The intent of this section of the Participant Support Guide is to describe how to prepare a Support Agreement to help the participant focus on what needs to be done to resolve a specific issue(s) to achieve success in placement or to avoid an early return. The Support Agreement is normally the next step if the participant does not follow his/her Plan for Success. It could also be used to address the first occurrence of a very serious behavior problem that the participant needs resolve to remain in the exchange program. It is a written agreement signed by the participant, support volunteer, host family with natural parent and partner country concurrence that clearly describes the problem and what the participant needs to do to resolve it. Preparation of the agreement requires close communication with support staff at the national office for guidance, and coordination with the partner country staff who interact with the natural parents.
- The AFS intercultural learning experience is a learn by doing, trial and error process. It is to be expected that errors will be made and adolescent students will require assistance. The host family and liaison provide basic assistance. Other volunteers such as the support host family and/or support coordinator provide further assistance, should that be required.
- Participants generally enter the program with the perspective that behaviors and attitudes that have worked for them since birth will be appropriate with a new host family. Often this is not the case. Significant adaptation may be required.
- Problems should be approached as a chance for the participant to learn from the experience. When problems occur, the AFS Learning Objectives help the participant focus on the learning required for a successful exchange experience.
- Support should be positive and directed to helping the participant understand the issues and resolve the problem(s).
- Generally the Plan for Success is the first written document to address the problem(s) followed by the Support Agreement if necessary. The Support Agreement might also be used to address the first occurrence of a very serious behavior problem that could quickly lead to an early return if the behavior is repeated again or continues.
- The Support Agreement documents the actions to be taken to resolve the issues. It also documents that the participant understands the seriousness of the need to change. If conflicts remain unresolved the Support Agreement documents that support was given and efforts were made by the volunteers to resolve an issue, thereby, helping to make the case for an Early Return.
- It is important that all local team volunteers understand that the participant will not be returned home early until the sending country agrees. For most behavior problems that agreement is only reached after the participant has been given a chance to succeed and repeated failures demonstrate what is often call “a failure to adapt”. Usually the participant understands at that point that he/she cannot handle the exchange program requirements and it is time to go home. To make the case for an Early Return for “failure to adapt” the ideal process should include support counseling where the participant develops a Plan for Success followed by further counseling where a Support Agreement is signed followed by further discussion with support staff making the determination that the participant is unable or unwilling to make the changes needed to continue the exchange program.
- Other reasons for an Early Return, such as, violating the three rules (driving, using drugs, hitch-hiking), eating disorders, major depression, the possibility of suicide, and other situations where the health and safety of the participant is a concern do not involve a Support Agreement.
Related Support Counseling Tools
- The first steps when problems occur are generally verbal discussions between participant and host family, then with liaison involvement and then possibly as a team effort with Support Coordinator or Associate Support Coordinator as the situation warrants. The Host Family Handbook (Talking to Your Teenagers) and the Liaison Handbook (What To Do When You Detect a Potential Problem) provide guidance for these verbal interactions.
- Mediation with a focus on conflict reconciliation and transformation is a possible second step.
- A written Plan for Success developed during support counseling (Possibly in the home of a Support Host Family) is often the next step when verbal discussions have been unsuccessful. A Plan for Success might also be written as the formalized result of a mediation and reconciliation process.
- Joint Staff Counseling Call. USA and partner country have a conference call with participant. Support staff then works to determine next step while consulting with local volunteers as needed.
- Warning Letter issued by support staff working with the participant and local support volunteer. (a copy of the Warning Letter is given to the liaison and support volunteer).
The Support Agreement format
The general structure is:
- List names of all involved in the dialogue, (participant, support coordinator, liaison, host family, school personnel, etc)
- Identify specific issues/challenges/problems
- List participant actions for resolution/reconciliation
- Indicate actions of volunteers, host family, others to assist the participant
- Time frame for accomplishments/follow-up
- Signatures, after AFS USA Participant Support staff, partner country and natural family concurrence
Use the SMART system: (Specific, Measurable, Acceptable, Realistic, and Time-framed).
- The actions to be taken should be specific not general in nature.
- The actions should be measurable so progress or completion can be verified.
- The actions should be acceptable to all parties involved.
- The actions should be realistic rather than idealistic.
- There should be a time frame for accomplishment
The process for developing a Support Agreement
- Identify the issues: The initial requirement is to identify the significant issues, consulting with those involved to get their perspectives. This includes the host parents, liaison, and any others who have significant interaction with the participant related to the issues. There may have been verbal support counseling sessions. Possibly the participant completed a Plan for Success and some or all the issues that have not been resolved are identified in the plan.
- Talk to your Support Staff person: Call your Participant Support Staff person in New York and discuss what you have found out. Request guidance on the appropriate method to address the issue(s). If it is agreed to use the Support Agreement format proceed with guidance given and the procedure described herein.
