Beebe School's buddy program all about inclusion for Naperville kids

Zachary Chiaramonte and Emerson Hebel may be fifth graders, but they haven’t forgotten what their first days as kindergartners were like: the uncertainty that comes with spending a whole day without mom and dad for the first time, the challenges of making new friends, trying to do simple tasks like opening your school lunch without any help.


Now, they, along with other fourth and fifth graders at Beebe Elementary, Naperville, get to help students feel included and comfortable at school as part of a program that also supports new students.


“When I was younger, I needed help and because I didn’t get it, I felt unsure sometimes,” Zachary said. “Now we help the younger kids with everything from helping them open containers at lunch to interacting and playing with them at recess. It’s really fun.”


Zachary admits he doesn’t get to hang out with his own friends much at lunchtime or recess any more, but that’s okay.


“I don’t feel I’m missing out because now I have kindergarten friends,” he said. “I like helping people.”


Emerson added: “It’s cool to see how many people want to help out. I think it’s a great club. I love doing this and I think it helps me, too, because we are doing something really good by helping others.”


Kindergartner Bennett Gorlewski enjoys playing with the older children so much that he’d like to be part of the program when he’s old enough.


“It’s helpful,” he said, “and I like playing tag.”


The program, Beebe Dine 4 The Better, was introduced last year. Around 55 children volunteer and stand out in distinctive red t-shirts. Supported by Principal Christine O’Neil and Assistant Principal Matt Langes, the idea was brought to Beebe by a previous fifth grader, Ella King, after she saw a video about a Boca Raton high school’s program.


Fifth grade teacher Karen Amundsen, who runs the program with Langes, explained: “We facilitate discussions about what empathy means, how people show empathy and discuss ideas for increasing empathy and how to make new friends in the lunchroom and at recess. Whenever a lunch bunch student is wearing the t-shirt, students of all ages know that is a person who will help them at lunch and sit with them, play with and love to hang out at recess.”


Amundsen, along with Karen Currier, a former interim assistant principal at Beebe, applied for a grant from the Naperville Education Foundation to pay for the t shirts.


“The t-shirts were printed a very low cost by Jayme at Naperville Spirit Wear who strongly believes in this program,” Amundsen said.


“If a child doesn’t have anyone to play with, they can sit on the buddy bench and one of the volunteers will come over to sit or play with them. They might help them on the swings or the jungle gym,” Langes said.


During monthly training, children have the chance to voice their opinions about how the program is going.


“The program makes new children feel welcome,” Langes said. “It might be the first time they have been away from home for a whole day. It’s very helpful to have other children help them out because they can relate to them.”


Langes, who is in his first year at the school, said he hadn’t noticed any active bullying, but some children may have difficulty finding a group of children to get involved with at recess.


“We have a good school culture and it shows,” he said. “This has been a great program so far. We’re like a family. Plus it’s building leadership skills in fourth and fifth graders.”


Beebe Dine 4 The Better is part of the school’s SEL (Social Emotional Learning) curriculum. The Illinois State Board of Education developed SEL standards to teach students the skills they need to develop self-awareness, self-managements, social-awareness, responsible decision-making and positive relationships with adults and peers. It is hoped these skills will prepare children for college and careers.


According to the District 203 website, students who have received explicit instruction in SEL have earned an average increase of 11 percentile points on standardized assessments when compared to students who did not receive the additional instruction.


Beebe Principal Christine O’Neil is justly proud of the students.


““The Beebe ‘Dine for the Better’ program is about inclusion of all students, but also provides a leadership role for our older students to help younger students,” she said. “This initiative goes hand-in-hand with our social-emotional curriculum and embodies our Beebe expectations of being good community contributors.”