Walking the Halls of Wilmington

By Angela Krile and Carly McVey, OCALI

How one high school program has come full circle through OCALICON

Tim* would just walk the halls alone…he wasn’t causing trouble, so people just let him walk.

Sydney was looking for a way to make a difference in her school….but she didn’t know exactly what she was looking for. Until she found it.

When a team of educators from Wilmington High School, led by Cindy Morris and Emily Schmetzer, attended OCALICON in 2015, they had no idea that the lives of the students in their high school were about to be transformed. They couldn’t have anticipated that Tim would no longer be walking the halls alone two years later. Or that students like Sydney would be impacted for life.

Four people smiling at the camera (from left to right): Educators Emily Schmetzer and Cindy Morris, student Sydney Wright, and educator Jessica Shelton.

The team had attended a presentation by Dublin schools about how its peer support program was using ASD Strategies in Action as the training for peer helpers of students with disabilities. Inspired by this and through serendipitous timing of a proposal deadline for new elective classes at Wilmington, the team applied for and received approval to develop a new course. The course, which also utilized ASD Strategies in Action for the training of peer helpers, expanded on an already existing peer support club.

The first five peer helpers, all girls, attended summer training before school started, where they viewed several of the ASD Strategies in Action modules together learning about strategies like positive reinforcement, social narratives, and visual supports and also set up accounts to access the online training individually as the year progressed. The summer training was a pre-requisite to ensure success for both the peer helpers and the students they are supporting. Other pre-requisites included being part of the Peer Action Team for a year or having been in the intervention classroom as a student helper for a year, as well as participating in a pre-program interview.

The interview is a critical step. “It’s important that we know the personalities before putting the students together. Sometimes the logistics don’t work for a perfect match, but we try,” said Cindy.  

Now the program has grown to 11 students, eight of whom are new this year – including male peer helpers, and, coming full circle, the team presented about its successful program at OCALICON 2017.

“Over the two years we’ve done it, we have consistently tweaked it,” said Cindy. “In fact, things that we learned here about social coaching, we’ll be implementing in the coming year,” she said in an interview at OCALICON 2017.

Barriers break down and peers become friends…

Tim and Sydney were paired up in 2016 and are in their second year of working together. Last year, Sydney supported him in Environmental Science, and this year, she’s working with him in Government. Sydney explained that working hand-in-hand with Tim’s teacher is a key to her success as a peer helper and to Tim’s success in the classroom. In her experience, teachers have the ability to empower the student peer helpers or they can be an obstacle for them. Sydney has been able to work with teachers to ensure she and Tim have the help they need to access relevant information and instructional materials and to enable Tim to demonstrate his knowledge in different ways.

In fact, expectations of Tim and his fellow students in the program have increased because their peer helpers know their capabilities so well and are able to provide feedback to teachers about the interventions they are utilizing. Peer helpers in the Wilmington program have been overheard explaining to teachers that the materials are “too babyish” and recommending different ways of making the material more accessible while also ensuring that it’s challenging for their peer.

Cindy explained that the peer helpers feel empowered to advocate for their peer and also collaborate with their fellow peer helpers. “They approach other peer helpers to ask them to recommend reinforcers and incentives when they are struggling.”

The first year, Sydney completed the Many Faces of Autism and School Age modules. She is now working through the Transition Age modules and states that ASD Strategies in Action has been immensely helpful, “I had aided in the classroom before I had the training, so I had some background knowledge, but I didn’t know about things like incentives…it filled in the gaps that I needed.”

“Sydney has taken what she learned from the videos and she knows how to push Tim because she also knows that he is capable of doing it, and doesn’t take it personally when he gets mad about it,” said Emily.

“In the beginning, I felt like I hovered too much. I didn’t really know. I have learned when to back off and let Tim do it on his own. Sometimes he tells me ‘I’ve got it, just give me a second.’  I learn everyday.”

“What I love about it is that even students who don’t go into education, they are going to go into another field and have a better understanding of people,” said Cindy.

“Even the objectives for the class – problem solving, patience, collaborative working – apply to other fields…and the peer helpers leave much more mature when they walk out of this experience,” said Emily.

Beyond the academics, the social impact of the program has been immense. Sydney and her fellow peer helper have helped Tim understand his boundaries – and have opened the door for more social interaction with students outside of the peer helper program. Previously, misconceptions led to barriers, but the peer helpers are demonstrating that the barriers are unnecessary and that misconceptions are just that – misconceptions.

Surprisingly, one of the barriers to social interactions was having an adult aide with the students rather than a peer. “Me being there versus adults is so much less intimidating to other kids,” said Sydney. “More kids come up and talk to him because they feel like it’s okay. You don’t have to be afraid to talk to someone – they are just kids like you.”

Being a peer helper is not without its challenges. Sydney shares that when she is absent, Tim will email the superintendent and ask “Why is Sydney MIA?” When Sydney returns to school, she said Tim can get angry that she was gone, but she has come to understand that he is just trying to express his concern for her and his frustration that things don’t go as smoothly when she’s not there.

In fact, last year, Tim wrote a note to Sydney simply saying, “Thanks for always having my back.”

When asked if he likes having a peer helper, Tim says “I don’t have one,” which is exactly the point of the program. Because to Tim, Sydney isn’t a helper. She’s a friend. And for Sydney, that feeling is entirely mutual.

* Name has been changed to protect the privacy of students.

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To learn more about ASD Strategies in Action: The Autism Certification Center: