You can identify them by their orange vests.
The 5th-graders at Carver Elementary School who spend their recesses wearing those vests have a job to do. As Peer Leaders, they are tasked with looking out for their schoolmates who find themselves in a disagreement, who may have gotten hurt or who simply might need a friend to talk to.
“At recess, you help younger kids or kids in the same grade if they have any problems,” explained Justin Lin, who joined five of his fellow Peer Leaders to talk about what the group does. “Even outside of school, you can use the skills you learn as Peer Leaders to help other people.”
“You can also show other children in other grades how to be responsible and follow the school rules,” added Lauren Hsu.
Peer Leaders are selected from each of Carver’s 5th-grade classes, around 20 students serving in the group each school year. School counselor Linda Kuchmecki supervises the kids for their training period and prepares the weekly schedules for the kids.
“It builds leadership skills, and it really helps to build confidence and self-esteem, as well as build the school environment,” Kuchmecki said. “Right now, school safety is obviously really important.”
To hear the kids talk about it, they simply help out their, well, peers.
“We feel good when we help other people with their problems, especially because it makes them feel good,” said Mark O’Mara.
“It not only makes us better students and people in general,” added Emily Woo, “it helps our peers and helps our schools be a better place for everyone.”
One technique the Peer Leaders use is called “fair fight,” for situations in which two or more students are embroiled in some sort of disagreement. As an example, some of the Peer Leaders simulated an argument over who would play with a handball, with the agreement ultimately being to play together.
“We try to make sure all the kids are included in the games they’re playing, but we don’t give them advice,” said Julian Solis. “We let them solve their own problems.”
Being Peer Leaders helps the kids outside of school, too, particularly with their siblings. Gigi Avetisian has a twin sister.
“We always fight a lot, because we’re sisters,” she admitted. “We share a room and we have the same stuff. Sometimes we get really angry, but sometimes we get over it and make up. Usually the Peer Leader method that Ms. K taught us helps.”
Hsu admitted to frequently fighting with her older brother, who is currently at San Marino High School, in the past, but not so much anymore.
“For the past year, I have been a little nicer than I was in 1st grade, 2nd grade and 3rd grade,” she said.
It isn’t always helping each other solve problems. Avetisian explained how she helped students who’d fallen off playground equipment and hurt their backs or ankles get help from the school nurse. A key part of what they do, each of the students agreed, is knowing when they needed to get help from a teacher or supervisor.
In volunteering for this group, the students acknowledged wishing they had a Peer Leader when they were younger. (Kuchmecki only brought the program to Carver a few years ago.)
“I just remember wanting someone to help me with my problems,” O’Mara said.
“I always looked up to the Peer Leaders when I was in 3rd-and 4th-grade, with their bright orange vests,” Solis said, which prompted Woo to say, “Now we can look up to ourselves.”
Kuchmecki said in addition to the Peer Leader kids learning life skills by doing this, it also helps other students get out of negative situations such as being bullied or picked on that can follow people for their whole lives.
“This group is just such an amazing group,” Kuchmecki added. “They’re all so caring, helpful, kind and responsible.”