Erika Ledtke, 11, grabs a handful of wooden craft sticks as Ashley Schreiner, 18, fills a dish with glue in the cafeteria of Ontario (N.Y.) Elementary School.
“I’m going to build a house!” Erika announces enthusiastically.
“You’re good at that,” responds Ashley, a high school senior, complimenting her fifth-grade friend on the last “house” she created out of paper and a shoebox lid.
After using a paintbrush to coat two of the sticks with glue, Erika presses the sticks together, holding them tightly for several seconds. “This is going to take awhile to dry,” she says. “It takes time to be strong.”
Most good things do.
For three years, Erika and Ashley have met after school most every Tuesday afternoon, building a strong friendship in the process.
At first, they were strangers brought together through a student-to-student mentoring program coordinated by Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of Greater Rochester, N.Y. Since 2000, the organization has matched elementary school students called “Littles” with high school students called “Bigs” based on their personalities and interests. The goal is for the “Bigs” to provide empathy, support and attention to help their younger counterparts at school, whether they’re adjusting to a new school, transitioning to another grade or struggling to connect with their peers.
“We train the Big to be crazy about their Little,” says Tracey Lewis, 36, associate director of the Rochester-area BBBS, which matches students in 12 local school districts. “We provide them with guidance and tools and let the relationships develop.”
Positive power of peers
Whether playing a board game, tossing a ball together or simply talking with an older student, elementary school children are experiencing the positive power of peers through increasingly popular school mentoring programs.
And according to research, the Littles aren’t the only ones who benefit. By working with their younger mentees, the Bigs develop self-esteem, empathy and moral reasoning, as well as communication skills.
For example, in the same school cafeteria where Ashley meets Erika, Gavin Lennox, 11, and Lucas Angelo, 18, play board games and talk about football. Gavin is a Buffalo Bills fan, and Lucas loves the New York Giants. The conversation eventually turns to girls.
“Did you talk to her yet?” Lucas asks his young friend. Gavin blushes as he buries his head in his hands and shakes his head “no.”
An only child, Gavin says his friendship with a high school student has given him someone to talk to, and Lucas, whose parents divorced when he was younger, says his relationship with a fifth-grader has helped him overcome his own shyness.
“I used to stand in the background,” Lucas says. “Meeting Gavin helped me reflect on who I am and who I want to be, because I see a little bit of myself in him.”
“I see what life will be like when I’m older,” Gavin adds. “Except I’m still going to be a Bills fan!”
Such friendships are why student-to-student mentoring programs have grown steadily since the 1960s through schools and youth organizations. Nationwide, BBBS has served more than 50,000 children through its High School Bigs program.
“Bigs begin to see themselves differently; they are role models,” says Tina Christensen, 49, executive director of the Greater Rochester BBBS, which has pioneered student-mentoring programs. “We see tremendous change in self-esteem. They start stepping out of their comfort zone and setting the bar higher for themselves. Their grades and attendance improve. And they are more apt to become involved in their community.
“Littles also have stronger success in grades and attendance. Their interactions with adults increase, and they have a positive outlook for the future,” Christensen adds.
Michael Karcher, the nation’s leading researcher on peer mentoring and a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, says the structure of student-to-student mentoring programs is evolving as research and data become available. He cites the PAL (Peer Assistance Leadership) Program and Teen Trendsetters as examples of other successful programs.
“Many involve a form of tutoring, but the High School Bigs program is exemplary because it allows matches the greatest creativity,” says Karcher, 45.
In Rochester, Christensen says Bigs and Littles originally were offered curriculum-based activities to fill their time together, but gradually discovered that their time was better spent doing simple activities that build caring and trust—such as taking a walk together, sharing a snack or even polishing each other’s fingernails.
“The idea is to focus on relationship development, and to be successful you must take a rigid curriculum out of it,” Karcher says. “If the pair is given no flexibility around how they spend their time, the two remain unconnected.”
Program with purpose
The structure of “buddy” programs are perfect for kids who don’t participate in traditional school activities, says Lynne Gochenaur, 52, a counselor at Marcus Whitman High School in Rushville, N.Y., where Bigs are matched with Littles who attend Gorham Intermediate School in Stanley, N.Y.
“It’s for kids who aren’t picked for athletics or the school play,” she says. “Just because they aren’t chosen doesn’t mean they don’t have tremendous gifts to offer. The program also is perfect for kids whose families aren’t able to enroll them in pursuits outside of school, and for students who are uninvolved in extracurricular school activities.
“When I invite a student to be part of the High School Bigs program, many act as if they just won the lottery. This program gives them their time to shine, their chance to be recognized,” Gochenaur says.
The intensity of the resulting relationships is surprising, says Mike Pullen, 38, principal of James A. Beneway High School in Ontario, where Ashley and Lucas are students. “Kids who are normally disconnected during the day are now participators,” Pullen says. “This program gives them purpose every week.”
Ashlee Thorton, 17, who graduated in June from Marcus Whitman High School, says her three years as a Little helped her overcome her shyness. “I looked forward to my weekly meetings with my Big, Jessica,” she recalls. “If I hadn’t done the program when I was little, I wouldn’t know how to cope, and I wouldn’t have anyone to talk to.”
During her final three years of high school, Ashlee paid it forward by serving as a Big to Dylan Smith, 11, a student at Gorham Intermediate School. “Now being a Big, I have someone looking up to me,” she said last spring. “I know someone is watching what I do, and it’s an amazing feeling.”