- The counseling session: Discuss all the issues with the participant. Give the participant feedback on how others see the situation and asked for his/her assessment. Develop a list of significant issues, hopefully that are agreed to or at least understood by the participant.
- Write the Support Agreement: Does the participant wish to continue and if so what does he/she want to achieve? Discuss what AFS hopes the student will learn from the experience, as described in the AFS Learning Objectives, and how specific objectives relate to the issues. Finally, ask the participant to consider the list of issues, personal goals, and the applicable AFS Learning Objectives and then propose what should be in the Support Agreement. The support volunteer then drafts the Support Agreement checking with others involved to insure that commitments to help the participant are agreed to. Use the SMART format discussed here-in. Then fax or e-mail a copy to New York for Support Staff approval. Staff will discuss with staff in the partner country who will consult with the participant’s natural parents. This will take some time. After Support Staff approves or approves based on revisions, the participant and all others directly involved in the discussions/actions to be taken should sign the Support Agreement.
- Be concise: The Support Agreement should focus on the only the major issues of placement, school behavior or compliance with AFS rules. A concise list helps the participant to keep focused during implementation. Ideally the Support Agreement should be no more than two pages.
- Examples: Here are three Support Agreement examples that incorporate the SMART system.
- Confidentiality: The support volunteer needs to tell the participant that what was discussed during the counseling session and the documents they have developed will go only to those who need to know. That will include the support staff in New York and the staff in the AFS partner country who will send the Support Agreement to the participant’s natural parents. The natural parents often help motivate the participant to make behavioral changes identified in the agreement. The participant’s liaison will see the Support Agreement to help the participant implement the agreement. The team support coordinator will also see the Support Agreement. (The team support coordinator may have provided the counseling and prepared the Support Agreement as the support host family volunteer) If the participant is going back to the host family the Support Agreement will be discussed with them when the participant is returned. If the participant is going to a temporary host family, that family will receive a copy of the Support Agreement to help the student implement the agreement while they are waiting for a permanent host family. There is value in a fresh start with a new host family. A determination will have to be made if it is best to show the Support Agreement to the new host family initially. If the same problems reoccur, the new host family will be given the Support Agreement to help the student resolve the issues.
- Consequences: The participant needs to understand that the exchange program requires learning appropriate behaviors to adapt to living with a host family and as a student on a J-1 visa to apply themselves to achieve passing grades at school. After repeated attempts, a pattern showing failure to adapt or failure at school may be a cause for an early return.
The Support volunteer should consider the following resources to assist in evaluating the issues and drafting the Support Agreement:
- Liaison reports available in Global-link.
- The participant’s application, specifically those sections that might have some bearing on the issues. (Letter to host parents, natural parent’s comments, teacher’s comments, school transcript.)
- Host Parent/Participant Questionnaire that records the family expectations, usually in the participant’s welcome orientation handbook.
- The completed Plan for Success if applicable.
- Country specific host parent handbooks that describe cultural differences that may have a bearing on the issues, available here
- Country specific cultural grams for countries that have not yet developed a handbook describing the cultural norms for their participants, available on the AFS Wiki.
- The team support coordinator, unless the support coordinator is also the support host family volunteer who provides the support counseling.
- Support staff at the New York office who have extensive experience with all sorts of participant adjustment and behavior problems.
- Careful evaluation of the issues: It should be recognized that when the placement is at risk or has been terminated by the host family, the issues brought out need to be carefully evaluated. Problems identified may have started as minor irritations, but through repetition are now considered to be major problems. There may be cultural differences that have not been recognized or addressed. There may be an “incompatible placement”, where there are little or no common interests or lifestyles are so different that the relationship is not rewarding for either party. The family may be trying to justify their decision to terminate the placement to themselves and others by giving every example of inappropriate behavior they can think of. In these situations several days spent with the participant can be very helpful in evaluating what are significant behavioral problems versus misunderstandings and annoyances.
- A second placement: Even with support counseling and a Plan for Success and/or Support Agreement in place, sometimes the first placement will fail. For instance, early negative impressions formed by the host family as the participant went through the trial and error learning process may be hard to change. The liaison has probably worked with the host family and student to try to resolve the problems without success. This may lead the host family to believe that the participant is incapable of change. If the host family is unhappy with the relationship they may find fault in even the little things and whatever the student does may not be considered good enough. AFS experience, however, is that a second placement is often a success when appropriate support counseling is provided and the second placement takes into account what caused difficulties in the first placement. With a second placement, different issues may arise and further support counseling and modifications to the Support Agreement may be required. As previously mentioned close coordination between support volunteers and support staff is always required when working with Support Agreements.