Cultural differences, personality differences, environmental or external factors, and the natural ups and downs of the adjustment cycle all contribute to the reality that participating on an AFS program can be very challenging at times. It can be common for moments to arise during the year in which participants and host families feel and express concern, frustration, worry, and confusion. When these moments arise, the role of the AFS volunteer is to listen and understand the situation at hand, and to help participants and families move forward in ways that are safe for all, and that promote the AFS Learning Objectives. Some situations can arise during the program that may require intervening directly. Depending on the issue at hand, AFS staff may work with volunteers toward resolution.
Click here for more information on the AFS continuum of issues and how different kinds of responses from AFS are required for different types of scenarios.
Possible Causes of Participant and Host Family Adjustment Challenges
Common causes of situations which may require intervention include any one or combination of the following:
- Communication breakdown: Misunderstandings or misinterpretations due to differences in cultural or personal communication styles can lead to conflict and incomplete or incorrect assumptions about the other.
- Cultural misunderstanding: At AFS we see many situations in which certain behaviors are influenced by one’s culture, yet can be interpreted as behavioral when that cultural background is not yet fully understood.
- Clash of expectations: AFS participants and host families can sometimes have expectations for what the exchange year will be like that do not line up completely with AFS’s expectations and guidelines.
- Poor match: While AFS does not expect participants and families to have the same interests, and we value relationship-building across differences, it can also be the case that the differences between participants and their families can sometimes be very difficult. The process of bridging differences in lifestyle, interests, or personalities can sometimes require volunteer assistance.
- Extenuating circumstances: Situations such as illness, challenges at work for host parents or school for participants, family circumstances, and other possible external or environmental issues can all contribute to feelings of stress and concern.
When these situations occur, both participants and host parents are instructed to speak to a volunteer. As an AFS volunteer, you are the first point of contact for both students and families, and as a result, your role is a crucial one in helping gather information about the situation at hand, and then helping work towards resolution. If you ever need help, please contact your Support Coordinator or Support and Learning Specialist.
Click here for additional guidance on Effective Communication Skills
Experienced support volunteers and staff have found that quite often a participant’s difficulty is not what it initially seems, and one runs the risk of reaching a premature conclusion when only part of the pertinent information has been collected. To ensure that all parties have been consulted and that the challenge in full has been discovered, we recommend using the following seven questions:
- Exactly what is the problem?
- When does it occur? How long has it occurred?
- How do other people in the situation see it?
- Are there physical symptoms involved?
- What has the person tried to do about it? What does the person see as possible solutions?
- Are there major inconsistencies between feelings, content, and body posture?
- What does the person want to do versus what the person feels he or she should do?
The Seven Clarifying Questions
1. What Exactly is the Problem?
Almost all problems that are presented as general turn out to be specific issues. For example, a participant saying “I feel out of place here” might in fact mean “I don’t understand what the family expects of me.” To draw out additional information, you might employ the techniques of open inquiry and/or minimal encouragement.
A participant’s choice of words in English often does not accurately describe his or her feelings. Words such as “lonely,” “depressed,” and “scared” have an enormous range of meanings, so it is important to find out exactly what they mean to the other person. As an example, you might ask, “Exactly what does it feel like to you when you are lonely?” or “Loneliness means one thing to me, but I’m not sure it means the same thing to you. Could you describe how you feel when you are lonely and how it’s affecting your life?”
2. When does it occur? How long has it occurred?
An important clue in clarifying the problem is finding out when problems occur. For example, does a person feel anxious all the time or only with certain people? Narrowing down the exact time of occurrence can help in finding the real breakdown. Many general problems turn out to be very specific communications difficulties that are more easily resolved once they are clarified.
Knowing how long a problem has occurred is equally helpful. If a participant, for example, reports that she has felt “lonely” or “anxious” for the last several years, it may be that you are faced with more than an adjustment issue.
