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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Using buddies effectively

"buddy: a pal, one's most constant companion"
(The Wordsworth Concise English Dictionary)

Buddies can be used to protect children from bullying. They can be used to help model positive social skills or support academic learning. They can also be used to promote connections and possible friendships between same-age peers of varying abilities.

Using buddies on the playground:

The first question we need to ask when using buddies on the playground is whether we are using them to protect a child or to promote friendships. It is important to understand the difference as the purpose of the buddy system will influence how you select and train buddies.

For protection:

If we are focusing on setting up buddy systems to protect children with disabilities from bullying, usually we ask older children, siblings, other relatives or family friends to "keep an eye on" the child. The buddy may meet the child at the school gate, check in with them on the playground, and walk them to the bus lines in the afternoon.

What this type of buddy system will not do is to promote a connection between the child with a disability and their peers. It will help them feel safe, but will not necessarily help them feel a sense of belonging or connectedness with their peer group.

For connecting with peers:

Buddy systems that promote connectedness and empathy between peers are systems that use same-age buddies. In this case buddies can be used both in an academic context and during play.

Buddies in the classroom may work together, help each other with academic tasks, share equipment and participate together in cooperative group work with other children. Buddies on the playground could participate in games, share equipment and even begin interacting in extra-curricular activities together (like sport and inviting each other to birthday parties).

Selecting buddies to promote connections

Jackson and Campbell (2009) looked at the selection of buddies for children with Autism. One of the things they noted was that children who were not familiar with each other were more likely to interact and actively be "buddies" in academic or classroom learning activities than in recreational or play activities.

This suggests that if we want children to interact on the playground, we first have to give them the opportunity to get to know each other in the classroom. Using peer tutoring, group work and work buddies in the classroom can increase the chances that a same-age buddy system on the playground will work.

Training buddies to promote connections

Copeland et al (2002) reported on a study of a high school peer buddy system where children in the general education classroom buddied children with disabilities. This was mainly in the context of academic tasks, but it had social benefits as well.

When using buddy systems we have to keep in mind the risks, some of which Copeland et al reported on:
  1. The risk of "smothering": buddies should be adequately trained so that they don't try and do everything for their buddy. It is important that they see each other as competent human beings, and the relationship is about interdependence (helping each other) rather than dependence (one caring for or looking after another).
  2. Unpreparedness: buddies should be trained in whatever task it is that they are to complete. This training should include both children, not just the child who may be seen as a buddy. This could include social skills training as well as training in a particular academic procedure or task.
Avoiding compassion fatigue

With same-age buddies it is important that you consider the issue of "compassion fatigue". If you set up the buddy system in a way that promotes dependence rather than interdependence, or if you don't change buddies regularly, then it is possible that you will have children who start resenting the fact that they "have to" work with one particular child.

It is important for many children with disabilities to have consistency. They may become very reliant or attached to one child. To help avoid this issue, try and set up "buddy groups". For example, in the classroom start by seating four children together. Promote interaction outside of the classroom by having daily or weekly challenges eg. find out the favourite games of your buddies and play each game at least once together.

With buddy groups, avoid grouping mostly children who know each other together. This may mean that you have incidents where one child becomes the "outsider" and is likely to be excluded or avoided.

Next, rotate and change buddies regularly - maybe four times a year. Or have different buddies for different activities. For a child who needs consistency, use buddy groups and keep at least one familiar child in the buddy group.

Avoiding dependence and a perception of weakness

The other way to avoid compassion fatigue is to ensure that you have not promoted a perception that a particular child is "weaker" than others and thus in need of support. In their discussion of peer tutoring, Fulk and King (2001) state that it is important to use the strengths of children and give all children an opportunity to be the "tutor" rather than always the "tutee".

Children with disabilities can be put in responsible positions if these are based around their strengths. For example, a child with autism who might be really good at maths or following procedures could support their buddy in maths activities or in activities where they have to follow a set procedure. In turn, their buddy could support them during English or less structured activities.

On the playground, it is important that all children get the opportunity to "shine" - for example, a child with a disability playing their favourite game can be as much of a support to their buddy as their buddy may be in other contexts.

Will my child learn bad habits?

One of the concerns parents and some teachers have expressed is that their child may "learn bad habits" from a child who has difficult behaviour or less developed social skills. There is little evidence that this is the case if we carefully select our buddies.

For example, Hektner, August & Realmuto (2003) looked at the use of buddies for children who displayed aggressive behaviour. They found that if two children with aggressive tendencies were grouped together, especially if they were friends, then the aggression in playground games would increase. However, if the child with aggressive tendencies and a child who did not use aggression were grouped together, there was no increase in aggression.

Benefits for all

Using buddies, peer tutors and other collaborative group work in and out of classrooms can benefit children with and without disabilities. If a child without a disability buddies a child with a disability they are likely to:
  • Interact with children who they may have not interacted with before
  • Develop an awareness and respect for diversity, thus developing socially and emotionally
  • Develop a deeper understanding of the task or activity as they help clarify ideas and rules for their buddy
  • Learn positive skills from their buddy, learn to see things from a different perspective, or learn the value of some things they take for granted
Children who have disabilities can benefit from well-planned, well-implemented buddy systems through:
  • Seeing social and academic skills modelled
  • Hearing things explained in "child" language
  • Getting more one-on-one support than adults can provide in a busy school environment
  • Becoming more independent, connected and confident
(Conway, 2008; Copeland et al., 2002; Jackson & Campbell, 2009)

More than just buddies

Helping children with disabilities make connections with their peers cannot be solved by just using buddies. We also need to teach social skills, create an accepting/inclusive classroom environment, teach coping strategies and build a child's self esteem through praise, encouragement and giving them responsibilities (Conway, 2008).


Conway, R. (2008). Encouraging Positive Interactions. In Forman, P (Ed), Inclusion in Action, p128-244. Thomson: Australia.

Copeland, S.R, McCall, J, Williams, C.R., Guth, C., Carter, E.W., Fowler, S.E., Presley, J.A. and Hughes, C. (2009). High School Peer Buddies: A Win-Win Situation. Teaching Exceptional Children, 35(1), p16.

Fulk, B, and King, K. (2001). Classwide peer tutoring at work. Teaching Exceptional Children, 34(2), p49.

Hektner, J.M., August, G.J. and Realmuto, G.M. (2003). Effects of Pairing Aggressive and Nonaggressive Children in Strategic Peer Affiliation. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 31(4), pg. 399.

Jackson, J.N., and Campbell, J.M. (2009). Teachers’ Peer Buddy Selections for Children with Autism: Social Characteristics and Relationship with Peer Nominations. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39, pp269–277

Copyright Amanda Gray 2010


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