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"Buddy Bench" in East Troy

Monday, May 12, 2014

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Two schools in East Troy were reportedly the first in Wisconsin to implement a loneliness-busting idea proposed by a Pennsylvania second-grader on national television last December. "And it really does help," a third grader at one of the schools confirmed to DPI-ConnectEd.

Christian Bucks of Roundtown Elementary in York, Pennsylvania, brought an idea to his teacher last year for a "buddy bench," inspired by something he'd seen while visiting Germany.

If kids on the playground are "feeling lonely and don't have anything to do, they go sit on the buddy bench and somebody'll come and ask if they want to play or talk with that kid," Christian explained on The Today Show.

older student reading to younger student. He looks with great interest at the book, which is about elephants.

His principal, Matt Miller, helped install the colorful bench and teach students how to use it.

Rules like "if you choose to sit on the bench, you must say, 'Yes,' to the friend who invites you," or "2 friends sitting at the bench can turn to one another and invite each other to play" cover scenarios that might be hard to foresee. Miller's PowerPoint on these strategies is downloadable for other schools to use.

With weather finally warm enough to see the bench in action, Miller tells DPI-ConnectEd that students are using it as intended.

In East Troy, the third grader at Prairie View Elementary said, "It got me a lot of friends, and I got to play with other kids ... You get a buddy every time."

More than 300 schools around the country and in 5 other nations have already installed Buddy Benches, working with information from the Christian's Buddy Bench website maintained by Christian and his mother, Alyson.

In East Troy, according to a video produced by School Counselor Christine Hamele, who spearheaded the local buddy bench project, "when asked if they would like a bench, East Troy students answered with a resounding 'yes!'"

Nickel taped to piece of notepad paper with note saying 'For Buddy Bench.'

So, Prairie View (grades 2-5) along with Leona Doubek Elementary (4K-1) raised money during No Name-Calling Week in January, including $305 in less than 24 hours which was largely "loose change from students' piggy banks." Another $700 was added over the course of the fund drive. A bench was installed at each school over spring break in late April.

Hamele says that because the kids helped fund the project, they have been invested in making sure it works as planned.

This emotional investment also led to needing to clarify the rules — "We don't sit there if we want to chit-chat with our friends.... Everybody was excited about it — they had bought it so everyone wanted to sit on it!" She advises celebrating the bench's arrival by taking every class to the playground and giving everyone a chance to sit on it before moving forward.

To her, the bench is a great example of how "when you give kids the structure and the parameters, that they are more than happy to take care of one another. It just kind of gave them a tool to show compassion and empathy."

Principal Miller in Pennsylvania does have a caveat for educators he's heard from, who misunderstand the bench as a solution to bullying. If "it is common on your playground, where kids intentionally seek out others for some kind of power and control, this is not going to work for you," he cautions. "Because you're pretty much putting a spotlight then on those kids that might not feel as comfortable."

Miller's school uses the Responsive Classroom approach to encouraging compassion and empathy, while in East Troy, the bench is tied in with the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program with similar goals.

The East Troy schools were the first in Wisconsin to be added to the map on Christian's website. Seven more were added within subsequent weeks.

** This story was submitted by a DPI-ConnectEd subscriber! We are looking for your news of exciting programs, promising practices, initiatives that could benefit from publicity, or your questions about working with Wisconsin students. E-mail just a sentence or two to benson.gardner@dpi.wi.gov, with "Story Idea" in the subject line.