Everybody has a need to belong, to be loved by somebody else. Friends are crucial to our well-being. They care about us no matter what, providing support and encouragement. Just imagine what your life would be like without special friends.

Some children in your classroom may not have many friends. Often this group includes those children who have special learning needs or disabilities. With a little intentional effort, friendships can develop between special needs children and peers who do not have a disability.  In professional education this happens through a program of peer helpers.

The concept of peer helpers began early in the 1990s, when the general approach in public education programs shifted from partial integration of students with special learning needs into the regular classroom to full inclusion. Special and regular education merged into one system of education for all, designed to develop and sustain friendships, increase community involvement, and provide curriculum adaptions for students with disabilities. Inclusion continues to be a growing national movement in school reform today.

Peer helpers are a key part of this inclusion strategy. Teachers and counselors give non-handicapped students the opportunity to volunteer to help students with disabilities. They explain what is required of a peer helper and how to offer the greatest support. These adults meet regularly with peer helpers to help in planning school activities and events. They discuss issues related to the special needs students and ways to solve their problems.

Natural support can be offered to special needs students throughout the day by peer helpers:

  • A child in a wheelchair gets help managing materials, moving in difficult terrain, and participating fully in recreational activities.
  • A child who cannot express himself or herself orally may receive help using and transporting special communication equipment, companionship in activities he or she can enjoy, encouragement, and physical support.
  • Children who cannot keep up academically with their classmates or have difficulty expressing themselves enjoy the support and assistance of someone who helps them make good choices and helps them connect with others.

In your Sunday school class, students with special needs may benefit from a consistent peer helper – a fellow student who volunteers for, and receives some training in, being a role model for their fellow students and a friend to someone in need.

It is important for peer helpers to focus on a disabled student’s strengths rather than weaknesses. Special needs children have many abilities. It doesn’t matter that Kathy communicates with a computer. She is still a spelling and math wizard. And Tom makes everybody laugh by telling great jokes and stories from his wheelchair.

With a commitment from peer helpers and support from interested teachers, the classroom can be a positive experience for special needs students, a place where they develop meaningful, lasting friendships that extend beyond the classroom walls.

Jo Ann Gramlich is an award-winning author and speech-language pathologist specializing in helping children with communication disorders in Buffalo, New York. She holds a Master of Science degree in Speech-Language Pathology from SUNY Buffalo and has extensive experience in early intervention, preschool, and school settings. Visit her on Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin.

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