Similar to many elementary schools around the country, our school has 4 low incidence classroom programs, housing students with autism and developmental disabilities. As a teacher of one of the autism classrooms, building social skills in my 5 to 8 year olds is a major priority. Problem is, with a classroom of 8 students with social skill deficits, how do I teach them skills that will be applicable with their same are peers when we don’t have same age peers in the classroom. Skills such as taking turns, waiting your turn, listening while others are talking, etc. can sound great in a lesson plan, but once it comes time to “teach” my students about these skills, it feels daunting and almost impossible, because they need a more “real-life" experience to learn.
At the beginning of last year, I had a 5th grade teacher approach me about her students conducting some service hours with my class. The excitement overwhelmed me! Should I have them cut out endless amounts of laminate or have them create new workboxes for the students? Eventually, the teacher shared that her students really wanted to read to my students. Now, the idea sounded great, but I was a little worried. I knew how difficult it could be to get my kiddos to sit through a story I read with expression, puppets, and anything I could get my hands on to keep them happy and sitting for the length of one book. Would these 5th graders be able to keep them sitting for 20 minutes or more?
The first morning her class visited, books in hand and looking a little intimidated (as I would be when in 5th grade), endless questions popped into my head. Who should I match together? How will they handle a student’s behaviors if it occurs? Will my kids sit for an entire 20 minutes? I swallowed my worries and went on with it. Each 5th grader was assigned a student and our younger students still had an instructional assistant close by to help and answer any questions the buddy might have. The students brought their own books to read, and they were able to spread out in our room so that there were 8 small clusters of buddies scattered all over the floor or at tables. Once everyone was settled and the stories began, I could not believe it! For once, I had absolutely NOTHING to do but walk around and take in how well my students were behaving and how amazing the 5th graders were working with them (and of course take massive amounts of pictures to tweet on our class twitter account). The first time they visited went by in a flash, and before we knew it, the students were gone.
Fast forward to mid-year. During their reading buddy time, the same group of fifth graders stop at each page, ask questions about the pictures, prompt the students to turn the page, and are even having conversations with the students through their communication devices. The engagement coming from my students actually makes me a little jealous! When we see them in the hallways, they say hello to my students, call them by name and my students respond! As a teacher that knows the social struggles that my students face, this has been such a beautiful experience for me to witness.
Other “buddy systems” we’ve incorporated throughout the year include lunch buddies, playground buddies, and Ipad buddies. Regular education classroom teachers can award good behavior or an outstanding achievement with time in my classroom with my students. How amazing is it that these 5th grade students see this as a reward? We also plan to start having cooking buddies once a week during our functional cooking lessons.
Next year, we plan to have game buddies that visit us once a week on Fridays (our game day). Since taking turns is such an important social skill, we will be learning about it during our social skills group throughout the week and then applying what we’ve learned on Friday’s with our game buddies.
Through the buddy system, there has been a growing awareness of our low incidence classrooms and a greater sense of belonging to the school in my students. I love seeing my students become more accepted by their peers. I also love knowing that my classroom has become a place that allows those students to gain awareness about autism and it’s many different components.
My students have so much to offer, as do other students with developmental disabilities. Giving them the opportunity to experience structured time with their school peers helps them gain the social skills they need, but the “buddies” are the ones that truly get rewarded. I love seeing the fifth graders grow into little adults as they become more empathetic and understanding of the students in my classroom. I would recommend the “buddy system” to any upper elementary school class.