At the Watson Institute, our special education teachers and staff work to adapt educational programming to best serve our students’ individualized needs. In the WISCA program, autistic students benefit from therapeutic support which helps them work through assignments and learn social and behavioral skills.
In an effort to encourage consistent peer support and social interactions, WISCA staff created the peer mentoring program at Watson. The mentoring program provides autistic students with the opportunity to form meaningful connections with their peers and offer guidance to younger students in the program.
Student peer mentors and mentees range in age from 11 years old to 18 years old. In order to participate in the peer mentor program, students need to complete their work and be on track with their goals, both educationally and behaviorally.
“Some of our student peer mentors help with the curriculum. Some peer mentors we call upon when a student is having a hard time.” shared Jennifer Do, Program Director of WISCA.
Since the program’s inception, there have been a number of special bonds formed between students in the program as well as between WISCA students and peers in other Watson Institute programs like the Education Center South.
“Fred and Josh were one of the first pairings. They are a perfect match” shared Jennifer. Josh is now an alumnus, having graduated from the WISCA program.
Fred shared that he was starting to fall behind in his classes and was looking for educational support. He also struggled with managing his emotions, specifically his anger.
“As a student, it did help me do better but as a person I think I had a lot less stress because Josh knew what he was talking about. He knew a lot about anger management and it helped talking to him because he’s a friend.” shared Fred about his experience in the autism peer mentoring program.
Peer Mentoring Expands with Cross-Program Collaboration
As the mentoring program proved successful, it expanded to the other WISCA school locations in Bridgeville, and Sewickley, PA. When the program started in Bridgeville, Fred visited the WISCA South classrooms and shared his experience as part of the mentoring program and how his participation had a positive impact on him.
“It was really touching to hear Fred share his experience and it meant a lot to hear it from him,” said Jennifer.
The peer mentoring program at the Bridgeville location has also opened the door for cross-program collaboration between WISCA and the Education Center South school program for students with disabilities. In Watson’s Bridgeville school, WISCA classrooms are on the second floor while Education Center classrooms are located on the first floor. These programs share facilities including the gym, playground, daily living skills rooms, and other spaces throughout the school.
WISCA program staff started fielding questions from their students who were expressing curiosity about their Education Center peers: What is their day like? Do they communicate like me? Is there any way we can help them through the mentoring program? With the encouragement and support of Education Center South staff, Ms. Do started to bring a few interested WISCA students down to the classrooms to observe.
For many students, consistency and routine are important. For students with special needs, it can be critical to the success of their school day. Ms. Do and her students kept this in mind so they started to slowly integrate themselves into an Education Center classroom.
They began with a few visits to observe how the classroom runs its day and how special education staff interact with their students. From there, WISCA students started to interact with the Education Center students for brief periods of time so they could start to gain familiarity and become comfortable with their presence.
Throughout the school year, students in the WISCA program have established peer mentoring relationships with students in the Education Center program.
Ms. Do hopes that these positive experiences will encourage other WISCA students to become more involved in mentoring students in the Education Center South program.
Learn more about the Watson Institute’s WISCA autism school program and the autism peer mentoring program.