This is part 3 in our series on host family tips; part 1 is about contacting your student before arrival and part 2 talks about a few thoughts about pre-arrival preparation. Today we’ll share a few thoughts on setting expectations when your student arrives. “Expectations” includes both the do’s and don’ts as well as fun and sharing. Success for you and your student involves both!
Before Arrival: Prepare Your House Rules
This doesn’t have to be a long laundry list of everything you want your student to do or not do. Indeed, a long list may not be the best approach. The important thing is that it’s OK to set rules for your exchange student as if he or she was your own teen.
Don’t expect your student to know or remember your family’s rules from day one. Make a 1-2 page list for your student of things that are the most important to your family. Examples might be that household chores need to be done before teens go out with friends, that the student needs to be home by a certain time, and that you don’t allow teens to drive with people you don’t know -- or they could be completely different from that. Talk to your coordinator or other families with teens if you’re not sure what’s appropriate and customary in your area.
Once your student is here, follow through on consequences. Your student is a visitor, yes -- but should not be treated as a “guest.” As much as possible, she is a member of your family. Normal consequences for failure to follow family rules are OK for your exchange student just as they would be for your own child. These consequences can include losing one’s cell phone privileges for a short time or not being allowed to go out with friends. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking “It’s not fair for me to impose a consequence on someone else’s child.”
Show your student around the house and begin to explain how things “work” in your family. Does he need to do laundry, or do you prefer to do it? If he is going to do it, explain how your washer and dryer work. Will he be responsible for vacuuming? When do you want her to change the sheets on her bed? Explain where you keep clean 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 your expectations. Tell her why it’s important; students appreciate getting explanations even for things they know they cannot change or negotiate.
After Arrival: Be Prepared
Your student may not be up for a major tour of the city the day she arrives. She may have just come from her home country, in which case she will have been traveling for many hours. She may have just spent several days at an exchange program’s orientation, in which case she probably hasn’t slept much for a few days. 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.
Even 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 for the first day or two after arrival. Moreover, listening and talking in a foreign language is physically exhausting. Don’t be surprised if your student wants to take naps for a while 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. Meeting all those new people, however, 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.
I Know English … Don’t I?
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. Your student may understand 70–80% of what you and others say. It’s the 20-30% they don’t understand, however, that causes miscommunication.
We sometimes hear from host parents “I know my student understands what I am telling him. He nods when I ask him if he understands. Then he ignores me.” The head nodding part is often true. It’s human nature. Your student may be nodding because he believes he understands. Students often think the parts they missed weren’t critical (and let’s be honest, that’s not something that is limited to teenagers…). Also, sometimes a student knows he doesn’t have a clue but is too polite or too embarrassed to admit it.
What to do? 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.
You can help your student to start talking. Ask your student every day to tell you something he or she did that day. Use 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.
Errands Can Be Fun
Things that may not feel like a major excursion for you -- or which you don’t think of as fun -- will be new for your student and more interesting for him or her than you might think. Grocery shopping can be an event in itself. (I love watching students the first time we take them to Costco!) Maybe your community has a store with products from your student’s home country; perhaps you can buy ingredients to make his favorite meal -- or maybe he knows how to cook it himself for the family.
Any errand can be a worthwhile excursion. Going to the hardware store? Take her with you. Visiting the post office or library? Take him with you. Going to your 10 year old’s soccer game? Take her with you. Take a walk with your student around the neighborhood and show him key spots and interesting places. Show her where the teens in your neighborhood hang out. 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.
The Word "Guest" Does Not Apply
The natural tendency for many new host families is to treat the student as a guest – give them leeway and maybe the rules for your own children shouldn’t apply to them. After all, they are used to different rules in their own home, right?
We do respect that students are used to different rules and customs. That doesn’t change the fact that an exchange student needs to follow your family rules and your community’s customs. High school exchange students are here to live in a real American family and learn what it is like to live as an American teen. Your program liaison/coordinator can help your student adjust to the kinds of rules to expect in your community. This may not always be easy for the teen, so do allow for an adjustment period, while also holding to the family guidelines that work for your family. Successful host families are those who are able to move quickly beyond guest phase to the “these are your responsibilities” phase.
Let The Year Begin
All kinds of challenges arise when students face a new country and a new culture — indeed, when any of us are in that situation! With a bit of foresight and preparation and a large dose of conscious communication, your exchange experience with your student will be successful -- a time of grown and a fun experience for your student and you.