Pawling Elementary School Students Start with Hello
High fives, fist-bumps and huge smiles reigned supreme in the halls of Pawling Elementary School during Start with Hello Week, a nationwide initiative aimed at nurturing a feeling of belonging among youth, held the first week of October.
Developed by Sandy Hook Promise (a nonprofit organization that aims to prevent violence and promote kindness in schools and communities), Start with Hello teaches students how to look for the signs of social isolation and treat their classmates with friendliness and empathy. Pawling Elementary’s school counselor Jessica Dommu has run the program for four years and said that it is a staple in the school calendar each year.
“The kids just love it,” Dommu said. “It’s a great way for them to increase the connection between them and have fun at the same time.”
Each day of Start with Hello week brought a new activity or challenge. Classes started out by making posters featuring their own “promise pledges” – written commitments to including and accepting others – to hang in the hallways. The posters will remain throughout the year as a reminder of their pledges, which range from “we promise to share and take turns” to “we promise to practice empathy” to “we promise to look at the Buddy Bench.” The Buddy Bench is a place where children who are feeling lonely at the playground can sit so their classmates know they are looking for a friend.
Students also mingled with other classes in the hallway, created a heart-shaped poster including a thumbprint from every student in the school and enjoyed a Start with Hello assembly. The week culminated in a pep rally to celebrate the initiative's accomplishments. The gymnasium came alive with laughter as teachers sketched playful portraits of one another and played games with students and volunteers. The event ended with a rip-roaring dance party.
At the heart of the weeklong celebration were the student members of Team Community, a group created in 2022 to give students a more significant voice in the school. Members are nominated by teachers but true to the spirit of Start with Hello, any student interested in joining the group is welcome.
Team Community members actively participate in planning several events throughout the year. Last year Start with Hello became one of their key initiatives; students brainstormed ideas, crafted posters and even hosted the pep rally as “mini MCs” this year.
Mini MC Jaylyn Yankowich, a fourth grader in her second year with Team Community, was initially a bit nervous when asked to step into her role at the pep rally.
“I was really happy but also a little nervous,” she said. “But then I thought about how much fun it would be and how I could help spread kindness even more if I did it.”
Jaylyn wore a wide grin as she explained how her third grade teacher nominated her for Team Community last year.
“She told Mrs. Dommu that she thought I would be a great role model,” she said. “I take my job seriously. The little kids have to learn from us about how to be kind.”
Dommu emphasized that Start with Hello is not confined to a single week; it's ingrained in the fabric of Pawling Elementary.
"It's every day for us here," she said. "Kids feel happier and safer coming to school knowing that we are a Start with Hello school and that inclusivity is who we are as a school."
“It’s all year; it’s all the time. It’s not just a week – it’s part of who we are.”