One way to create a more inclusive school
When Brett Lewis signed up to be a Peer Helper in 4th grade, he thought it was a great way to avoid joining the Chess Club. Little did he know, that by signing up to be a part of an inclusion program that would partner him with special education students, he would meet his best friend and discover his favorite part of the school day (besides lunch, of course). To find out more about TED-Ed Weekend, go here- bit.ly/2mCCQDn. To learn more about TED-Ed Clubs or to start your own club, go to http-//ed.ted.com/clubs.
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At the beginning of fourth grade, I joined Peer Helpers. Peer Helpers is an inclusion program where students like myself can interact with students in Special Education. When I joined, I was looking to try something new because, you see, at my elementary school, there’s only chess club and Peer Helpers, so my options were pretty limited. But the kids that I did see peer helping looked like they were having tons of fun. I mean, they were missing class, sitting together at lunch, and taking trips. I wanted in on that, so I joined. At the time, I had no idea I would eventually be meeting someone who would become one of my closest friends today, Henley Hager. When I first met Henley and his family, it was a disaster. I vividly remember talking to Mrs. Hager for the first time, and I had no idea what to say. It was probably something like, “Hey, Mrs. Hager, I’m here to work with Henley.” So after I introduced myself to her, I finally met Henley, the boy I was going to be working with. At first, I didn’t know what to do or say around Henley. You see, Henley has severe autism, and I had no experience working with anyone like that before. I’m going to be honest. It’s not like I just strolled in there and was already best buddies with him. I was nervous, nervous that I might set him off, or nervous that I might do something to upset him, and since we’re being honest, I was nervous because we as humans have a tendency to feel uncomfortable around people who are different than us. Regardless, over the next three years, every Wednesday, I went with Henley to an after-school program where we would on social and academic skills, such as organization, doing homework, physical exercise, calming down, helping him understand the day’s plan, not complaining when he doesn’t get his way, and engaging in small talk. But as long as I’ve known Henley, I know what he wants to do, play on the computer. But we can’t always do that. So I’ll provide other examples of what we can do, like walk around the track, use the stationary bike, or play basketball. He’ll answer with yes or no, or he’s gotten to the point where he will politely ask if we can do this activity instead. Over the years, Henley’s small talk has greatly improved and it’s not just with me, it’s with every person he interacts with. That’s one of the goals of inclusion programs. Inclusion programs benefit people because they develop friendships, increase achievement of IEP goals, and greater opportunities for enhance learning are formed. But apart from all that, we would go fun places. I remember one time, Henley and I went to the McWane Science Center in Downtown Birmingham. We had fun watching the fish, and stingrays, and sharks. But imagine being at the science center and hearing two teenage boys cracking up and giggling over nothing. Henley and I can just let out a quick giggle and the laugh attacks begin. I have the best time ever when I’m with him and I always look forward to spending time with him, but this trip wasn’t me being his Peer Helper. These were just two best friends hanging out and watching sharks. Now, I can talk about how much I’ve done with or for Henley, but what I really want you to hear and what rarely gets mentioned is the fact that Henley has also helped me. He’s helped me become more patient, I am better at working with kids with disabilities, and I believe I’ve become more compassionate toward those different than me. So through my interactions with Henley, I mentioned becoming more patient. For example, Henley takes longer to learn certain concepts, to do school work, and to respond to certain questions. And because of this, I’ve learned to repeat myself without getting frustrated, or at least making that frustration visible. Somebody should teach my mom that. But let me be clear. Many times it was frustrating, but you can’t get mad at him because he’s not intentionally trying to be difficult. He’s just taking his time and adjusting to the task at hand the best way he knows how. Understanding this has made me a more patient person in all aspects of life. And apart from patience, I’ve become better at working with kids with special needs. In your everyday school, a majority of students pretend like students in the Special Ed department don’t even exist. They walk through the halls, talk to their friends, and ignore those with special needs. Rarely do people interact with these students in a positive and helpful way. But I’ve learned that through interacting with students like Henley, when you ignore those with special needs, you’re missing out on a gift. So from fourth to seventh grade, I worked exclusively with Henley, and that partnership, that friendship, is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I have loved working with Henley, and becoming a Peer Helper was one of the best decisions of my life. But sadly, not all students have this opportunity. After researching, I was shocked to find that people with special needs do not have enough, if any, Peer Helpers in their school. And what’s worse, not all schools provide enough teachers or teachers’ aids to students in the special ed department. So get ready for this part. Many students in the Special Ed department don’t receive the adequate services they deserve. And of the schools who don’t provide the adequate services to these students, I believe the most common reason is because they don’t have enough funding or staff, but if they’re not up to standard, it’s the students who suffer. Think of all the kids with learning disabilities and how they need help to thrive in their learning. Without it, jobs may not be available to them, or they may not learn social skills needed to live in the environment we live in today, their autonomy won’t develop and these rich relationships will not be formed. All of these concepts rotate around each other, and are things that I work with Henley to improve on. I can tell that Henley has greatly improved with communicating with people throughout the years, and this is because he’s fortunate enough to live in a community that has a very respectable Special Education program with many staff members and a thriving Peer Helper program. But, like I said before, not all schools, a majority in fact, adequately support the Special Education department, which is making it harder for these kids to become the most successful version of themselves. But now, let’s say schools do start providing the help they should be giving to these kids. Let’s say that these students thrive. I mean think of the possibilites. They’d be prepared for the work force, and they’d learn stronger social skills. If the schools are not providing enough teachers or teachers’ aids to students in the Special Ed department, I say that job is passed to us, the students. I say the students should step up and support their fellow classmates. Every student in here has the ability to help. The hardest part is acting on the problem, but I know everyone can do it. One of the best and most effective ways you can help Special Education departments is by creating or joining a Peer Helper program. Once you join of these programs, you’ll feel like a different person because you realize how much of an impact you have on other individuals. Because helping others impacts you. It turns you into a “glass half full” person and essentially, build stronger friendships with those who need it. So aside from lunch, being a Peer Helper is the best part of school by a landslide. For those of you who enjoy learning, just wait until you become a Peer Helper. Every Tuesday and some Thursdays, I help, and when I get to school, I am so excited. I’m excited for the time of day I can walk into that room and say hello to all my friends who I enjoy helping. Becoming a Peer Helper should be considered a privilege because not only are you positively impacting your fellow peers, they also help you, and you’ll build long-standing relationships from this as well. It is hard work sometimes, and you’re definitely not going to get a trophy saying you’re a good Peer Helper. But really who needs a trophy when you’re gaining a friend? That’s the best reward. Being a Peer Helper helped me realize who I am as a person and my purpose in not just my life, but other’s lives too. So I challenge my fellow students in the audience to strongly consider becoming a Peer Helper. You will love it. And if you don’t have one, talk with your principal or Board of Education and make one because these students really need it. And to you parents listening out there, encourage your son or daughter to participate in Peer Helper programs because all it takes is eight words to change your life and the lives of others, “I would like to become a peer helper.”
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