The Power of Peer Support: Making Inclusion Work in High School

(Excerpts from this article were published in Inclusive Education Programs, September 2001)
by Janice Fialka, MSW, ACSW and Parent; Micah Fialka-Feldman, 10th Grade Student; Jill England, Inclusion Facilitator; Oliver Hersey, Recent high school graduate

It was the second week of June, near the final days of school when students only want to hear the last bell announcing “School’s out!”  My 16-year-old son yelled out to me from his upstairs bedroom, “Mom, I’m gonna call Oliver and ask him to help me study for my science test.”

Stunned by his newly discovered desire to study I eked out a weak “Oh! Great!”

What possessed my son, who is as interested in science as I am in dirty laundry to WANT to study? I paused, thought about it. The answer was clear to me.  He wanted to spend time with Oliver. He had fun with this “awesome high school senior.” He enjoyed the friendship and he wanted to be successful in the eyes of Oliver. It was that simple.

Any parent would be pleased to hear that their son wanted to prepare for an upcoming test–and that the child had a friend to do it with.  But in Micah’s situation it is particularly meaningful.  Micah has developmental disabilities, and despite his very typical teenage needs, the world often unintentionally (sometimes intentionally) excludes him from what he wants; that is, to be a regular kid, get phone calls and hang out with his friends.

A new program at my son’s high school, called LINKS, is making a significant contribution to both Micah’s learning and his peer relationships. It’s also having a positive impact on other students.  Many high schools across the country are implementing similar “buddy” systems or “peer support” programs. In our school, the program is called LINKS and was adopted after visiting another school district in Michigan using the program.  If you ask most parents who have a child with a disability, they will quickly and passionately tell you that what they want most for their child is to belong, to have friends and opportunities for fun.  Forming friendships can be challenging during the teen years, but for kids with special needs, like Micah, this “friendship-stuff” can be a formidable task when the right supports are not in place.

The LINKS program offers school credit (usually one half credit per semester) to students who become peer tutors for youth with special learning needs.  The LINK students report to the assigned class and provide a range of support to their assigned student. In Micah’s case, Oliver was matched with him during science class. While in the class, Oliver took some simple notes for Micah (Micah does not write and is at the pre-reading level.). The notes could be scanned into his computer and read back to him later or used by the peer tutor to review for a test. The teacher, with the assistance of the on-site paraeducator and Oliver, identified a few basic concepts in each unit for Micah to learn.  Micah and Oliver reviewed and rehearsed these concepts.  Oliver also assisted in creating ways to present the concepts in relevant and engaging ways with Micah.  Oliver’s first attempt to teach Micah was to read out loud from the textbook and to point to the illustrations in the book. After many yawns and an unconvincing “I understand” from Micah, Oliver soon learned to simplify and make his teaching more hands-on, experiential, and interactive. For example, during the science unit on “matter”, Oliver taught Micah about the three types of matter by having Micah pound the desk to feel a solid, run his hand through water to feel a liquid, and flutter his arms in the air to feel a gas.

Oliver learned how to paraphrase the teacher’s lectures and to summarize and abbreviate the notes for Micah. He engaged Micah to print some of the key words and  the page numbers of assignments. Initially Oliver often wanted to “come to the rescue” to ensure that Micah would get the best grade possible. But with some coaching, he soon learned the value of helping Micah be primarily responsible for bringing the notebook to class and handing in his assignments.  It wasn’t easy for Oliver see Micah make some learned how to support Micah in becoming more interdependent, to take risks, and to try again when he made mistakes.

