“Children take pride in helping others”

Teacher Christiane Daepp discusses her peer coaching project "Ideenbüro"
Christiane Daepp

Teacher Christiane Daepp launched the “Ideenbüro” project 14 years ago, with the idea of encouraging older students to counsel younger children on dealing with social problems and conflicts. The project is now being implemented in 113 schools in Switzerland.

Eveline von Arx: I understand that a crisis led to the founding of the “Ideenbüro” project.

Christiane Daepp: That’s right. I was a substitute teacher in a combined second/third grade class that was having problems with bullying. Some of the students didn’t even want to come to school. The classroom teacher and I tried everything – talking with the children, organizing parent meetings, and so on. Nothing worked. We were at our wits’ end. When the problem reached crisis proportions, we decided to ask for help from the school’s fourth graders. They were former students of mine, and I knew that many had excellent social skills.

EvA: What happened then?

CD: The fourth graders were excited and proud to be consulted. They recognized that we were serious, and they were determined to help. So they went to work, carefully preparing to meet with the younger children.

As if in a courtroom, the older students sat in front, across from the second and third graders. The younger children were asked, one by one, to tell about their experiences with the bullying incidents. Each one was heard. The “instigators” turned out to have been more fearful than anyone else of being bullied.

Then the fourth graders withdrew to another room to discuss what they had heard. They came up with this solution: Each second or third grader was to suggest a way of remedying the situation. Their suggestions were written down and posted in the classroom. Two weeks later, the students came together again to review what had been accomplished.

The situation had improved considerably, and I was impressed by how capably the older students had handled their responsibilities.

EvA: I imagine it was helpful that you knew the older children and had some sense of their social skills.

CD: Yes, and that was why I thought of asking them for help. Since then, however, it has become clear to me that every child is capable of helping others – you just need to trust them! Simply knowing that they have your confidence makes children stronger and helps them develop social skills that might not otherwise emerge. It’s a shame not to take advantage of a child’s social skills and willingness to lend a hand!

EvA: What other effects does a program like this have?

CD: The older children feel honored and important. Counseling younger children helps them grow, and they take their role very seriously. They serve as role models in social situations. The younger children, in turn, experience the positive feeling of being heard and taken seriously. And all of this makes them more likely to help others in turn.

Children also learn to think about what is good for the community, and not just for the individual.

The issues and concerns that the younger children bring up are very relevant to the lives of most students, and certainly of interest to them.

EvA: Can you describe how the “Ideenbüro” actually came into being?

CD: After that first intervention, I wanted to inform parents of our plans to introduce this approach throughout our school. The children knew from the very beginning that they wanted to continue, even if their parents had not approved. The “Ideenbüro” project was born!

I started to document the students’ interactions, or interventions, and every day I learned something new. With the “Ideenbüro” project, learning objectives aren’t dictated by outside sources; they are generated by the children’s own actions and experiences.

EvA: And it went uphill from there: In 2004, the “Ideenbüro“ received the UNICEF Orange Award for the promotion of intercultural dialogue; in 2009 you received a scholarship from “Ashoka,” an organization that supports social entrepreneurs; and in 2011 you received the Jacobs Foundation’s Best Practice Prize.

CD: These honors made it possible for me to expand the “Ideenbüro” project and bring it into the schools.

I later accepted a part-time teaching position in the Professional Development department at the University of Teacher Education in Berne, Switzerland. This puts me into contact with potential multipliers. When they learn about “Ideenbüro,” many want to introduce it in their own schools.

EvA: What role do teachers play in the “Ideenbüro” project?

CD: First of all, they attach great importance to the idea that children can help other children.

Schools and teachers are crucial. It can’t happen without them. They provide the necessary structures and support. Teachers are often present during the sessions – depending on how independent the students are. They check to see whether the children are following our “advice guidelines.” These guidelines were drawn up in recent years based on our own experiences and on insights from the field of solution-focused therapy. When the children find that a problem or situation is simply too difficult for them to handle, the teacher might intervene.

“The issues and concerns that the younger children bring up are very relevant to the lives of most students, and certainly of interest to them.”

As appropriate, teachers can also refer their students to “Ideenbüro,” where they can present their problems and seek help. Relieved of that stress, they are better able to concentrate on their schoolwork.

EvA: What difference does it make whether advice is offered by adults – such as the school social worker – or by older children?

CD: That’s a question I’ve put to some of the older students. Their answer: They have a closer connection to the problems involved. They have experienced similar situations, and they understand the dynamics on the school playground from a student’s perspective.

EvA: And what about the younger students? How is it different for them when they are counseled by older children rather than by a teacher or the school social worker?

CD: The answer is similar: They feel closer to students who are only a few years older and only slightly more advanced in their development. The older children are accessible role models, individuals the younger students can identify with.

EvA: What are your goals for the future of the “Ideenbüro” project?

CD: I want to highlight the social learning that has taken place by working with the children to evaluate what they have achieved. The children describe their efforts and what they have learned during the process. They develop a portfolio of their social skills – and this, in turn, has a positive effect on their ability to manage their own behavior.

Christiane Daepp is an elementary school teacher and also teaches in the Professional Development department at the University of Teacher Education in Berne, Switzerland. She founded the “Ideenbüro“ project in 2002 and was awarded the Jacobs Foundation’s Best Practice Prize in 2011.