Could peer education benefit your child?

Mary Schlieder, M.S.

Mark, the beautiful boy whose fascination with dinosaurs makes him sound like an expert far older than his six years, has meltdowns at school several times a week. Emily, a tenth grader becomes animated every time she talks about the book series “Twilight” and its soon-to-be-released motion picture. But she seems totally oblivious of the bored nods of her peers who try to avoid getting “trapped” in conversation with her. And Luke, the mathematical genius, reluctantly tears himself from his calculus book every time his resource teacher forces him to converse with those around him.

On the one hand, the adults who care for these children with autism stand in awe and appreciation of their gifts and talents. On the other, they worry that the peers in the world in which they spend much of their time – school – never see past the odd behaviors. Indeed, these misunderstood children are ignored at best, and more often than not are the objects of ridicule and bullying.

Peer education can be an important step toward establishing a positive social environment for children with social challenges.

In my practice as a special education teacher in a public school inclusion program, I have found that once peers have been educated about the characteristics of these special needs kids, they often first respond with surprise, “I thought he was retarded!” followed by a “How can I help?” attitude. Initially, parents may want to protect their child’s privacy by not pointing out that he or she is different. After all, their strengths are obvious; can’t everyone appreciate their child they way they do? Sadly, this is usually not the case with peers who shun anyone who doesn’t fit the mold. Without peer awareness, the students who need the most social interaction practice end up getting the least.

If you have a child you think could benefit from peer education, here are some tips:

• Try to get the child’s IEP manager on board. Often he or she will be willing, but just haven’t thought about it. Parents can also volunteer to go into the classroom and read a book and answer questions.

• If you are staff member, always get permission from the parents before starting a peer awareness program that directly or directly involved a certain child.

• Start the “lesson” pointing out that everyone has strengths and challenges. Then ask all children to share some of their own.

• Use one of the many wonderful child/youth resources available to you. Some of these titles include This Is Asperger Syndrome by Elisa Gagnon and Brenda Smith Myles, Jackson Whole Wyoming by Joan Clark, In His Shoes, A Short Journey Through Autism by Joanna L. Keating-Velasco, and Amazingly... Alphie! Understanding and Accepting Different Ways of Being by Roz Espin. There are many more; just choose an age-appropriate book depending on the peer group you’re working with.

• Share the book and follow up with a question-and-answer period.

• Allow children to brainstorm ways they can positively interact with the child with social challenges and give them safe avenues to report bullying.

• Afterwards, consider forming a smaller group of peers (Circle of Friends) to meet weekly/biweekly for continuing education and a commitment to interact with the child on a regular basis.

Teachers may at first think that peer education is just one more thing for already overworked adults to have to do. But the reality is that you can spend as much time, if not more, cleaning up “messes” and denying students the opportunity to develop the skills they will need to become productive adults. So why not spend the time proactively, creating an accepting environment where children who are different have the opportunity to interact with peers throughout the day? Either way time is spent. Besides, what could be more rewarding than to see a child with autism looking forward to coming to school, sitting in the cafeteria eating lunch at a table with other students, or even having a conversation by her locker, just like anyone else!

Mary Schlieder, M.S., is a special educator in the Norris Public School District, Nebraska, educational consultant for Schools With Open Arms (www.schoolswithopenarms), and adjunct professor at Doane College. She is the author of With Open Arms: Creating School Communities of Support for Kids with Social Challenges Using Circle of Friends, Extracurricular Activities, and Learning Teams. Mary is also the 2008 Nebraska Teacher of the Year.

Courtesy of AAPC

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