Big Brother Big Sister: seniors learn human behavior skills to mentor peers

While numerous leadership opportunities exist at PHS, few specifically aim to encourage learning and friendship between two individual students. Among these few is Big Brother Big Sister, a nationwide program that is offered to PHS seniors as a five-credit, year-long course. This year’s class consists of 19 seniors who are usually paired with underclassmen to foster one-on-one mentoring relationships.

“Big Brother Big Sister is modeled after a format that we know works, [which] is the program at a national level, a state level, and a county level,” said Student Assistance Counselor Gwen Kimsal, who has taught the class for over 15 years. “Research is saying that one-on-one relationships and peer-to-peer relationships work; they can be very powerful.”

Among the students at PHS, seniors are the prime candidates for leading the mentoring relationship principally because of their years of experience in PHS. As a Big Brother or Big Sister, also known as a “Big,” seniors are able to utilize experience in helping their assigned student, or “Little,” adapt to the school community. “[Littles] get paired with an upperclassmen that knows the ropes of the school, that has connections with various activities, teachers, [and] programs,” said guidance counselor Kyle Campisi. “And based on that access, [they can] open the doors [for the Littles] to Princeton High School and introduce them to a lot of things [they] may have otherwise not seen.”

During the first quarter of each year, Kimsal and the students in the class get to know each other by practicing interpersonal listening, questioning, and communication skills. After this time, Kimsal is able to determine pairings between the Bigs and Littles, along with the help of the guidance counselors.

graphic: Elizabeth Teng

graphic: Elizabeth Teng

According to Campisi, most students are not familiar with the program, and responsibility often falls to the counselors to determine whether a student would fit the role of a Big or a Little. “The role of the counselor is at most to act as a referral for teachers, for Ms. Kimsal, or for the student themselves,” she said. “We’re lucky to know a majority, if not the entire student body population, and because of that, we often have the firsthand look at … who we see [would] best fit the program.”

While their reasons for enrollment may be social, emotional, or academic, oftentimes Littles are part of the program simply to increase their level of familiarity with PHS. “Our goal is to help them navigate through high school and get used to the change of [the high school] environment, because coming from middle school can sometimes be a rough transition,” said Alana Chmiel ’15, a member of this year’s class. “Or sometimes students just want a Big, because it’s fun to have this relationship with another student.”

After receiving information regarding Bigs who are ready to begin working with a Little, counselors are able to recommend a student based on matching personality traits, among other factors. One-on-one interactions often begin in the second quarter after an initial meeting with both students that is facilitated by a guidance counselor. According to Campisi, counselors rarely influence the pairings or have questions or concerns as the mentoring relationship progresses.

Following the first meeting, Bigs and Littles will arrange to meet at least once a week during break. However, some seniors elect to spend more time with their Littles, often outside the school. “We’re trying to help them in any way they want help, and we’re in a role model, mentor position, but it’s also a friendship position,” said Chmiel. “For example, you can do fun-type things like going to the movies [or] going to get ice cream. There’s a lot of good stories about how much fun people have had.”

While communication between the two students may last throughout the school year, the period of time the pair spends together often varies. “The Big will want to continue the relationship throughout the entire school year, but sometimes all the Little needs is just to have a taste of who and what else is out there at Princeton High School … [until] they finally feel like they’ve found …. [something] that serves their needs,” Campisi said.

Kimsal prepares the seniors for their interactions with their Littles through a variety of activities and lesson plans. During their one-on-one interactions, the Bigs often are able to utilize the skill sets they have acquired from the class.

“They learn how to run discussions, ask and answer questions, [and maintain] attention … when [they’re] talking to a person,” she said, adding that she tries to prevent the overlap of Big Brother Big Sister’s lesson topics with similar classes. “In Human Behavior, you learn a lot about Maslow, Freud, and Skinner, so I try to touch on other theorists.”

According to Kimsal, the design of the class works well but is always evolving to incorporate current content. “I’m constantly bringing things into the class that are current events, real people issues that we can talk about,” she said. “There are a lot of things that happen in any school year that we can take into class.”

Although Bigs are in a mentorship position, both parties stand to gain from the experience. “Both people in the peer-to-peer relationship have an opportunity to learn from each other,” said Kimsal. “A senior said last year … that they learn from their Little every day, and that was really powerful.”

The class aims to teach seniors skill sets and lessons that can also be utilized outside of the program. “Even outside of the relationship with the Little, [what we learn in class is] all very practical stuff that you can use easily in your friendships and relationships with parents and teachers,” said Chmiel.

“I love being the teacher in this class and seeing people grow in their skills. I feel very proud that I am giving and teaching people a skill set that they can have for the rest of their lives,” said Kimsal.

To ensure appropriate leaders for the class, applications for the class are released in mid-December to all juniors. Along with a group activity and an interview, questions such as “What leadership experience do you have?” and “What is your main reason for applying?” determine applicants’ level of readiness to take the leadership position.

“I chair the committee that selects the seniors that are going to be next year’s Big Brothers and Big Sisters,” said Kimsal. “The committee … is made of administration and teachers … and it’s the same committee that helps with the stakeholder team for Peer Group.”

While Big Brother Big Sister usually receives around 30 to 50 applications, the turnout for Peer Group, another senior elective with a focus on leading a group of freshmen, has been consistently higher, sometimes surpassing 100 applicants. “[The programs] cater to a different group of people … You hear a lot more about Peer Group, so, just in that nature, more people have an interest in it and know about it,” said Chmiel. “We’re so much more under the radar.”

Nevertheless, by serving as an outlet for individualized guidance, the program acts as a unique service to the school and encourages any student to engage in PHS’s student resources. “It’s rare to find [this program] in other high schools,” said Campisi. “I’ve never met students here that weren’t looking to actively serve the community or help a fellow student … It’s just about making the connections and allowing our students to feel like they have a community and a home at PHS.”


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