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East Friendship Initiative

Friendship Initiative at East May 30, 2019 -- The Golden Rule to “treat others the way that you want to be treated” is a familiar motto every year for students at Vestavia Hills Elementary East. As the 2018-2019 school year comes to a close, teachers and administrators at VHEE are reflecting on a new way they sought to live out their motto this past year— through a school-wide Friendship initiative.

“We have a number of academic goals every year, and we are constantly working to improve the educational experience for our students,” said VHEE Principal Dr. Mark Richardson. “This past school year, in addition to our academic goals, we took a fresh look at our goals geared toward supporting our students emotionally. We decided to place even greater emphasis on these goals this year and implemented our ‘Friendship Initiative’ across the school.  We want all of our students to have positive relationships with classmates.”

Second-grade teacher Susan Maxey was inspired by recent research on combatting loneliness at school and helped lead the way in the VHEE program. “We have always had a school goal of making sure that every child is supported emotionally and that they have a safe and happy environment at school, but we felt that we could take these efforts a little further in the classroom,” she said. Maxey asked her students to fill out a short, confidential survey every few weeks. This survey asked students questions about who they would like to get to know better in the class, who they would like to work on a classroom assignment with, who they would like to sit next to, and who they think has been an exceptional classroom citizen. Mrs. Maxey used her students’ feedback to rearrange desks, make specific partner pairings when needed, and to gather data about who might not be as included in the class as she had perceived. “It has been very helpful for me to see trends in the data and to be able to encourage students to be the best friend they can be to everyone in the class,” said Mrs. Maxey.  “I believe these steps to foster friendships have really helped the students make stronger friendships throughout our class. My goal has been to make sure that every child feels loved, accepted, and not alone in my classroom. I want every child to know that someone in our room cares about who they are and wants to be their friend. I also want my students to be able to spot when someone is not feeling as included and be able to include everyone. This simple thought process can spill over onto the playground and other parts of school life and outside of school as well.”

Mrs. Maxey’s strategy, as well as many others from other teachers, were shared throughout the school so that opportunities for new student connections were created in every classroom. Teachers created sociograms at the beginning and middle of year to be able to see which students had fewer connections so they could purposefully provide help. Data from the sociograms and other surveys showed that there were dramatic increases in classroom connections throughout the year.

The Friendship Initiative at VHEE culminated in the annual student writing publication, Imaginings.  This year is the 17th edition and the theme for all the pieces was friendship. Every student in the school authored a short piece responding to varied questions that highlighted their perspective on what friendship means to them.  “Our teachers did such a great job this year implementing our Friendship program and working very intentionally to build connections in the classroom,” said VHEE Assistant Principal Cindy Echols. “The Imaginings collection of writings shows how enthusiastic our students are about what they’ve learned about friendships!”

As VHEE goes from a K-3 to a K-5 school next year, Principal Richardson plans to continue pushing the Friendship Initiative.

“Fourth and fifth grades are a very important time for children to build friendships as they prepare for middle school, so, yes, we will maintain this focus going forward as a critical goal.”

-- Submitted by Hollye Stigler