04-23-14: Peers help students with special needs build social skills
04-23-14: Peers help students with special needs build social skills

Emerald Ridge High sophomore Sarah Berndt carefully eyed a pile of cookie cutters in the center of the table before reaching for a yellow one shaped like a dog.

 

As she laid the plastic shape on top of a circle of homemade dough, she felt a hand gently land on top of her own.

 

Berndt looked up from her wheelchair and saw fellow high school student Nicole Noll smiling down at her as she helped her press the cookie cutter through the dough.

 

“What’s your name?” Berndt asked.

 

“Nicole,” Noll said.

 

Berndt enthusiastically responded, “Hi! I’m Sarah.”

 

With a new friendship formed, the two continued cutting out shapes while chatting about the dogs that would eventually eat the homemade biscuits.Image

 

Noll is among more than 30 students who participated this year with arts and crafts, games, cooking, and community service projects once each week with students in the Exceeding Challenges Through Education and Life Skills (EXCEL) classroom.

 

The peer volunteers are part of the Jaguar Socialization Group, founded five years ago by the school’s speech language pathologist, Linda Dooley.

 

Students in the general education program are paired one-on-one with EXCEL students for a half-hour every Thursday morning. They also meet briefly with Dooley before the class to get briefed on that day’s activity.

 

“I always tell the volunteers that the overall goal is to socialize and for students to have fun,” Dooley said. “The activity is secondary.”

 

Peer volunteers are matched with students who have moderate to profound physical and developmental disabilities.

 

Some can’t walk, and at least half are non-verbal, Dooley said. Others can’t tolerate noise, and many have difficulty making eye contact or communicating with strangers.

 

“In the beginning, some students would run screaming to the bathroom to hide (from the peer volunteers),” Dooley said. “Eventually, they started staying longer and longer. They get used to meeting people in a safe environment.”

 

The socialization group is scheduled during the morning schoolwide “JAG” (short for the school mascot, Jaguars) time. This time is traditionally used by students to do homework, get tutoring help, hold class meetings, work in the media center or computer lab, or take care of other learning needs.

 

Dooley finds that students interested in being peer volunteers are often the same ones enrolled in the school’s Medical Careers or Teaching Academy classes.Image

 

Volunteer Nicolette Metz, a junior who is considering a career in the medical field, said she has noticed many of the EXCEL students become more social through their interaction with peer volunteers.

 

“They say ‘hi’ when they see me in the halls,” she said. “It feels good to know we can make an impact on them.”

 

Over the years, Dooley has worked closely with medical careers teacher Jody Wickett to identify peer volunteers.

 

“With an interest in the medical profession, it is beneficial to the students to work with others who are facing different challenges than they themselves face on a daily basis,” Wickett said. “I think that they develop valuable communication tools that will help them with their future patients.”

 

At least two community service projects are included each year as part of the weekly activities. Students have made homemade dog biscuits for the Puyallup Animal Shelter and fleece blankets for the school’s annual blanket drive for the homeless.

 

This year, EXCEL student Jovon Armstrong was chosen to deliver the dog biscuits to the Puyallup Animal Shelter.

 

Once inside the shelter lobby, Armstrong was invited to hand-feed the biscuits to the dogs in their kennels.

 

“I love animals,” he said as he carefully handed each dog a biscuit through the cage. A senior this year, Armstrong had so much fun during that visit that he returned the past several months as a volunteer.

 

“The growth in students has been tremendous,” said EXCEL teacher Brenda Schrader.

 

Dooley also touts the gains students have made in the program.

 

“One of our students will wheel himself up to a table full of students in the lunchroom and nod and smile when he sees a peer volunteer,” Dooley said. “I can’t say enough about the volunteers. They are amazing kids.”

 

In the past four years, more than 180 volunteers have given more than 800 hours of community service, she said.Image

 

Some of the students earn community service hours as part of a culminating project required for graduation, she said. Others count the hours toward earning a United Way Varsity Letter in Community Service, while others do it just because.

 

At the end of the school year, Dooley presents a slideshow of photos taken throughout the year to EXCEL students and peer volunteers. She also creates individual photo collages for each of the EXCEL student’s portfolios as an evidence of their learning and designs a photo book to keep in the classroom.

 

Puyallup and Rogers high schools also offer opportunities for students in general education to pair with those with special needs.

 

At Puyallup High, students enrolled in the multicultural studies class join students in the school’s support center once in fall and again in spring. Similarly, those enrolled in the medical careers class visit the support center once a month each spring to do activities and play games.

 

At Rogers High, peer tutors earn class credit by working with students with special needs. Some also frequently stop by the special education classroom at lunch to greet students.

 

While the goal of the Emerald Ridge Jaguar Socialization Group is to help students with special needs become more social, peer volunteers say they learn as much as, if not more than, the students they are helping.

 

“All of these kids have so much they could complain about, yet they come to school every day with a smile on their face and have more strength than a lot of people I’ve met,” said Noll, a senior.

 

Noll added, “This program really helps shape me as a person.”