Building Community One Child at a Time

Grafton Elementary School has 750 students in grades 3 to 5. With over 200 children at each grade level, it’s easy for children to feel invisible, especially in spaces beyond the classroom, such as the hallways, cafeteria, and playground. This year, Grafton’s 104 staff members are trying a new way of helping students feel safe and significant in their large school: Most of the school’s adults have agreed to get to know a group of young people who are new to them. They’ve named the fledgling program “Big Buddies/Little Buddies.”

Martha Hanley, a fourth grade teacher at Grafton, explains that “one nice thing about this initiative is that relationship is the only thing on the agenda. Teachers and staff are not responsible for teaching their buddies anything specific, or for managing their behavior. Buddies don’t have assignments to complete. The goal is just to widen the circle of adults that have a personal relationship with each child.”

So, for instance, when Martha had her first conversation with one of her buddies, a third grader named Connor, she found out that he loves to read about World War II and Pearl Harbor. During that first conversation, she also let Connor know that if he ever needs help or just wants to talk to someone at school, he can talk to her. Now, when they see each other in the hall, they say hello and wave. Martha plans to keep touching base with Connor and her other five buddies throughout the year.

Rolling out the program

Grafton’s new principal, Joanne Stocklin, modeled Big Buddies/Little Buddies after a similar program at her previous school. When her new colleagues at Grafton responded positively to the idea, adults in the building—including administrators, teachers, instructional aides, and secretaries—were each given a list of six children who would be their little buddies. Their initial assignment: find and introduce themselves to their buddies during the first two weeks of school.

At the first all-school meeting of the year, Stocklin told the children that they should each expect a visit from a big buddy. Fourth grade teacher Taryn Divito and her little buddies demonstrated how the first meeting between a pair of big and little buddies might look and sound. They modeled introducing themselves and asking and answering a few “get to know you” questions.

The “buzz” among students after the announcement was quite striking, recalls Hanley. “Then, when adults in the school started introducing themselves to their little buddies, children became even more excited. Those who hadn’t yet met their big buddies were anxious to do so.”

However, for some school adults, making that first contact was more challenging than expected. Some staff, especially non-classroom teachers, were reluctant to go into classrooms and tried to find their buddies at lunch or recess. The two-week deadline forced some to venture out of their comfort zones. Lisa Magan, behavioral learning assistant, recalls going to meet one of her little buddies in teacher Tracy Levicki’s classroom. “I felt like I was interrupting, but Tracy pointed me in the direction of my little buddy. I felt welcomed.”

Building relationships

Those first meetings were brief but meaningful, and as the year has unfolded, buddies have continued to connect in various ways. Big buddies go out of their way to look for little buddies in common areas. They also leave notes on desks and stop by classrooms for brief visits.

Martha Hanley sees positive effects from the program already, even though it is just beginning. “Our school community feels a bit closer this year. New connections are forming between adults and children—and between adults.”

School leaders at Grafton note that “as with any new initiative, there’s room for improvement,” but Big Buddies/Little Buddies seems to be successfully meeting its initial goal: to use personal connections between children and adults to help students feel safer and more significant in a large school. At no cost and with just a small investment of time, Grafton’s staff and students are building a stronger, more close-knit school community, one relationship at a time.

Margaret Berry Wilson has fifteen years of experience teaching kindergarten and first and second grades. She is a Responsive Classroom consultant, blogger, and author of several books, including three in the What Every Teacher Needs to Know K–5 Series.

Making a Large School Feel Smaller

Teachers at Grafton Elementary School have used the Responsive Classroom approach for over ten years. Read more about their schoolwide work:

Tags: Building Schoolwide Community, Partners, Whole-school meetings