You’ve Got a Friend in Me

Students who feel connected to school are more likely to succeed. They are motivated to show up, invested in their work, and care about their final outcomes. School connectedness – the belief held by students that the adults and peers in their school care about their learning and about them individuals – is associated with countless positive educational outcomes. This is the fundamental reason why we focus so much attention, both in the first month and year-round, on community relationships here at Parker.

So far, we’ve touched on the ways in which Parker works to build student-teacher relationships and peer relationships in these first few weeks. Today, we would like to examine the multi-age connection facilitated by one of our favorite weekly rituals – our “Buddies” program. A beloved tradition across all grade levels, Buddies pairs our oldest Parker students with our youngest for a joyful, weekly gathering every Friday morning.

Our Buddies program begins immediately on the first full week in September with an outdoor exploration in our grade level pairings (PreK with 3rd & 4th grades, Kindergarten with 7th, Debbie’s 1-2s with 8th, and Melissa’s 1-2s with 5th). During this first meeting, our teachers carefully observe student interactions and formulate pairings that will carry throughout the year, allowing both older and younger students to connect deeply and thrive in these bonded pairs (or sometimes trios).
For younger students, our Buddies program infuses an instant boost of connection and confidence into their school day. The opportunity to interact with older students in a playful way bridges the gap between worlds for them. Seeing bigger kids walking down the hall is suddenly exciting, not intimidating. Buddies also offers an opportunity for younger students to feel seen by the people they respect immensely. As one Kindergartener put it, “I love my buddy because he’s big and he wants to spend time only with me.”
It’s tempting to think that our young students benefit the most from Buddies, but here at Parker we also find that our older students show remarkable growth through the experience. Some of the best teaching moments come when an older student struggles with a younger child who is having a difficult moment. The older student is forced to think critically about what to do. This, in turn, leads to reflection about how challenging behavior can affect a learning experience. In this way, a connection is made not only between students but also between students and teachers by way of a shared experience. As one middle school student reflected, “Being a big buddy makes me feel responsible. I know my little buddy looks up to me, so I want to make sure that I’m a good role model.”
Stepping into the role of mentor, a role they often see modeled by the adults in their lives, makes our middle schoolers feel like they are a trusted part of a world they’re longing to enter. It makes them feel accepted, and when they feel accepted, they’re more likely to accept other people. Plus, spending time with little kids gives middle schoolers explicit permission to let loose and have FUN. As one middle schooler reflected, “Little kids are so outgoing. They’re creative. They don’t really think about what they say beforehand, which makes them really fun to be around. They tell you the truth, and they’re very honest. They live in the moment, which you kind of forget how to do when you get older…it’s nice to be reminded.”