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Primary Project Helps Struggling Student Play His Way to Improvement

His name was Emmanuel; he spoke more Creole than English.

Shy yet spunky, and a bit short-tempered, the kindergartener was one of several dozen students in his Palm Beach County elementary school who needed assistance.

Emmanuel’s adjustment to kindergarten was difficult. He didn’t engage in activities or connect with his classmates. His bashful personality and limited language skills accounted for some of his detachment. But not all.

According to his teacher, Emmanuel also struggled to connect with classmates who spoke Creole. On the playground, he usually played by himself. On the few occasions when he did participate in group play, it often ended badly.

Emmanuel didn’t make it easy for others to be his friend. When he was frustrated or mad, he lashed out physically – hitting, biting and kicking. Oftentimes, those on the receiving end of his anger were left shaken and surprised. Most didn’t realize how upset he was; he never verbalized his feelings before going off.

Fortunately for Emmanuel, his school offered Primary Project, an early intervention and prevention effort for students who struggle to adjust to school, feel insecure or have limited social skills. Developed by the Children’s Institute and provided through Boys Town South Florida, this innovative program uses play to build a child’s self-confidence and improve social and learning skills. Nationally, the program is in over 2,100 schools.

Boys Town Child Associate Katherine Ryan, who facilitates the program at Emmanuel’s school, said students qualify for Primary Project based on observations that measure areas like behavior control, peer social skills, and others.

For three months, Emmanuel met with Katherine once a week for 40 minutes in the school’s playroom, which was filled with toys, arts and crafts, dress-up clothes, cars, trucks, blocks and a kitchen center.

“Our program is unique because it’s based on child-led play,” explained Katherine. “We only respond to what the student says or does. Emmanuel was able to come in and make his own decisions about what he did in the playroom.”

During their playtime, Katherine reinforced and built on Emmanuel’s existing strengths. Research shows child-led play programs produce a range of positive results for young children, including improved relationships and greater focus in the classroom and at home.

Those benefits didn’t escape Emmanuel. After just a few sessions, his teacher reported an immediate change in Emmanuel’s behaviors. The hitting stopped, and he exuded confidence. Emmanuel also found his voice.

Instead of impulsively lashing out, Emmanuel verbalized his feelings – appropriately. He engaged in classroom activities, confidently raising his hand and happily sharing his thoughts and ideas. His reading skills went from below grade level to above, and his English proficiency improved, too. Outside the classroom, he even organized games on the playground. His newfound confidence and friendlier behavior led to new friendships.

It was a dramatic transformation for the young boy, who went from distant and detached to joyful and fully engaged, both socially and academically.

According to Melissa Campos, Boys Town’s Primary Project supervisor, the collaborative relationship between the school district and Boys Town makes this type of successful intervention possible. “Having Primary Project in the schools is an incredible tool for supporting student learning,” she said.

Boys Town South Florida currently offers the Primary Project program in a dozen elementary schools in Palm Beach County, all of which are nationally certified by the Children’s Institute.

The stories provided about the children and families in our care are real. In some cases, names may be changed and details altered to protect their privacy and therapeutic interests.

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