Fourth grade students at Sunset Elementary School sat attentively and listened Wednesday as elementary school counselor Tonie Crawford read the story, "The Invisible Boy," about a child, Bryan, who does not get picked for games and spends his time at school in social isolation. Another character in the story, a Korean boy, eats with chopsticks. The other children do not understand, and they laugh at him. Bryan wonders to himself, "Which is worse, to be ignored or laughed at?" By the end of the story, the children come to learn that making friends with Bryan and the Korean boy is easy and worth the effort. It all starts with saying hello.
September 23-27 is "Start With Hello Week" for participating schools across the country. According to Crawford, this will be the second year for elementary schools of the Dumas Independent School District to take part. Last year's program included Kindergarten through fourth grade. This year, she is adding fifth and sixth grade.
"Start With Hello" is a program of instruction for children designed to teach tolerance, inclusion, and the benefits of making friends and engaging in social interaction. One of its main purposes is to combat the social isolation children sometimes experience and that can lead, in some cases, to children becoming depressed and acting out with violence either towards themselves or others. The program was started by a non-profit organization called Sandy Hook Promise, made up of some of the family members of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. According to a brochure from the organization, "Start With Hello" is a prevention program that teaches children and teens how to be more socially inclusive and connected to each other."
Crawford says she saw the program on Facebook. "This one is about inclusion, and I though that this would be something that we could use in our schools." Before the actual week begins, Crawford prepares the students by reading the story of Bryan to them and discussing with the children the themes of the story. She talks to them about the many different ways to say hello. Afterwards, they go and practice what they have learned. During the week of "Start With Hello Week," the teachers take over and lead the children through exercises and games that encourage them to get to know each other and develop a sense of concern for one another. One game is called human bingo. The children have to fill up a bingo card with facts about their fellow students. This encourages them to interact with one another and insures that each child is included in the game. Another activity is a song the children sing about the many ways to say hello in different languages. The music teachers lead the children in the song.
Crawford says she got positive feedback last year from teachers, and the Sandy Hook Promise organization gave the district a certificate "in recognition of your leadership in protecting students and your community."
Crawford says bullying and children deliberately isolating others has not been a big problem at the elementary schools, but sometimes children do isolate themselves. They lack the social skills to interact with others. "Sometimes kids feel different or awkward and think others will not want to play with them," she said. Crawford says this has been exacerbated by the prevalence of cell phones among even the youngest children. "There are some who do not really know how to play with other kids."
Crawford believes the program can make a difference. "During this week, it is a time for kids to be more aware that they can ask other kids to play," she said. "Every campus has a 'buddy bench'. If you don't have someone to play with, you go and sit on the bench. Hopefully we won't see anyone sitting on the bench or playing by themselves, and after a week, hopefully, they will keep doing it."