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Adult Buddies Boost Confidence, Skills


During the first year of the Barnum Buddy Program, a mother/adult "buddy" who was taking part burst into the office of Principal Mary-Jane Webster and interrupted an ongoing meeting to proclaim, "When we started, he [her 'little buddy'] only knew three letters. Now he knows 25!"

That was just the beginning.

Today, when teachers at Barnum School in Taunton, Massachusetts, find that a student in their class is struggling, they practically beg Webster to locate a Barnum Buddy for the child.

The program actually has its roots in Webster's own teaching experience. A four-year-old girl in her class was quiet and unenthusiastic about learning. She often refused to try to take risks in the classroom and frequently told her teacher, "I can't." The mother of another child in the class had recently been laid off from her job and expressed an interest in spending time in the classroom. Webster paired the mother with this child and asked her only to have conversations with the girl, to read to her, play with her, and give her one-on-one attention.

Barnum Buddy Cathal O'Brien, who is a member of the Taunton School Committee, and his little buddy read a book together.
"After a few visits, the little girl started smiling when her special friend came," recalled Webster. "The transformation was remarkable.

That is the power of one adult who really cares, who spends time with a child, and who believes in her. Many children have that at home, but some children -- because of poverty, broken homes, large families, and many other factors -- do not have that one adult in their lives.

This mom met that need for this little girl. She began to blossom and learn."

Webster brought the memory of that special child with her to a professional day in which the entire preschool staff examined the data collected about an incoming group of kindergarten students. They identified a number of at-risk students and discussed programs that could be put into place to help them master basic skills. Barnum Buddies was established to provide unique individual attention for these children.

"The idea is that the attention of a caring adult who focuses on one child at a time is very powerful in helping children see themselves as effective learners," Webster told Education World. "When this is coupled with a learning prescription that focuses on the specific needs of that child, it is a formula for success."

The Barnum Buddies meet anywhere there is room. They sometimes work in the classroom, and other times they work on tables in the hall. An area outside the principal's office houses the children's notebooks and a closet of high-interest materials for the Barnum Buddies to use. The activities are tailored to the needs of each child.

"One four-year-old boy knew only four colors, two shapes, and no letters of the alphabet," shared Webster. "He did not like to sit still, to do puzzles, or to use markers. We put our heads together and developed a plan to use movement activities to help this little boy learn the letters. He used letter bean bags. He ran relay races to the numbers. He counted and jumped down the hall with his Barnum Buddy jumping along, and he began to learn the letters. He loved the activities and looked forward to his time with his Barnum Buddy."

O'Brien gives his buddy a high-five.
The dedication of the volunteers in the program has impressed the professional staff. A high school student worked tirelessly every week to help a little boy write his name and count out sets of objects. A retired couple attends faithfully, and the two sometimes bring activities enjoyed by their grandchildren. They always email the teacher with the progress their buddies have made that day.

The program has made a very positive impact on the children involved. All student participants have parental permission before they are assigned a Barnum Buddy, and a paper is sent home to the parent after each meeting which describes what the "buddies" did on that day. The teachers identify the needs of the children and the type of learners they are so that the time is well spent.

"The Barnum Buddies always read a book together, to provide that warm and special experience of being read to," added Webster. "The Barnum Buddies truly focus on helping one child at a time, really getting to know the preschooler and working together with the teacher to provide high-quality, individual time with an adult who truly cares about that child."

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