Schools getting creative to bolster kindness ideals

August 30, 2014

By Neil Pierson

New: August 30, 2014, 12:15 p.m.

Kym Clayton has a child who struggles with social skills and speech delays, and in her quest to find help, she stumbled across an idea from a suburban school in Pennsylvania.
Christian Bucks, a student at Roundtown Elementary School in York, Pa., invented a simple but effective way of helping children who were feeling sad or lonely. His Buddy Bench concept – a bench where kids can sit when they’re in need of a friend – has spread like wildlife in less than a year, reaching schools around the world.
Clayton believed the Buddy Bench might be a useful tool at Sunny Hills Elementary School in Sammamish, where she was serving as PTSA president during the 2013-14 school year.
But simply going to the local hardware store and building a bench wasn’t what she had in mind.
“I think it would be really neat to be full circle, that kids are building this bench for other kids,” she explained.
That’s where Patrick Ford, Alejandro Calderon and Jade Griffiths come in. Ford, a longtime industrial arts teacher at Beaver Lake Middle School, received an email from Clayton asking if he’d be interested in building the bench.
Ford, who also coaches wrestling, reached out to his team captains at Beaver Lake. Two eighth-graders, Calderon and Griffiths, answered the call and helped Ford build the bench at the school’s woodshop in just a few days. Cooper McBride, an Issaquah High School student, also contributed to the project by engraving a “Buddy Bench” sign.
When the bench was presented to Sunny Hills at a June assembly, the Beaver Lake students were in attendance and got to share in the joy.
“I thought it was great – they seemed to like it, so that made me happy,” Griffiths said.
The middle-schoolers think the Buddy Bench is an age-appropriate tool.
“Older kids actually might just abuse it,” Calderon said, “but younger kids could really take the opportunity and use it to make more friends and just be nicer to people.”
“In fifth grade, I moved here, and it was kind of hard to make friends at first … so in fifth grade that would’ve helped,” Griffiths added.
Ford noted the bench got immediate use.
“You don’t really want to see it get used, but it’s nice that it’s there and can be used,” he said. “It has already made an impact just the short time it’s been there.”
Coincidentally, Sunny Hills may have gotten a bench through a different route. Evan Baker, a fourth-grade student, found out about BuddyBench.org and had approached Principal Leslie Lederman late in the school year.
The school wasn’t publicizing Clayton’s effort at that point since she wasn’t sure it would come to fruition, so Baker wasn’t aware. But he was invited to get involved, and spoke about the bench’s importance at the June assembly.
“It was neat to be able to have another kid within our school want to see it built, rather than an adult just assuming it would be a good need,” Clayton said.

‘CULTURE OF KINDNESS’ IS INFILTRATING SCHOOLS
Ron Thiele became a school administrator in the mid-1990s, right on the heels of a number of high-profile shootings, including the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado.
Those events, he said, set off a firestorm of questions among school officials: What’s causing students to act violently? How can they get they get help before it’s too late?
Thiele joined Issaquah schools as a principal in 2001, and when he took over the superintendent’s post last summer, he immediately laid out his top three priorities: Make schools cleaner and more sustainable; improve safety and security; and usher in a “Culture of Kindness” that can positively impact students of all ages.
He compared schools during testing periods to accounting offices during tax season – there’s a need for stress-reducing activities that can make the classroom more conducive for learning.
“School can be kind of a stressful place. We expect a lot from kids and from our staff,” he said. “… If kids feel cared for at the school, even if we have high expectations for them, I just think you’re more likely to get that desired outcome than if it’s all just regimented and feels hard.”
Within the past year, each of Issaquah’s 25 schools have found ways to implement the Culture of Kindness. Sunny Hills built its Buddy Bench. Issaquah High School held a revamped May Madness event that focused on service projects, combating the previous year’s “hotness bracket” that pitted female students against each other. Other schools used “kindness pledges” to foster friendships.
Officials said it’s too early to tell whether the Culture of Kindness ideals have reduced disciplinary incidents such as suspensions and expulsions, but it’s quite possible the number of harassment and bullying cases will rise.
“All of a sudden, you see an influx of the thing we just trained for,” said L Michelle, the district’s executive director of communications. “If we’re calling it harassment, all of a sudden you see an uptick in harassment.”
Thiele said that occurred several years ago at Beaver Lake Middle School after administrators emphasized the importance of students reporting negative behavior.
“It looked kind of bad for Beaver Lake,” Thiele said, “and I had to explain to the board, ‘No, actually I think this is a good thing.’ I think they have empowered their students.”
Schools are using some new programs that go hand-in-hand with the focus on kindness.
In the district’s nine middle schools and high schools, students will be able to anonymously report problems through an online system called Quick TIP. It replaces a similar system, Talk About It, that Issaquah schools implemented midway through the 2013-14 year.
Quick TIP will be in place for the start of 2014-15 year, and officials hope it will utilized more than its predecessor because there’s no username requirement, and no way for a student’s identity to be exposed.
“As much as you want to promote a culture of kindness and coming to talk to a trusted adult, you still need to have that mechanism in place by which somebody can anonymously say there’s something going on,” Michelle acknowledged.
The district will continue partnering with Swedish Medical Center to provide mental health counselors at its comprehensive high schools, and with Friends of Youth to supply counselors for families with substance-abuse issues.
Schools continue to send anti-drug messages, but their fight may be tougher now that Washington’s stance on marijuana has changed.
“Now we’ve got another legal drug that is illegal to our kids,” he said. “To me, the message is the exact same message that it’s always been: It’s no different than alcohol. You’re not 21. Our schools are not a place – whether you’re 21 or not – where you can be using drugs and alcohol.”

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