While on a site visit to an elementary program, it was abundantly clear that the youth attending the program were far more than “program-mates”, they thought of themselves as family. The environment was calm, and yet youth were very engaged. At this Kindergarten through 6th grade site, cross age support was available so that all youth could participate successfully in cross-age activities (Cups Up, Cups Down was the activity I observed); and they also had several “Buddy” programs in place--Homework Buddies, Reading Buddies, Math Buddies, and P.E. Buddies. Having this additional support was very beneficial for the Program Leaders with younger students, but equally beneficial for the older youth who had the opportunity to “teach to learn”.
Of course when visiting a program the best way to find out what’s going on is to simply ask the kids. In talking to one fourth grade student he told me, “Here, we are a family. Everybody cares about everybody else. We work together. Everyone can share an opinion and your suggestions are listened to by the leaders.” When asked why this was so he and his friends had three important insights.
First (although they didn’t use these words the thought was certainly expressed), it was expected that everyone would treat every other person, younger or older with respect and dignity. This treatment included attitude and words, and when there were disagreements, they had a system of going to the Peace Table to work out the conflict.
Secondly they mentioned that while they participated in activities that were just with school day classmates, they had opportunities every day to work with kids who were younger (and in some cases older), which they really liked and looked forward to. They commented that this is how it is in families, kids of all ages.
Finally they mentioned that the staff looked for opportunities to praise and celebrate with them when they worked together as family. Announcements were made during opening commending students for being family, and everyone understood that this was important in the program.
In all our programs, when we create “family” we create a space that is safe for youth and we provide opportunities for youth to participate in active, meaningful, collaborative learning, that improves mastery and broadens horizons. How do you create family in your program? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org .