By David Schriemer, MD
The Peer-to-Peer Program at Vicksburg High School pairs general population students with students with special needs. This helps the student with special needs academically and socially, provides education with real-world experience for peers and benefits the greater school community. Peer-to-Peer has been in operation for three years at VHS. It was started more recently at Vicksburg Middle School. Originally designed for students with autism spectrum disorders, it is now available to any student in need with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Peers who help their partners socially and academically meet regularly with special education instructors Kellie Lindeman, Jen Baldwin of VHS; school social worker Molly Beardsley and Kim O’Neill of KRESA to learn about autism, disabilities, teaching and behavior strategies. Peers apply to be part of the program and must attend weekly meetings and follow a formal curriculum to earn high school credits.
Benefits to Students with Special Needs
Students with autism spectrum disorders often face challenges with social learning and behavior. “Who can teach a ninth-grade boy how to act in the hallway or lunchroom better, a middle-aged female teacher or another ninth-grade boy?” asked Kellie Lindeman. Alex Harsha recalls how he had to calm his assigned student in gym class when the student was struck with an errant ball. He helped the student keep his temper. When it happened again the next week, Alex noted he didn’t have to offer reassurance or explanation. The student learned that accidents happen and life goes on. At their weekly meetings, peers discuss with joy and pride the growth they note in their protégés. Having a peer, a friend, can be powerful. As one special-education student noted “Now I sit with my friends at lunch.” Principal Keevin O’Neill says the Peer-to-Peer program helps special education students “become more engaged, confident and independent.”
Benefits to Peers
Peers apply to the program for many reasons. Some are considering careers in special education. Some have family members or friends with special needs and want to learn how to be more helpful. Some want a class with practical application. Peers have a syllabus, online modules, and confidential blogging to strategize with other students who are also peers to the same student with special needs. Final exams include planning and contacting parents/students to share in an outing in the community. Through this, peers learn everyone is unique; they discover hidden talents within themselves and in the students with whom they work—like Alex who is a wonderful artist. All peers learn patience, understanding, and a sense of humor. They learn about autism and other disabilities at their weekly meetings. For some, this confirms a career path they have chosen. Regardless, all learn the value of service and earn high school credit for their efforts.
Benefits to the School
The Peer-to-Peer Program got off to a good start three years ago when popular seniors Keenan Boulnemour and Neil Davenport became peers. Not only did it help start the program, their genuine personalities and endorsement of the program improved the climate of the school. The presence of special needs students and their peer advocates in high school sends a subtle but powerful message by tangibly demonstrating that a person’s value does not depend on intellect, appearance, popularity, or athletic ability. Students become kinder to each other and to themselves when they feel inadequate and more self-aware of their own vulnerabilities. Peer Sarah Stasik relates that most of her friends are quite kind and understanding because the brother of one of her classmates has Down Syndrome and they became his friend. Other peers though have had to confront teasing. Through their efforts, Jesse, a student with special needs notes, “There are less mean kids now.” A middle school peer related that she likes the program because “…all the kids will be there and love you unconditionally.” This inclusive attitude of acceptance permeates the entire school community.
Principal Keevin O’Neill reports, “I’m very excited about the Peer-to-Peer Program and I look forward to its expansion.” The program helps students with special needs in a unique way. Peers are educated as well, gaining valuable experience and insight. The entire school becomes a kinder place.
VHS Peer to Peer
There have been mentoring programs at VHS before but none targeted to help special needs students and provide education and training for peers. Through START (Statewide Autism Resources and Training) sponsored by the Michigan Department of Education at Grand Valley State University, templates for organization, curriculum and implementation of peer to peer programs were developed. Using these templates special education instructors at KRESA and VHS organized and implemented the program. There are currently 63 students with special needs in the high school requiring individualized education plans (IEP). Of that number 6-8 have autism spectrum disorder. This year the program received 15-20 applications from students desiring to be peers. Nine were accepted.