We are almost finished with high school and the one thing I can say that has been our constant life-saver is the peer support system we began when she was in fourth grade. Those students have seen her through the good and the bad all of her years of school and will be the loudest to cheer her on as she finishes her time with them.
Before we move onto the next phase of Ashlyn’s life I thought I would do a big brain dump of how we set up peer supports and made them work for us…
Peer supports are “buddies” who will be in the same classroom setting as your child or teen. They are taught how to best support the student with autism they will be working with thus decreasing the need for support from other staff. Some of their tasks may be:
- Sitting with a student with autism at lunch
- Participating in recess activities together
- Helping the student with autism remember needed classroom materials
- Providing extra help with classroom assignments
- Walking student with autism to classes, therapy sessions, bus, etc.
We introduced the peer support plan in 4th grade. Prior to that, my daughter had been in and out of general education (more “out” than “in”), always accompanied by a one on one aide and I was forever explaining her behavior to parents, students, teachers, anyone who looked at her a bit too long.
Here’s how to begin your own peer support program:
1. Find your cheerleader- Someone in the school needs to believe this can work. A social worker, a special or general education teacher, the principal, anyone who understands how important it is for students in the school to support each other. The anti-bullying campaigns going on these days are a great case for peer supports, the more other students understand their peers the less likely they are to bully them.
2. Decide how to implement your plan- There are several ways you can implement peer supports. You can rotate one or two kids per month or semester. You can select four or five students to be the main supports for the whole school year or you can select one to two students per subject hour.
3. Train- Once your peer supports are selected these students will need to know all about the student they will be working with on a level that they can understand. Utilize your school’s social worker or special education staff to explain to them what the student with autism may do in a classroom setting, what they can do to help and what the roles of their job are.
4. Support- Make sure not only the student with autism is receiving support but the peer supports as well. The peer supports need to feel comfortable with their job and rewarded for the great work they are doing. They also need to know they have someone to go to when they have a question or concern or if they are feeling overwhelmed by their new job. A great way to reward everyone involved is provide a special lunch at the end of the month or semester for the peer supports and the student they are helping or an end of the year picnic.
5. Reevaluate- Watch how the program is evolving. Are the peer supports chosen the right fit? Is the student with autism responding well to their peers? Is everyone able to keep up with their own work and still provide help? As the program evolves, be flexible with how it is working and willing to change things that aren’t quite going as planned.
A successful peer support program can reduce bullying, increase inclusion and generally promote a new level of understanding for everyone involved. I can honestly say it is our peer supports that have carried my daughter through her years of school. The peers that helped her in a small elementary classroom went on to become her biggest cheerleaders in middle school. Those middle school students who helped her remember to bring a pencil to class or helped her pack her backpack now call her in the evening before a new year of high school to make sure she is ready and will meet them when she gets off the bus each day.
Empowering students with knowledge is the best gift we can give to all kids, autism or not.
Have you used a peer support system? Do you have questions on how to make it work? I’m happy to answer any questions you may have.
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