The Watson Institute supports students with special needs through various academic and social initiatives and incorporates IEP goal-work into every aspect of our students’ school day. These types of initiatives and classroom projects can vary within each special education school program at the Watson Institute.
In celebration of National Mentoring Month, we are highlighting how the WISCA school program for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder expanded its peer mentoring program!
Last year, we shared how our students in the WISCA program helped launch the peer mentoring program at our Sharpsburg location and how that positively impacted the lives of Josh and Fred, one of the student mentor pairs. When the WISCA program expanded to the Watson Institute’s Bridgeville location in January 2018, the students couldn’t wait to get the peer mentoring program started!
WISCA South Now Has Autism Peer Mentoring Program
In the fall the students got their wish! The autism peer mentoring program was up and running at the WISCA South location. As part of the kick off, Fred visited the WISCA South classrooms and shared his experience as part of the mentoring program and how his participation made a positive impact on him.
Jen Do, a behavior specialist at the Watson Institute and advisor for the peer mentor program explained how impactful it was for her students to hear from a peer about the program. “It was really touching to hear Fred share his experience and it meant a lot to hear it from him.”
The peer mentor program is built into each student’s class schedule, however, some of the mentors have elected to use the free time in their schedule to visit with their mentee. Katie, 12, has taken to her role as a mentor working with younger students in the program. She typically uses most of her break time during the week to visit with her mentee.
Not only is Katie serving as a positive role model for her mentee, Dylan, she is also learning from him. She is learning how to be flexible and adapt when classroom routines or activities change. In weekly mentoring review meetings with Ms. Do, she asks behavior-related questions to learn what she can do to help her mentee when he is having a hard time.
Peer Mentoring Education Center Students with Special Needs
An exciting development in the WISCA autism peer mentoring program since its inception at the Bridgeville location has been the newly formed relationship between WISCA and Education Center students. At the Watson Institute’s Bridgeville special education school, WISCA classrooms are on the second floor, with Education Center classrooms located on the first floor. As the students in the WISCA program adapted to their new school, they began to encounter students in the Education Center program.
Ms. Do and her colleagues in the WISCA program heard their students start to express curiosity about their 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 is 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.
WISCA South student, Jeremiah, has embraced his role as a mentor to the Education Center students in Caitlin Doyle’s classroom.
Ms. Doyle teaches students ages 5 to 8 with physical, neurological, and developmental impairements as well as students with Down syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Ms Doyle shared how positive Jeremiah’s mentorship has been on her students. “These exchanges have helped my students establish an understanding of appropriate behaviors and affirmative social engagements.”
Ms. Doyle’s students love Jeremiah’s weekly visits! One student in particular, Hunter, greets Jeremiah (who he affectionately calls ‘Miah’) with a huge grin each week. “Each student likes interacting with Jeremiah especially because of his warm and gentle personality.” said Ms. Doyle.
During his visits, Jeremiah’s mentees are not the only ones learning new things. Jeremiah often asks Ms. Do and his special education teachers about the types of devices Ms. Doyle’s students use to communicate and appropriate ways to interact. It’s also an opportunity for him to work on his own social skill goals as he learns how to foster positive social interactions with students who communicate differently than him.
Jeremiah enjoys learning about the students’ daily routines and shares his reflections with Ms. Do about how autism impacts him in different ways than his mentees.
“He’s really intuitive and sweet with the students,” said Ms. Do.
Ms. Do hopes that Jeremiah’s positive experiences will encourage his fellow WISCA students to become more involved in mentoring students in the Education Center South program.