When students enter a new school, they have many questions. One of the most pressing is often: Who will sit with me at lunch? Making friends and feeling welcome is an important part of a student’s healthy integration into a new community and home. Buddy and sponsor programs are often an effective way to connect students at a new school.
“Among the Seasons of TransitionTM , one of the most critical times is the Season of Arriving, particularly the first two weeks at a new school,” says Amanda Trimillos, military spouse, mom and teacher. “It sets the platform on how quickly a student will move into the next seasons of growing and thriving.”
Stacy Allsbrook-Huisman, also a military spouse and mom, agrees. Both Amanda and Stacy and their families are actively involved with local school programs that connect students with peers and have seen the positive impact they can have on students and families.
“Most kids will make friends easily if they are given the opportunity,” says Stacy. “A good sponsor program can give them the opportunity.”
Buddy or sponsor programs may be formal or informal, operated by schools, parents, or organizations, such as the Parent Teacher Association or a scout troop. Some may connect kids for the first week or two of school, just long enough to learn their way around campus. Others have a longer time-frame or are connected to another program that runs throughout the school year. In different ways, each helps kids transition to a new place.
Summer buddy programs are often run by the PTA, Amanda explains. During the school year, current students sign up to be buddies for new students moving in during the summer. When arriving or soon-to-arrive students request buddies, the PTA matches the students and connects them, usually by email, so they can connect to ask and answer questions during the summer.
“Most kids will make friends easily if they are given the opportunity.”
“The hope is that the kids will be able to get together at least once in person before school starts,” Amanda says.
Programs to match students when they arrive at a new school are usually coordinated by the school counselor or another teacher in partnership with the counselor. Incoming students are connected with a buddy on their first day at a new school.
“These buddies are typically classmates who can support the student throughout the school day,” Amanda says. “In elementary school, the classroom teacher may take on the role of assigning the buddy. In middle and high school, the school counselor will review the student’s schedule and choose a buddy accordingly.”
Schools offering these types of buddy programs often have a class or a club whose focus is training and practicing for this role, she says. Programs will have various criteria for matching students, such as grade level, interests, and more.
The elementary school Stacy’s children attend has a sponsor program operated by the PTA, of which Stacy is an active part.
“Our sponsor program matches interests, hobbies, ages, and the program coordinator will work with the school to match students in the same class when class rosters are set,” says Stacy. She says they also ask newcomers if they are military and connects them with other military families.
If there is no buddy program at a new school, Amanda says incoming families can still reach out to the school counselor or to the PTA—or both—and request a connection to a student or family willing to be a sponsor a new student.
“Be specific in what type of connection you hope the school will help create,” she says. “The counselor may already have a student in mind who can fill that unofficial buddy program role. Or the PTA may be able to connect a new family with other parents with kids in the same grade.”
Emily, a middle school student, initiated a program at her school through the Military Child Education Coalition’s Junior Student to Student program.
As well as connecting her to peers, Emily says the program gives her leadership and volunteer opportunities she might not have otherwise as a transplanted student.
“I’m learning transferable skills of networking that I can take to any new school or eventual job,” says Emily. Having volunteer hours in the club also helped her get into competitive organizations like National Junior Honor Society and leadership summits.
For parents or students who would like to initiate a buddy program at their school, Stacy advises creating a plan for the program and how it would work before approaching the school or PTA about it.
“Write out a plan for what the sponsor program’s mission is and how it would work, then contact the head of the PTA , school counselor, or student government” says Stacy. “It’s a lot easier to garner support for a new program if a parent is organized and prepared. Most organizations would find this an easy program to initiate with little cost.”
Questions to consider when creating a program:
Leadership: Will the program be led by students, parents, teachers, or an organization?
Program purpose: Should it connect families to the community, help a student navigate a new campus or find ways to get involved?
Time frame: Will students be connected during the summer, for the first two weeks of school, the first semester?
Signups: How will students and families volunteer to be buddies or to request buddies?
Matching: How will matches be decided and connected?
An existing program or framework might also be helpful.
The Student 2 Student program, created by the Military Child Education Coalition for use in local schools, develops peer connections for high school and middle school students. On campus these are usually student-led programs with guidance counselors and teachers as advisors. MCEC offers a two-day leadership training to teach students how to run the program, which can be affiliated with a school club or organization, such as an honor society or scout troop
Another nationwide program, Start with Hello, teaches students from second to twelfth grade skills to reach out include others. The program aims to create a culture of inclusion and connectedness at schools and avoid social isolation.
Amanda Trimillos, EdD, and Stacy Allsbrook-Huisman are coauthors of Seasons of My Military Student: Practical Ideas for Parents and Teachers.