Norwalk middle school students 'start with hello' to combat social isolation

NORWALK — Roton Middle School started the week with a simple hello, encouraging students to step out of their comfort zone and make their peers feel welcome as they start the new year.

Throughout the week, the school took part in the “Start with Hello” program sponsored by Sandy Hook Promise to teach empathy and empower students to end social isolation. Students arrived at school on Monday and made their way through a welcome tunnel formed by teachers and staff who cheered them on as they entered the building.

“Everyone was really confused and were saying, ‘What’s going on?’” said Jacqueline Contreres, an eighth-grade student who is new to the district this year.

Contreres appreciated hearing someone say hello to start her day and believes it could make a big difference to someone who maybe had a bad morning or is feeling depressed or worthless.

“If someone is depressed, don’t feel like worth anything, if someone comes up and says hello or asks how they’re doing, they would feel special and feel seen. They would feel like they’re a person and they’re appreciated,” she said.

Students participated in several activities to raise their social awareness, as well as give them time to self-reflect. The game “Get to Know You” bingo asked students to answer questions about themselves on a bingo card. They then spoke with the peers in their grade — those who weren’t already their friends — to see if they had any commonalities between their answers.

On Wednesday, students in their classrooms received blank slips of paper to write one positive note about their classmates. They stuck each note into a students’ small bag that the kids can then pull from when they’re having a tough day.

“Sometimes kids need an extra push or encouraging word. On tough days, they can pull it out and it’ll say, ‘You rock!’” said Riquel Pratt, the lead counselor at Roton Middle School.

The “Fill My Bag” activity was seventh-grader Thomas Bickle’s favorite activity of the week. He said he enjoyed writing a lot of nice compliments for his classmates, and he wants to continue trying to reach out to other students as the school year progresses.

“I’ll try to be more friendly. Try to talk to more people. I’m kind of shy,” said Bickle, who also enjoyed the tunnel of teachers and staff cheering his name. “It gave me energy to get through the day.”

Students spent Thursday making positive-message posters that will be put up in their classrooms and in the hallways, so their peers only have to look up to see a kind word. At the end of the week, the students meet in small, restorative justice circles to discuss how they can identify and prevent social isolation in the school community.

“Students can go back and forth. How can we identify social isolation? Why is important for us, not the teachers, to combat social isolation?” Pratt said. “They can see the importance of how we can move forward in togetherness and no one is being left behind.”

Interim Principal Ed Singleton has already seen positive results from the week. Parents have sent emails and called him to say how the “Start with Hello” activities were the highlight of their children’s day, he said. He also said a student stopped him quickly in the hallway to inform him of an issue in the girls’ restroom.

“I’m trying to make everyone aware of being a good citizen, and it’s starting to take traction,” Singleton said.

emily.morgan@hearstmediact.com