CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — The elementary years can be a rough time. But at Jackson-Via Elementary School, something as simple as a bench can make a difference to youngsters' emotional wellbeing.

A "buddy bench" was installed on one of the school's playgrounds several years ago. Proposed in part by Kristin Ullrich, a counselor at Jackson-Via, the bench is a place a student can sit when they're feeling down. Other students will then go over and either talk to the student about why they're sad or include them in the games they're playing.

This helps the children practice empathy, Ullrich said, as well as kindness, respect and inclusion — all values important to the school community.

"If the students are at recess and they're sad and they feel like they need a friend, they can sit on the bench and the other students will go and include them," she said. "It really allows them to learn practiced empathy and make new friends."

Third-grader Charlotte Dontanville said she sat on the bench before when she didn't have many friends.

"When I was in kindergarten, no one would play with me, and if people did want to play with me, I didn't want to play the game they were playing," she said.

Now, Charlotte said, she has many friends — and a baby brother — and tries to be kind to everyone.

"If two people are being mean to each other, then nothing good will happen to either of them," she said. "You want to make new friends, see what other people's personalities are like — it's good for you."

According to research released last September by the International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, buddy benches and the like can be helpful in encouraging school-wide positive behaviors and for students at risk for emotional and behavioral disorders.

"The goal of the buddy bench is to change school climate by structuring part of recess to cue students to interact with and befriend students who might otherwise spend recess alone," the study stated.Although the hand-painted bench is certainly a focal point of the playground, Ullrich said it's just part of a larger school movement centered around kindness.

The school also has the Bully Nots program, which is open to fourth-graders. As part of the program, students act as kindness leaders and participate in a school presentation teaching kind behaviors to younger students.

Ullrich said the students in the Bully Nots program, which is now in its 11th year, are gearing up for the assembly, which also will feature an original song and choreography.

One of the fourth-grade students who will be performing in the show, Eva Reed, said she's excited to be doing a cartwheel in the show.

Eva said she joined the Bully Nots club to help spread kindness.

"I want to express myself and be kind to others and make a lot of new friends," she said.

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Information from: The Daily Progress, http://www.dailyprogress.com