Oliver was also responsible for helping Micah study for his tests and to verbally administer the modified tests to Micah.  When studying for the test at school, Micah and Oliver audio-taped their discussions which were later listened to at home by Micah to review the major concepts. As Oliver became more familiar with Micah’s abilities, interests, and needs, he was able to quickly summarize and extrapolate the most meaningful concepts for Micah.  For example, Oliver believed that issues of speed and velocity were relevant for Micah when connected to cars, driving, and getting to school events.  In many ways, Oliver became Micah’s sieve to the volumes of information taught during Science.  Like a sieve, Oliver, with the ongoing and close supervision of the staff, held on to the pertinent facts of the unit for Micah, while allowing the less relevant and more complicated concepts to flow out.  As Oliver told us at the end of the semester,  “Micah was teaching me how to teach him.”

In addition to reinforcing the concepts and good study habits, Oliver played a significant role in facilitating interactions with other students in the class. Over the course of the semester, Oliver noticed some students interacting more with Micah: greeting him, asking him about his weekend, etc.  Oliver believed that many of the students quietly observed his conversations with Micah which increased their comfort level with Micah. There is some controversy in the inclusion movement as to whether typical students who become peer tutors or peers for class credit or as volunteers can ever truly be considered friends with a student with a disability.  The opponents offer wonder: Aren’t these students just being “nice”?  Are they just “practicing” to become teachers? These are important issues to monitor but in our experience we observed the evolution of respectful relationships between Micah and his LINKS. It was the opportunity to get to know Micah and to have something to do together that allowed for the forming of respectful relationships and in the case with Oliver a true friendship.

The following incident gives evidence to this friendship.  During one class period, a substitute teacher while taking attendance, repeatedly mimicked the way Micah pronounced his own name. Oliver was outraged, stood up from his desk, and strongly advocated on Micah’s behalf in front of the entire class. In Oliver’s own words, it was the act of a friend; not simply the responsibility of a peer tutor. Subsequent to that appalling experience, Oliver observed a positive change in several of the students toward Micah. They were more spontaneous interactions with Micah.  In my opinion, this is a perfect example of the power of the LINK program.  Its lessons reach deeper and wider than supporting Micah’s academic performance. As Marsha Forest, a leading educator and pioneer of inclusion said, “You learn to include by including.”  That’s exactly what Oliver and Micah were learning together and with the rest of the classroom community.

Sometimes Oliver helped other students learn HOW to include Micah in small group projects, rather than helping Micah directly. Oliver observed that, “They either ignored him or did most of the work for him. They just didn’t know what to do or how to ask for help from the teacher.”  So, Oliver tried to stay out of the group activities as much as possible so that Micah would connect with the other students.  Sometimes he also found it helpful to model HOW to include Micah.  He asked questions of Micah in a way that helped him get involved and he identify Micah’s skills and the contributions he could make to the group. He’d offered examples of previous successes. Oliver also observed that Micah became more adept with some of his conversational skills. He attributed this Micah’s increased confidence and his strong desire to view Oliver as a mentor.

Micah had three LINK students during this first semester pilot program.  These students met on a regular basis with the school social worker, the Dean of Students, and the parareducator to review the progress of the LINK experience and to problem solve about issues that arose during the course of the semester.  Students kept a journal of the impressions, questions, and lessons learned.  One of the most valuable resources for the LINK students was the paraeducator who has worked with Micah over the past year and a half.  She was a role model for the LINK students and offered on-site reassurance and guidance.  One of the most important lessons she taught the LINK students was that sometimes their “job” is to back away from Micah and allow him to work independently.  They benefited from hearing her say, “Sometimes your job is to just observe, to be there. You don’t always have to be doing something.” This is a wise lesson for anyone of any age to learn.

What do the LINK students say about their experience? (In their own words)

It was not about me teaching Micah.  Micah taught me a lot.  We all have our own special needs.

I learned to explain myself better and to be clearer.

I don’t feel so frustrated now when someone doesn’t get it the first time.

I learned that if you see someone in the hallway who’s not talking to anyone, then you should be going up to him and saying ‘hi’.

LINKS help you become a better person.   It’s great if you want to become a teacher.  It gives you a different perspective.

What does Micah think about LINKS?