In trying to clarify the issue you may want to ask: Have you felt this way before? Is there any similarity between the time you felt this way before and right now? What seems to be the common thread between all those different times during the day when you feel that way?
3. How do other people in the situation see it? Has it already been discussed with the relevant parties?
If you are dealing with a participant who is having difficulty with other people in the family, you should immediately try to arrange a time to find out how the family members are feeling. You will want their view to get a more complete picture. You might say to a participant, “This sounds like something I would like to talk to your host family ..."
You might choose to use role reversal in order to both gather additional information and help the people involved begin to see how others see it. Many volunteers find it helpful to ask questions such as, “What do you think your host mother would say if she were here and responding to what you’re saying to me right now?”
As the support volunteer, you will want to take care not to assume that any one version of an interpersonal problem is the “correct” one. This can be difficult or tempting to do if you know and care for the individual or have become close to the host family. If you feel that your objectivity is compromised, you might choose to have a more impartial volunteer handle the case. In sum, one will usually get different versions of a story from each party involved. Gathering all those pictures will help tremendously towards clarifying the issues which need attention.
4. Are there physical symptoms involved?
A small percentage of apparent emotional problems can be linked to underlying physical difficulties. If there are any complaints of physical symptoms, the participant should be examined by a physician. This also is necessary for the protection of you and the host family.
Be sure to ask for a detailed report on the person’s physical health and complaints. The participant may not have yet made any connection between her constant headaches and the problems they are describing to you, and therefore, will not voluntarily mention his or her physical symptoms to you.
5. What has the person tried to do about it? What does s/he see as possible solutions?
As personal dilemmas are best solved by the person having them, a support volunteer can find out what solutions the person has already tried and explore other possibilities by sorting out other options. In discovering how a participant has already tried to solve problems, you will gain insight into how realistic they are about the problem. It will also help to show how well they personally understand it and how committed they are to solving it.
You may find that there is work to do in the area of helping a participant take ownership of their situation. Helpful questions might include, “What can you do to improve the situation?”, “What do you see as the solution to the problem?” or "What have you already tried to do it to improve it?" Through effective questioning, you can help a participant move from feeling like a “helpless victim” to a person who can take responsibility for their actions.
6. Are there major inconsistencies between feelings, content, and body posture?
Seeing inconsistencies between what a person says and body language is one way to obtain clues for discovering the true nature of the situation. This is a question which you need to keep in mind at all times.
Examples of inconsistencies include, “I really want to learn how to get along with my host brother,” yet you notice that the participant is fidgeting or looking around the room when they say this. “I really feel terrible about what’s going on in this situation,” but the person is smiling or showing very little emotion to match the feeling of the words. If you feel like there may be an inconsistency, point out that behavior and ask the participant why they were exhibiting that behavior while talking about this particular topic as that will give you insight on whether that behavior is due to an inconsistency or a cultural tendency.
It is also important to acknowledge that our own cultural assumptions or familiarities can sometimes cause us to misinterpret the student’s behavior or demeanor. Keep in mind that culture plays a big role in the way students talk about issues. It might be helpful to refer to [link to communication styles in different cultures sheet] to learn more about how your student may be trying to communicate. For example, a smile may mean agreement, but it may mean nervousness.
7. Are there inconsistencies about what the person wants to do and what they feel they should do?
Many requests for your assistance will come in the form of “I feel like I ought to do this better,” or “I should appreciate what’s being done.” Working on ways that “oughts” and “shoulds” can be fulfilled is very rarely successful since they represent requests from a judgmental part of the self.
It can be helpful in clarifying the problem, to you and to the participants, by asking them what they want to do. It is important to know the difference between what someone feels they “should” to do and what they “want” to do. Many participants may be totally out of touch with their true feelings because of the overwhelming desire to do what is “right.” By looking at both sides of the issue, you can help clarify it.
In general, try to identify early in the process what someone wants as a solution to their problem. At the same time, one needs to show respect for a participant wanting to do what is “right,” as many cultures instill in their children a very strong sense of obligation.