Last Christmas, the fourth-graders of St. Agnes School in Avon decided to buy gifts for children in the school’s preschool program using money they’d each earned by doing chores at home.
The fourth-graders knew the younger students fairly well because since the fall they had been partnered together through the school’s Bigs and Littles program, according to fourth-grade teacher Elizabeth Dowd.
“The fourth-graders delivered (the gifts) to their pre-K littles. Afterwards I asked them how that made them feel, and they said it was amazing. ‚Ä¶ That was an experience of them now being able to give back,” Dowd said, noting that many of her students remember the days when they had their own older buddies through the program. “I think it just lends itself to so many natural ways of kids learning how to be good people.”
St. Agnes is one of the many local Catholic schools that have recognized the myriad benefits of pairing older and younger students through some type of buddy program. The structure of these programs varies from school to school. At St. Agnes as well as St. Louis School in Pittsford, for example, students in older and younger grades are paired so everyone in the school has a buddy. Every student at St. Kateri School in Irondequoit also has a buddy, called a Prayer Partner, and these partners complete projects and activities together, spend time learning about each other and often sit together at school Masses, according to first-grade teacher Nancy Wilson.
Each day during lunch and recess periods the fifth-graders at St. Rita School in Webster volunteer to help students in preschool, kindergarten and first grade, noted fifth-grade teacher Emily Sutley. The older students help organize play time, open milk cartons for their younger buddies and simply spend time talking with them, Sutley said. Students in all of the school’s older grades are paired with students in the younger grades for special events such as Catholic Schools Week activities, she added.
Students at Holy Cross School in Charlotte don’t have formal buddies that they interact with regularly, but the older students and younger students do work together from time to time throughout the year, said Mary Martell, principal. And at St. Francis-St. Stephen School in Geneva, students in first through fourth grade may opt to participate in the America Reads program. These students will be matched with students from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and the pairs will meet twice a week to read together, according to Mary Mantelli, principal.
St. Francis-St. Stephen students who participate in America Reads show increased literacy skills, but, perhaps more importantly, they also form friendships with young adults who love reading and are wonderful role models, Mantelli said. Similar friendships are formed between the fourth-grade students at Holy Family Elementary School in Elmira and their first-grade reading buddies, according to first-grade teacher Charlotte Wirth.
“Fourth-graders are proud to tell other friends how they help a first-grader learn to read, and first-graders are always so excited and in awe of the big fourth-graders, especially when they stop and talk to them in the hall or outside,” Wirth said, noting that the weekly meetings between reading buddies also help both the older and younger students strengthen their reading, writing and listening skills.
Working with younger buddies helps older students develop leadership skills, added Amanda Baroody, art teacher at the Elmira school. Last year Holy Family’s sixth-graders worked together with kindergartners to write and illustrate books. The sixth-graders learned to be respectful and patient while giving directions and also sharpened their organizational and time-management skills, Baroody said.
Younger buddies find it very comforting to have a familiar face among the big kids, added Paula Smith, sixth-grade teacher at Holy Family. Dowd, the fourth-grade teacher at St. Agnes, said that having older buddies helped her own three children feel safe and nurtured while they were in the younger grades at the Avon school. These early experiences taught them how to nurture their own younger buddies when they got older, she added.
“This is one of those natural ways the kids learn to give back to others. As a parent you’re hoping your kids learn not just from their teachers but from the kids around them. That was truly happening,” Dowd said.