One parent has reported that her daughter has been more patient and kind to her younger sibling, something she hadn’t really been before.
And another student didn’t know how his peers would react to his younger sister, who is in a self-contained classroom because she has autism—and now he loves having her as his sister.
The results of these stories have been attributed to the Crim Peer Buddy program at , which pairs third and fourth graders with students who have special needs.
“I was looking for a better way to connect with students with severe disabilities,” said Mark Staudt, physical education teacher at Crim Primary School.
Staudt said he heard about a program five years ago that pairs older students with special needs kids, and thought it would be a worthwhile endeavor to take on, possibly during the recess periods so students would not miss class time.
He had been teaching a class for students with severe disabilities and autism, Staudt said, and always had adult teacher assistants to help with the individual students.
“A few years ago, I started assigning class buddies to promote cross interaction and provide leadership opportunities to students,” said Crim Primary School principal Marge Kerr during a presentation at the board of education meeting March 22. “Then we talked about pairing physical education buddies with others in special education. The kids volunteered their recess time to work on this.”
Kerr showed a video presentation to the board of education of a hoedown held at the Crim Primary School gym with the special needs students and their buddies. As the presentation concluded, board members and those in attendance at the meeting applauded the principal.
“That is a beautiful program, and one that I hope is being replicated in other buildings,” said Superintendent of Schools Michael Schilder. “It is a wonderful thing.”
Staudt began putting the program together to allow third and fourth grade volunteers to give up their 20-minute recess period after eating their lunches with their friends. The students meet him in the gymnasium, Staudt said, where he is usually working with students in the self-contained classes.
“The adult personal teaching assistants take a back seat, while the student buddies model the physical education skill or activity,” he said. “The special needs students are excited to see their buddies and eager to perform when they see these students model for them.”
This year, Staudt said, 100 students volunteered to be peer buddies, although there were only opportunities for 20 to take part. After observations of the students wanting to be part, and recommendations from teachers, he chose the students to participate.
“When we first tried the idea, we wanted to give more buddies a chance and switched monthly,” he said. “That was not good because it did not allow for relationships to develop.”
Staudt said, at the board of education meeting, that he tries to match the older students with the younger ones, and works with them to help them be good buddies.
Staudt said homeroom teachers take names of students who want to participate, and parents are also required to give consent to take part.
“Because the program is now in practice for about five years, many students eagerly look forward to this as they move up through the grades,” he said.
Staudt said the goals of the program are to help students reach their potential in the physical education skills, which they can then apply toward future successes and independence.
“Some students in the self-contained classes may eventually become eligible for a class setting that is less restrictive, meaning they can be placed in a more mainstreamed setting with their grade-level peers,” he said. “This also prepares them for that experience.”
In addition, Staudt said, the students gain self-confidence, increase their engagement with others and have increased motivation as they work with the other students.
The peer buddies, Staudt said, learn leadership skills, develop empathy for their peers and learn how to appreciate differences among others.
“The school as a whole gains, as the self-contained class becomes a more integrated part of the student body,” he said. “Connections carry over in other settings with peer buddies walking together in the Halloween parade or joining together for class celebrations.”
For Staudt, this kind of experience is a wonderful opportunity for both the older peers and the younger children.
“It is amazing to see the bond that the two students develop over the course of the year,” he said. “It can be very challenging for the third and fourth graders at times. The little things that we take for granted are a tremendous struggle for some of the students.”
“It may take a whole year for us to teach a student to skip, hop or gallop on their own,” he added. “It is frustrating at first, but the older students begin to truly understand the needs of the child.”
Staudt said it is sometimes easy for the children, and sometimes not.
“It is not all peaches and cream,” he said. “The students have good and bad days. That too is a learning experience.”
Kerr said the program is an opportunity for children to see differences in their peers, and to begin to respect and understand those differences.
“They become comfortable, and can get past any barriers of fear and stereotypes,” she said. “We want every Crim Colt to be a caring Crim Colt.”
“Having an older student model for the younger differently-abled student is priceless,” she added. “They respond very well to that. Equally, the empathy that is developed in the older student is priceless. It is an emotional component that is necessary in future years to be successful.”
Bill Nivison, one of two physical therapists in the district, said at the board of education meeting that he has several students in his physical therapy sessions who have classes with Staudt, and, at that time, they can work on the skills to be implemented in a typical environment.
“If we introduce a skill, [Mr. Staudt] can then incorporate them in for his students three times a week, rather than my one time a week,” Nivison said. “Now they have peer buddies who can model the behaviors I want my kids to develop. the students I’m working with aren’t always all motivated to do what I need them to do.”
“When they see a kid closer to their age doing it, it makes more sense and they more likely want to do it,” he added.
Kerr said she heard from a parent of an autistic child once who was thrilled because she was in Burger King with her child, and one of the Crim peer buddies entered the restaurant. The buddy, Kerr said, came over and started chatting to the woman’s son, who responded back to him.
“Parent response from both younger and older students is extremely positive,” she said.