Buddy Benches going in on elementary school playgrounds across the country are one of many ways officials are working to curb bullying and build inclusive school cultures.
And while they’re working well in many places, experts are offering guidance to ensure the benches don’t inadvertently make the problem worse by singling out children who already feel isolated, WGBH reports.
First-grade teacher Amanda Minerva recently led an initiative to put a buddy bench on the playground at Mary Lyon K-8 School in Brighton, Mass. The intent, Minerva said, is to give students a place to go when they’re looking for a friend—a way for students to help each other without involving a teacher.
The bench “lets the kids do a little bit more on their own,” she told WGBH. “It kind of pushes them to independence a little bit more instead of coming up to a teacher.”
Minerva gained approval to install the bench this year, and second grader Sophie said it’s working well.
“You sit on this bench when you have no one to play with and when someone wants to play with you, they would come over and say, ‘Do you want to play?’” Sophie said. “Ms. Minerva picked the perfect time to put the buddy bench down, when the new kids were coming (at the beginning of the year). Because they just started this year, they’re still trying to make friends.”
Other students also told the news site the bench has been a good thing, though a WGBH reporter who sat alongside one student on the bench recently noted that none of the other students were interested in joining.
“While these benches allow students to sit in a designated space to find friends, they could have the opposite effect, if those who sit at the bench are seen as unpopular,” according to the news site.
Richard Weissbourd, psychologist and co-director of Harvard University’s Making Caring Common Project, believes the key to success with the buddy bench is laying the groundwork with students to encourage them all the use the bench.
“I wouldn’t just plop (a buddy bench) onto a playground and expect magic to happen,” he said, adding that it’s important to ensure those who use the benches aren’t ostracized. “It takes some preparation.”
It’s also an opportunity for some students to step up, Weissbourd said.
“I think it’s also important,” he told WGBH, “for the kids who are popular to recognize the strengths of the kids who are unpopular and to recognize that they have a role to play in building a caring and inclusive community.”
Essentially, the success of the buddy benches rests largely on developing virtues of kindness and caring in students that compel them to want to help their struggling classmates.
University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter described the process in his book The Death of Character.
“(W)e must acquire a moral sensibility—we learn what is right and wrong, good and bad, what is to be taken seriously, ignored, or rejected as abhorrent—and we learn, in moments of uncertainty, how to apply our moral imaginations to different circumstances. Over time, we acquire a sense of obligation and the disciplines to follow them,” he wrote.
Children who practice caring for others, and observe adults doing the same, will slowly build the character to care for their classmates on the buddy bench.
The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham offers resources for teachers to encourage students to practice caring for others—through offering friendship on the buddy bench to helping out friends, family and the broader community.