Byron Center — Five minutes before the bell rings to signal the start of lunch at Nickels Intermediate, the cafeteria is quiet. The calm before the storm.
Fifth-grader J.D. Gallup walks down the hall from his class to fill his tray before the rush of his peers to the lunch line. It’s a more sensory friendly practice for him and he does not have to venture to the cafeteria alone.
His LINK mentors, Riley Bishop and Quinn Bartkowiak, are with him through the halls, the lunch line and to his table.
Before returning to their class, J.D. smiles and tells his friends “I like you guys.”
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J.D. and his friends Riley and Quinn are part of the LINKS program at Nickels, a peer-to-peer mentoring program in its first year.
Stephene Diepstra, school social worker and program founder, describes LINKS as an intentional way of increasing engagement and inclusivity for students with disabilities.
‘Just because a person looks or acts differently, doesn’t mean they should be treated differently. We help teachers in the classroom so they can spend more time helping other students, and everyone wins.’– fifth-grader Riley Bishop
“At Nickels, we have students partnering with students with disabilities to promote engagement in the classroom, model expected social behaviors, promote independence and build friendships,” Diepstra said.
Since putting out the call for LINK mentors in the fall, the program has grown from a handful of students to more than 60 fifth- and sixth-graders who have volunteered to be mentors for their special education peers.
“Our fifth and sixth students, with and without disabilities, are learning alongside each other and making our school a better place for everyone to learn and grow,” Diepstra said.
After arriving at Nickels this school year, Diepstra saw the opportunity to implement a new program with which she had background experience, and the students loved it, she said.
“More students hear about the program from their friends and are asking to join, so we keep growing. Matching (general education) students with our special needs students in key places throughout their day to help them in classes is really changing our environment.”
LINK students also serve as ambassadors to bring special education students into common spaces and groups of friends, and help them participate in classroom learning.
“They’re amazing advocates for getting more students into mainstream classes and are empowered to help their peers and classmates and stand up to bullying,” Diepstra said.
Sixth grade teacher Eric Krusniak has noticed the special education students in his classes have communicated more with their peers since the LINK program started.
“My students are really motivated to join the LINKS program and look forward to working one-on-one with their LINKS students in class,” Krusniak said.
Impacting All Students
Once a month, fifth- and sixth-grade LINK mentors meet with Diepstra during their lunches to share celebrations and challenges, and to learn more about disabilities.
LINKS students learn about inclusion in classrooms and how to help their peers feel valued. ‘Because of Oliver’ is one of the videos they watched during a lunch meeting.
Some of the challenges students encounter are unexpected behaviors.
“The last thing fifth- and sixth-graders need is another teacher or adult focusing on them,” Diepstra said. “They want to learn with their fellow fifth- and sixth-graders and be cool, like them.”
During a fifth grade lunch meeting, she reminded her students that “people aren’t always as kind as they should be,” so having more LINK leaders in the school positively changes the culture.
“Just because a person looks or acts differently, doesn’t mean they should be treated differently,” Riley said. “We help teachers in the classroom so they can spend more time helping other students, and everyone wins.”
Fifth-grader Troy Putnam said he learned Jeremy Nabinesha loves sports, so “we play basketball at recess with my friend group.”
Wyatt Deppe added: “I’ve learned how to be a kind friend to everyone because it makes people happy and feel included.”