By Leah Davies, M.Ed.
Buddy programs consist of upper-grade students reading and/or completing activities or projects with younger children. Older students are paired with younger children from their buddy class and the most effective programs have at least two grade levels between students. The experience provides children with stimulating opportunities for learning and skill development.
Younger children especially enjoy the one-to-one attention they receive from their older buddy. They make comments such as, “He makes me feel special;he says nice things to me!” and”We do lots of fun things together. She`s my friend.” Teachers report that participation in buddy programs enhances children`s cooperative learning behaviors such as taking turns, listening, sharing knowledge, praising another`s effort, helping one another, and completing a task. Due to the extra attention and assistance, the younger children`s work often improves. As the older students assume the role of the teacher, they are motivated to do their best. They also experience pride in their ability to be helpful. The younger children bond with the older buddy and friendships flourish as the year progresses.
Buddy classes start each fall and meet weekly, bi-monthly, or monthly throughout the year. The children usually spend between thirty to forty minutes together. Some buddy programs include special education students. A teacher may pair older children with preschool or elementary age children in special education classes to read together or participate in activities. (Information on Best Buddies, an International Buddy Program for people with intellectual disabilities, can be found at www.bestbuddies.org).
Buddy programs promote a favorable school atmosphere. In some cases, the students sit with their buddy during lunch or have time together on the playground. Some younger students make posters and cheer for their older buddies who are on sports teams. Treats are sometimes shared for holiday celebrations and students may exchange notes or cards for special occasions.
If the students are to meet often, it is helpful if the two participating teachers have similar teaching styles. The schedules can be flexible since there are only two teachers involved.They typically take turns planning the sessions. If possible the two classes of children meet once or twice before buddies are paired. Playing “Getting Acquainted Games” (see Getting to Know Each Other Activities Parts 1, 2, and 3) can be beneficial.Then, if the teachers want input from their students in deciding matches, they ask the children to write down three names of students they would like as their buddy. The teachers match the children by considering the requests as well as the academic, emotional, and social development of their students. They may partner children who both have reading difficulties, a shy child with an outgoing one, or a calm child with an active one.
Depending on the age of the students and make-up of the classes, student genders may be mixed — but usually they are not. Also, if there are more children in the older class than the younger one, a child may have two buddies. Pairing older students who are good friends is not recommended since they may pay more attention to each other than to their buddy.
A training session is sometimes held for the older children before a program begins. Team-building exercises and role-plays can be included to provide students with listening and non-judgmental responding skills. Guidelines for a successful program, such as no “put-downs” and how to model enjoyment of learning, can be emphasized.
If buddies are matched up by the teachers in advance, the first meeting can include a short interview, a game or an activity. The older students can read to their new friend and/or listen to the younger child read. The session can include a snack and be held in either classroom, outdoors or anywhere it is convenient.
Activities that buddies can do together vary widely and are only limited by the imagination of the teachers, the age of the students, and the boundaries provided by the administration. They can read books, write stories, plan skits, do science experiments, play math games, cook, sing songs, go on scavenger hunts, complete art projects, or go on field trips. In some schools, young children dictate stories to the upper grade students who write everything down in a Buddy Journal. Projects can be presented to other students and/or displayed in the library, hallway, or classroom.
Providing guidance in a computer lab is another way buddy programs function. Computer activities provide an opportunity for older students to show what they know. As a result, computer skills are fostered by both partners. Since the younger children look up to the older students, the older buddies try hard to be of assistance and their feelings of self-worth are enhanced.
Teachers may allow time for the children to reflect on how the program is working. If a student is not relating well to his or her buddy, teachers need to offer guidance, support, and possibly make changes. The program can also include a mix of small group work as well as partner projects. For example, if the students decide to present a play at the end of the year, they could write it, assign parts, practice lines, paint scenery, make costumes, and perform it for faculty, students and/or parents.
Students who are new to a school or are English language learners benefit from having a buddy assigned to them. For example, students entering a school for the first time, or moving to a new school district need help to make a successful transition. A buddy can be an older student or a classmate who assists them in finding their way around and answering their questions. A student who speaks the newcomer`s language is a great asset to the learner.
A peer-tutoring program is similar to a buddy program. However, it only includes children in need of academic assistance. An older student is paired with a child that he or she tutors once or twice a week, before or after school or during school hours. Some programs are coordinated by an elementary school counselor or by a school librarian.
Teacher comments confirm that buddy programs have a positive influence on the students involved. The form they take is varied and flexible. A program may begin by a principal asking two interested teachers to establish a partnership. As Sue Gruber, a kindergarten teacher whose class buddies with a sixth grade class wrote,”It is wonderful to see the bonds that form…. It really brings out the best in the kids.”