For many students, going to school is packed with good times, learning and friends. But students with disabilities face many challenges, especially with social skills.
Thornapple Kellogg Public Schools has found a way to help those students deal with peer pressure and school rules, through a program called TK Connectors.
The Connectors are student volunteers who, after a mini-training session, work with school social worker Sandy Klein to figure out the best student match for them. Students decide when, where and how often they want to get together.
Research has shown students with disabilities benefit from spending time with students their age, which is one of the reasons Connectors formed a couple of years ago. Each school in the district has a Connector program, with students doing everything from hanging out together at lunch or recess, learning how to play soccer or enjoying hobbies.
At the middle school recently, the loud and busy lunch room looked like any other school cafeteria. Logan Hoffman, Sydney Chamber and Zach Junge sat together at one of the tables. Sydney, the Connector volunteer, said they talk about everything and laugh a lot.
“Ah, that’s my Sydney. You make me smile, too,” said Logan — with a smile, of course.
Learning Goes Both Ways
TK Connectors not only helps the students with disabilities, but their mentors as well, said Klein, the social worker. “I hear just so many neat things,” she said. “There’s so much growth for general ed students.”
Dora Koski, another middle school student Connector, agreed. “These people inspire me,” she said. “They’ve done so much for me, and it puts a smile on my face every day.”
It’s also been a learning opportunity for the general education students. Student Maggie Maring, who uses sign language to communicate, has been teaching it to her mentor, Jocelyn Noviskey. “My whole class is learning sign language,” Jocelyn said.
Klein said middle school volunteers have found themselves hanging out with the special-needs students at recess, helping them explore their academic interests and teaching them how to play soccer. They also are there to stick up for a friend if things go wrong.
Connectors meet with Klein on a monthly basis. “They share the most amazing things,” she said. “At first they might be a little scared, but they come to realize the kids are just like them, and they have things in common.
“It melts my heart to walk through the hallway and see kids do special things,” she added. “Other kids pick up on it. They’re not afraid to talk to students.”
This is the program’s first year at the middle school, which has about a dozen students participating. Principal Brian Balding said it’s been a great experience for the students and has “added to school tremendously.”