12th May 2000 at 01:00
Most school exchanges pass off happily and uneventfully, but what happens when they don't?

Hannah had been looking forward to the school exchange to Normandy for months. When at last her French partner arrived, she seemed lost. Hannah did her utmost to make her feel at home, but after a few days anyone could see the two would never be soulmates.

There was no animosity, just a lack of "chemistry". Yet still Hannah seemed to be looking forward to the return leg. For the first time, the British and French pupils were travelling back together, completing the exchange in consecutive weeks.

The first sign of trouble appeared two nights before departure. "I don't want to go to France" signalled the beginning of trauma for the whole family. Two days of cajoling followed.

The fact that a commitment had been made remained unsaid but understood. And one throwaway remark was to have profound consequences. "I tell you what. I'll come and bring you home if things are bad, but I know you'll enjoy yourself so much I won'thave to."

That reassurance was the only thing that calmed Hannah. Watching her sobbing in the coach was heart-rending. Fourteen hours later came the phone call to say they had safely arrived. All seemed well. But the following day, Hannah phoned in extreme distress to say she was ill and unable to eat, obviously unable to deal with the situation.

Hannah's teacher assured us home-sickness was common - and always passed. Alas, in Hannah's case, it did ot. This was home-sickness bordering on depression.

Then came days of self-reproach and anguish. Had we been right to insist she go? With hindsight probably not, but with the return trip due immediately after the French pupils' visit, there was no time to sit down and discuss things - even to opt out until a time when Hannah would be more mature and better able to cope.

Should we insist she stick it out, and, with any luck, come out of it with more confidence in her staying power? This would usually be our option. But what of the promise we had made, without which she probably would never have gone? If we broke it, she might never trust us again.

With a heavy heart, my husband set off for Normandy. Even as he approached the port, I was hoping to be able to call him on his mobile phone to tell him to return minus his passenger. A further callto Hannah's teacher dashed this hope.

What lessons can be learned from our experience? First, a break between the two stages of the exchange would allow a cooling-off period and time to talk through what lies ahead, time to listen to your child's fears. Second, once you have established that your child is going, do not provide an opt-out clause. It must be all or nothing, and while an exchange can undoubtedly provide a rich and worthwhile experience, sometimes nothing is the better option, at least until the time is right.

Judith Glencross Judith Glencross is a language teacher and parent. She lives in Wales

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