / red card system that we would like to share with readers. As opposed to having yet one more (of the same) conversation about a rule or other infraction, when it works we’ll hold up a yellow card. That’s the warning: you’re on thin ice, you just did something you know by now isn’t acceptable. The yellow card signifies that we’re not looking to get into yet another discussion with you about it. If it happens again, the red card will appear and there will be a consequence – perhaps no surfing on the Internet tonight, or you won’t be able to go out Friday or Saturday night.153098448

There is always experimentation involved when it comes to disciplinary matters, partially because the kids themselves are so different in what is driving their behavior, and what measures they are likely to respond to in a manner that works. But the reality is that the sooner we help students get on the straight and narrow through whatever means work, the happier they – and their host families — will be!

Photo credits: ©2014 Thinkstock.com unless otherwise noted. 
**This blog post is linked to the October 2014 My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.com.**
  • I am having difficulties with our exchange program. I think because the student’s family pays the organization a great deal of money, the exchange organization’s loyalty is to the student and their family. My student caused a laundry list of property damage in my home. Each item of damage was under $1000 so each instance would fall within a home insurance deductible. The student damaged the plumbing and I asked the exchange organization to work with their foreign office to get reimbursement. They responded that it is up to me to contact the student’s parents in another country where I have no contacts to get reimbursement. I do not have a contract with the student’s parents, the exchange organization does. The exchange organization has an office in that country and could bring an action in small claims court, I cannot not. The biggest question is why they don’t include a refundable security deposit with the fees they collect? The way the system is structured leaves host families vulnerable to having no recourse in the case of property damage caused intentionally or by the negligence of the student. I understand having protections in place for the student, these are minor aged children who could be preyed upon, but what about reasonable normal course of business protections for host families like security deposits?

  • Hi, I just found your blog. It’s a great read. We’ve been having some issues with our 16 year old French foreign exchange student. We are his 2nd host family and he has been with us for 2 1/2 months. At first, he followed our rules very well, for the most part, but now he comes home on the weekend and we know he’s been drinking, so I had a talk with him about that and never getting into a car with a driver that’s been drinking. Last night, we were finishing supper and I went into the upstairs bathroom that he uses to get something. He had the door closed, but was downstairs. I opened the door and he had a candle of my daughter’s burning in the bathroom. I believe he’s been smoking in our house. I know that he smokes, because he has tried to get my 18 year old daughter to buy him cigarettes. I’m going to have another talk with him, but he knows that we have these rules and so does his exchange program. At what point, do I tell the exchange program?

    • Hi W,
      (I shortened your comment to get to the key problems and points you are making, I hope that is alright!)

      Thank you for the nice comment about the blog — I appreciate that! 🙂

      I would definitely tell the program right away! Drinking is not only against the program’s rules but if you’re in the US it’s against US government rules. If he’s smoking, that’s generally against the rules of most organizations, too, and if he’s trying to get his host sister to break the rules for him, that’s a pretty significant problem. These are not issues you should have to deal with — so yes, tell the program.

      • Thank you, so much for your reply. I am going to talk to the program and let them issue him a warning, since I don’t think my warning does any good. My daughter tried to talk him out of drinking, smoking and even trying marijuana, but he said, if he gets caught, they will just send him home early. It didn’t seem to phase him. This is hard, because sometimes he can be very nice and respectful to all of us and then other times he just doesn’t care.
        Thanks again!

        • With a situation like you are describing, I agree — your warning won’t be enough. There could be so many reasons why he is “acting out” — the fact that sometimes he is nice as you say makes me wonder whether something is going on that he doesn’t want to talk about. Perhaps something is going on that makes him want to go home, perhaps he is homesick and not admitting it (very common). I hope the program contact can get through to him before something happens that he might regret! Good luck.

  • Great read we have had two students both from Germany. They are the laziest most dispestful kids I have ever seen. They have no rules back home and think it’s that way here when we expected them to help out around the house they thought that we had killed them. Most of these kids are spoiled brats and we will never do the exhange program again!

    • I’m so sorry you had two bad experiences! I cringe when I hear about experiences like yours. It does NOT have to be that way. I honestly do not believe that most of the students are the way you describe. I’ve been working with international students for 14 years, and most of them can adapt and adjust — most of them can be “trained” to think differently. Yes, some problems are unsolvable — but there are so many reasons why the problems exist in the first place.

      You do need support, though, in order to solve the problems. I’m wondering if you got that support with the two students you are talking about. If any host parent is having difficulties with their student, I urge them to contact their local program representative. If you are not happy with the local support, contact the main office. You should be able to get assistance. Sometimes it’s just a matter of pointing out to the student what he or she is doing; sometimes it requires a warning. Sometimes there is something else going on (homesickness, something going on back home, misunderstandings due to language issues). We’re dealing with people, remember — teenagers can be a challenge in their own right and even we adults don’t always know the right thing to do for every single event.

  • Love your blogs and on most of them you hit it right on the head. Enjoyed reading this, at this time in the exchange, due to experiencing all of the issues covered in the blog today. Thank you and keep up the good work for us amateur host families.

    • Thank you, Angela. Glad to hear it’s useful to you and hope you can use some of our thoughts in a way that works positively with your student. Most of the teens really do want their exchange to work, and they want to keep their host families happy — they just don’t always quite know how to make that happen.

  • I got in trouble several months into my exchange year for doing something stupid and it wasn’t fun at all to face my worried and upset host parents…but in a way I did feel more like a real member of the family after that!

    Thanks for participating in the #MyGlobalLife Link-Up!

    • I’ve heard that from a number of the students we have supervised over the years, as well as students we have hosted (although they’re not too happy about it at the time, of course). Somehow that helps families and students make the move from guest-like relationship to family relationship.

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