George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

How a Buddy Program Can Foster SEL

Pairing young learners with older elementary and middle school students can boost social and emotional learning skills for both groups.

August 11, 2022
Older student helps younger student in school
Ted Foxx / Alamy

Since the return to in-person learning, teachers have struggled to deal with students who lack social skills and the ability to regulate their emotions. This is especially true in early childhood classrooms. A lack of exposure to peers during critical learning months and years has put many early childhood teachers in the situation of having to teach social and emotional skills before they can teach academics. A buddy program—pairing upper elementary or middle school students with students in pre-K through first grade—is a way for teachers to accelerate learning crucial social and emotional skills.

As an assistant principal, I saw early childhood and middle school students gain valuable social, emotional, and academic skills through the buddy program our teachers started years ago. When they brought it back last year after a hiatus during the pandemic restrictions, it was even more impactful for students’ social and emotional learning than before the pandemic.

Laurie Kramer, a professor of applied family studies, notes in an article the importance of social behaviors children learn in their early years that they can use to develop a positive relationship with a sibling. She calls siblings “agents of socialization.” While sibling relationships are complicated, studies have found a link between positive sibling interactions and a carryover with positive peer interactions as children grow.

Buddy programs are an effective way to help encourage a positive, sibling-like relationship between students to instill social and emotional learning. Though not all sibling relationships are positive, with adequate planning and supervision, teachers and school leaders can ensure that the buddy relationships remain constructive to foster those crucial socialization skills that can be lacking in early childhood students.

Planning and Organizing Your Buddy Program

Planning before starting your buddy program is critical. Buddy programs should have a focus and purpose to keep students and teachers on track. Begin by creating a mission for the program that’s aligned with your school’s mission. For example, if your school’s mission includes the importance of service, a buddy program can help develop that in the older participants. Keep your older students focused on the mission by reminding them how they’re helping their younger schoolmates. Have them reflect on their participation by keeping a journal or doing debrief sessions after meeting with their buddies.

Develop a team or committee to help plan and organize the buddy program. Be sure the teachers whose students will be participating are included. These teachers know their students’ personalities, which makes matching buddies more effective. While it might be tempting not to match high-energy and frequently off-task students with a buddy or even keep them out of the program altogether, this is a mistake. These are the students who will benefit from this program the most. It’s also not necessary to match according to gender.

Thinking of these pairings as siblings in a family will help steer you to match students with a good partner for their buddy. Differences in personalities, gender, and life experience can help children learn more from their buddies. Middle school teacher David Plumer has had his seventh-grade students in the buddy program for the past four years. He suggests pairing two older students with one younger student if some of the older students are shy or tentative at first. However, he strongly advises against pairing a single older student with more than one younger student.

Setting Up Rules and Procedures

The key to setting up rules and procedures is consistency. Older students can participate in setting up the rules and explain them to their buddies during their first session. Some examples of important rules to get your older group started are to never pick up or carry their buddy and to avoid inappropriate topics of conversation. To prevent incidents, have a schedule of activities and stick to it.

Make sure the older buddies know what to expect, and go through possible scenarios ahead of time. Before their first buddy session, have the older buddies role-play what might happen with their partners and how they should handle those situations. Always knowing how and when they should ask for help will make their first few visits flow more smoothly.

Suggested Activities

While adults can provide activities for the buddies, giving them several options to choose from is helpful. Teachers can also collaborate to incorporate any relevant topics of study for either group into the activities.

For example, if the younger group is learning about plants, the buddies could take a nature walk around the school property. Older students love to help younger students learn almost any topic as well. Reading and math practice are always popular activities. Younger students enjoy showing off what they can do, incentivizing them to work hard before their buddy returns for another visit.

For the older students, subjects such as science, social studies, and even technology can be powerful collaboration areas. When older students have to teach concepts to their buddies, they naturally master concepts more quickly. If the students are studying light, conducting an experiment with their buddy to explain this concept deepens learning for both buddies.

Social and Emotional Learning Connection

Although it might be tempting to think that the younger buddies benefit the most from this program (and they do benefit tremendously), older students can show remarkable growth through the experience. Plumer recounted one example of a student who had a particularly chaotic home life and struggled with impulse control and attention-seeking behaviors. This student showed immense interest and involvement in the buddy program and excelled at being a mentor to the younger student. That relationship motivated the student to improve their own behavior.

For each visit, teachers can choose an SEL skill that they want the older students to model and work on with their buddies. Teachers can even align activities to practice that particular skill. When younger students see their buddies modeling the behavior, it becomes more impactful than any lesson plan. A great example is regulating emotions. Buddies could choose from a list of games to play together or with another pair of buddies. The older students can model and discuss aloud how they react when they get frustrated or sad during the game.

Buddy programs can be a powerful tool for both the older and younger participants to grow their social and emotional skills. Plumer recounted how his middle school students felt like they were participating in creating a community through their buddy program, when before, they had felt separate from their elementary schoolmates.

In addition, he says, “some of the best teaching moments come when a 12-year-old struggles with a 5-year-old who is having a poor-behavior moment, and the older student is forced to think critically about what to do. This, in turn, leads to a discussion the teacher can have with the group about how difficult it can be to create a learning environment in the midst of behavior issues. In this way, there’s a connection made not only between students but also between students and teachers by way of a shared experience.”

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