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.
This 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, 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. 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.