Micah is fully included in his local high school; he is on the cross country and track teams, and loves politics. He has some great teachers who have worked hard to make sure that he is fully participating in the class activities. But if Micah was asked “How did tenth grade go?” he immediately and enthusiastically will tell you about LINKS, his most favorite experience.  Oliver asked Micah to go to lunch several times over the course of the semester and these lunches were some of the major highlights of Micah’s sophomore year.

What does Micah’s mother think about LINKS?

To conclude, I offer you the words of Pema Chodron (1994):  “True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings.”  This discovery of kinship is a wonderful side effect of programs like LINK.  At the end of the school year, we asked the three LINK students what they had learned by being a LINK. Oliver leaned across the table, hesitating for a moment. Then he offered, “I learned that Micah wants what I want, what everyone wants.  He wants friends and love of friends.  I realized that more and more throughout the semester. I learned that we had so much more in common that I ever imagined.  I would never have gotten to know Micah if it wasn’t for the LINK program.”

The LINK program creates links in deeper and broader ways than learning about solids, liquids, and gases.  Micah did learned about the scientific “matter” this semester. He was proud and we were pleased.  But he and others learned more than that. The kids touched by the LINK program learned what matters.  They learned that relationships are at the core of all successful learning and that connections with peers, despite labels are possible.  Forming relationships is what fundamentally matters to all of us. This is what motivated my sophomore son to WANT to study for his science test during the very last week of June!

SIDE BAR: A Few Considerations for the Future

I have had the opportunity to listen to Micah, the LINK students, and the high school staff.  As a parent and observer of the LINKS, I see the need to consider the following items.

  • Provide Micah with the opportunity to introduce himself to the LINK students at the beginning of the semester so that they get to know him as a person with abilities. He could show them some of his accomplishments, tell them a bit about his family and extracurricular activities through words or a few photos, describe his strengths and give some examples of how he learns best.  This experience would reinforce his self-advocacy skills as well as help the students see him as an active participate in his learning.  Parents can assist by briefly sharing their experiences and insights about how their child learns and what has been successful.
  • Teach the LINK students about “people first” language and the importance of emphasizing the person, over the disability (i.e. “a person with a disability”, rather than the “disabled person”). Emphasis should always be on seeing the capabilities and gifts of the students and building on what he or she does well. The staff can model the use of such phrases as “this is what the student needs, these are the supports that will assist in the student” over the more negative phrases such as “these are the weakness of the student.” For example, in Micah’s situation, it would be more empowering if the LINK students were coached by such directions as, “Micah and you can work on reading together.  You, as the LINK student can read the main points from the textbook and summarize the major concepts.  Micah will be able to read a few key words, like “solid, liquid, gas” with your help and prompting.” This account gives more description and suggestions for the role as a LINK, especially when compared to the more limited version, such as “Micah can’t read. You will have to read the text to him.” The first approach uses a few more words, is more descriptive, and ultimately more honest and empowering.
  • Inform the LINK students about “multiple intelligences” and the range of learning styles so as to strengthen their ability to observe their student and understand how to create meaningful learning activities.
  • Demonstrate and show a few examples of successful modifications utilized by Micah and his team over the past few years. During the first month of the semester provide brief opportunities for a few of Micah’s long-time team members (especially support personnel and academic staff) to discuss effective teaching strategies used with Micah. (A 25-minute video of Micah and the three LINK students discussing their thoughts and experiences with LINKS is now available.)
  • Allow the LINK students to observe the assigned class during the first week of the semester to get a sense of the subject matter and the orientation of the teacher.
  • Identify a few learning objectives and sight words which will be mastered for each unit. The LINK students, though not responsible for the lessons, can better support the learning process and provide valuable input into the process when they have a clear focus of the direction.
  • Maintain reflection time for the LINK students and staff to think about their important position as “socialization” role models for other students.
  • Include the academic staff person to periodically meet with the LINK students to discuss modifications and effective teaching approaches.
  • Continue the spirit of adventure, creativity, and commitment by everyone involved with LINKS.