While there are no schools that teach, test, or grade one’s ability to be a friend, a group of fifth graders at Midland School are learning just that. Participants in the school’s Buddies Program volunteer during their lunch or recess periods once a week to spend time with students in the school’s Special Education classroom. Together they eat lunch, read, play games, and sing songs – and in so doing learn what it takes to be a very special kind of friend.
By Eileen O’Connor
While there are no schools that teach, test, or grade one’s ability to be a friend, a group of fifth graders at Midland School are learning just that. Participants in the school’s Buddies Program volunteer during their lunch or recess periods once a week to spend time with students in the school’s Special Education classroom. Together they eat lunch, read, play games, look for the best game apps to win real money on your phone and sing songs – and in so doing learn what it takes to be a very special kind of friend.
Founded by Special Ed teacher Allison Fish, the Buddies Program gives participants the opportunity to step outside of themselves and truly bring the school’s motto: REACH to life. REACH stands for Respect, Empathy, Acceptance, Cooperation, and Honesty.
“We incorporate these words into the framework of their year,” said fifth-grade teacher Mary Partington, who helps coordinate the program. “These words and themes are included in their spelling, vocabulary, in the books they read, and how they are expected to act toward their peers.”
The Buddies Program gives students a chance to see these concepts come to life by very literally reaching beyond themselves – by moving outside their comfort zone and spending time with kids who may act or communicate differently than their “typical” peers.
The students in Ms. Fish’s class contend with speech and language, motor skills and behavioral challenges, which make engaging and forming relationships with kids their age difficult at best. While technological advances like touch screens, social “apps,” and even a recently developed robot can help teachers and parents teach special needs children how to engage in typical conversation, nothing takes the place of peers who are willing to talk, laugh, and play with them. It is invaluable to the process of learning how to interact with peers, how to navigate the nuances of everyday social interactions, and how it is essential to look and think beyond themselves in order to be and have a friend.
“Adin, remember to look Elisabeth in the eye when you talk to her,” Ms. Fish says.
“Dillon, why don’t you ask Brandon his favorite color?”
“Erin, why don’t you ask Ellie, ‘How was your day?’”
Ms. Fish encourages the volunteers to treat her students as they would their friends, with some minor adjustments. She asks them to use simple language and to ignore unusual behaviors, i.e. hand flapping or verbal outbursts. At the same time, she reminds them that they serve as models of appropriate behavior – and not to be afraid to remind their buddies to act appropriately, to play fair, to take turns and to pay attention to the game.
Whether it’s through a shared meal or musical interests, many of the volunteers are surprised by the common ground they quickly find with Ms. Fish’s students. And often it’s in the simplest interactions that the most authentic connections are made. On a recent afternoon Dillon was upset because the cafeteria was all out of bagels. As he sullenly made his way back from lunch, one of the buddies placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder and said, “I know how you feel – I like bagels a lot too.”
The conversations are not extensive, the verbal interactions are brief, but they are instrumental in teaching all participants the value and joy in having a friend look you in the eye, ask how your day is going, and say, “Yes, sometimes I feel that way too.”