When young children at Gastineau Elementary are by themselves on the playground, they're likely to see a friendly face with an offer to play tag.
School counselor Victoria Porter, who created the Pals program in October, said it's children who are alone who get bullied. Under Pals, students in grades three, four and five offer to play with children from kindergarten to grade two. They also help young children in the lunchroom.
About 60 students, all third- and fourth-graders, are Pals. Some fifth-graders who belonged earlier this school year have dropped out of the program.
"Research has shown that the reason bullying happens is because the children are alone," Porter said. "It's not because they're different, or look different, or dress different. It's because they're alone on the playground. Bullies pick out kids that are by themselves."
Students said they joined Pals because they wanted to help younger children. The Pals are on duty two shifts of 15 minutes a week.
"I just thought it would be fun playing with littler kids and hanging out with them," said fourth-grader Garret Cheeseman.
"I got a little sister," said fourth-grader Carrie Bishop. "I thought it would be fun to play with more kids."
Some Pals also remembered what it was like to be alone.
"It felt like nobody liked me at all," Carrie said. "There were no Pals at all to play with me."
"When I was in kindergarten," said third-grader Ashley Walkenford, "nobody wanted to play with me ... so I just sat down on the ground and waited for recess to be over with."
James LeBlanc, a third-grader, said younger children in the lunchroom ask him to open their milk containers.
"Outside, they have nobody to play with, and they run up to me. I push them on the swings, or if they get hurt I send them to the little nurse's office," he said.
Porter talks to the Pals in small groups each week, to keep them motivated. She trains them in how to approach children, play games, and deal with shy children or those with disabilities.
Sometimes it's enough just to be with such children "and stand by them, because some children can't express what they need," she said.
For young children to say they don't have any friends is like adults saying they haven't had a date in five years, Porter said. Young children can't admit that to someone their own age, but they can to an older student serving as a Pal.
"Pals don't say, 'Are you lonely?' Pals say, 'Come play with me. I don't have anybody to play with.' They say it so the kid doesn't lose face," Porter said. "There's some things kids can do for kids that adults can't do."
But Porter doesn't want the Pals to resolve problems.
"I don't want them to solve conflicts between kids," she said. "I want them to go get an adult."
The school used to train children to mediate conflicts, but it didn't have funds for the adult trainer this year. And in any case, Porter didn't think the program worked well because it was too hard for children. The number of children participating would decline through the school year to a handful.
"I wanted to take a step back and just focus on playing, show kids how to play with each other. I feel that conflicts are something adults should deal with," she said.
Some kindergartners reflected on the Pals.
"They're great," a little girl said. "Cause they help people a lot, so they don't get hurt."
The Pals said they get something out of it, too.
"It kind of helps you with responsibility," said fourth-grader Brittany Walkenford. "You have to watch out for kids so they don't fall."
Fourth-grader Matthew Noreen said being in Pals made him a better "people person" and better able to help his sisters at home.
"Before I became a Pal, I kind of took people from the outside, not the inside," third-grader Sarah Nierra said. "When you get to know them a little bit, you can find a friend inside."
Porter said she will survey students later this year to see if they believe there's less bullying at the school.
"I think it's made Gastineau safer because sometimes kids get into fights," said Matthew. "If more people are friends, then they won't beat each other up."
Eric Fry can be reached at email@example.com.
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