Helping Hands program provides role modeling for Westlake students

Westlake Elementary School students play together as part of the Helping Hands program.

Eleven years ago, Dover Elementary School launched the Helping Hands program, matching typical peers with students with disabilities to offer peer tutoring, role modeling and participation in social skill activities.

That program is continuing at Westlake Elementary School, and this school year Dover Intermediate School (DIS) intervention specialists Emma McHugh and Kerry Brickman launched the program at the intermediate school.

“Emma was interested in getting some helpers at the beginning of this year at DIS. We used the same idea that Dover Elementary had with their program, as many of the Dover kids were already asking about it,” Brickman said.

Brickman recruited the first group of students. Word spread quickly and soon McHugh said students were coming to her asking for volunteer opportunities. She now has 21 volunteers.

“We have two students in the morning who asked to join, but they didn’t have time in their daily schedule so they volunteered the idea to come in before school to encourage my students to unpack and follow their morning routine,” McHugh said.

Sixth-grade peer volunteer William Bierfeldt said he sees people with disabilities as “equal – just the same as us.” He recruited sixth-grade twins Dina and Lina Ghanem to the Helping Hands program. The trio are neighbors and “do everything together,” said Dina.

Dina said her favorite part of Helping Hands is seeing her friends happy, and she said it taught her not to judge others. Dina taught the group to fist bump – a popular greeting they exchange at the end of every day.

“I don’t really see the disability in people,” said fifth-grade helper Annabelle Scollin. “I just see them as kids.”

Fifth-grade helper Elizabeth Herr said, “I love working with the students, and I can’t wait to come and work with them every Tuesday.”

McHugh’s students have a variety of disabilities and are taught in a self-contained classroom. The Helping Hands program, she said, introduces backward inclusion into the school day.

“Both groups have truly benefitted,” McHugh said. “Over the course of the first semester classroom staff have observed authentic relationships forming, leadership qualities emerging and progress with individualized goals.”

Typical peers help with morning meetings, transition to middle school, prepping materials, and assisting with both academic and social emotional learning activities, such as cooking, library and games.

Phoebe Pagano, one of McHugh’s students, said her favorite part of Helping Hands is when Jonah walks with the group to choir and gym class. She also enjoys cooking together as a group.

To celebrate the progress of the program at the intermediate school and to provide an opportunity to generalize skills learned in the classroom in a public setting, McHugh and Brickman took their students and peers on a bowling trip to Bay Lanes.

At WES, peers from second, third and fourth grades volunteer daily in intervention specialist Sue Peplin’s and Doug Kuns’ classrooms. Peers are chosen based on these traits – helpful, patient, understanding, compassionate and possess strong social skills.

“There are a wide range of kids who have true interactions through the Helping Hands program,” Peplin said. “I see a change in my students, in terms of their comfort with playing and social interaction, and in the peers who become comfortable in approaching student with disabilities. I’ve seen true friendships develop outside of the classroom.”

Ethan Thornton and Sara Lance are second-grade students who participate in the Helping Hands program. Both have family members with special needs and said they like to play games with students.

“Being in a self-contained class, we’re not out in the building as much as other classes,” Kuns said. “This program opens the door for our students to develop relationships they might not otherwise have. It opens a different mechanism for Helping Hands peers who may not see the challenges our students go through. They are not as apprehensive to approach a child with special needs after being in Helping Hands.”

Fourth-grade student Callie Eckel said she got involved with the program after playing with students with special needs on the playground.

“If you are outside the program, you (may tend to) just see a disability,” Peplin said. “In the program, you see the child. It’s a win-win.”

Kuns agreed, adding the interactions and friendships he sees develop are genuine.

“I often wonder who is getting more out of the program,” Kuns said.

Kuns said the elementary Helping Hands program has probably had participation from close to 500 students over the years.

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Volume 12, Issue 4, Posted 10:04 AM, 02.18.2020