By Heidi Schuitema
Staff at Cedar Springs Middle school opened professional minds to an initiative of peer mentoring and inclusion for a student with autism this 2014-2015 school year. Launch has been successful and a 13-year old robotics/botany/technology-minded boy has found his way back to general education.
A series of stretching, least restrictive environments worked their wonders to support him and educators in his district through a disability exploratory that has him back in business.
Staff employed, best practice approaches to autism are in place as Gavin gradually pushes back his social and self-regulation barriers with the help of typical peers, reaching out, and staff aiming to fade their guidance as peers step in.
Peers have aligned themselves with Gavin’s goals and invest in communication with Gavin that supports his orientation for success. They help point him in the right direction. Each day Gavin spends amid his typical, grade-level peer group reveals steady, improved capacity for new “firsts” for him, socially and academically. Every new first helps him realize that he CAN DO!
7th grade, green house teacher team Blauw, Metiva, Martens and Burns have invested mightily and collaborated with special education staff in support of Gavin. This has undergirded Gavin’s successful inclusion in ELA, science, and social studies (pending) so far this year.
Gavin’s staff team meets and plans, then general education teachers equip general education students with broadened understanding of Gavin’s trials with autism. The flow of leadership from these teachers and through their students in support of Gavin has been life-changing for him. Peers are the expert teachers in this scenario and it is a very purposeful role for them to play. Leadership qualities in empathy, understanding, motivation, initiation, team building, observational awareness, positive influence, encouragement, respect for others and putting others before self, are evident. Everyone is invested and growing!
Before Gavin can balk at a transition into group work, students eagerly invite him into theirs. Tablemates offer to share their illustrations or copies of notes, in support, when Gavin feels intimidated by tasks. Science lab partners request his input if he is not offering it and encourage his turns at trying demos or trials of an experiment. If he hedges about moving forward in a task, there is no lack of “cheerleaders”. Day after day, sweet nudges come from same-aged peers that help Gavin realize his place amongst them. Day after day, his capacity for his post-secondary vision is expanded, and a new friend is made. Gavin’s tendency to avoid people who might not understand him and steer clear of academic and social risk taking is being gradually quelled by caring staff, and classmates (his peers).
Many have helped Gavin down “his road” and his needs have called natural leaders to identify themselves and invest in another student. What he has been able to do and what his peers have been moved to do has had escalating momentum. It has been eye-opening to watch! As this effort has emerged, staff have coached peer-mentoring, which is beginning to happen naturally now, all much to Gavin’s benefit.
Gavin has the self-determined life goal to get a diploma and attend college to prepare for a high-interest career. With the help of flexible, understanding staff and just-right peers, Gavin is well on his way.