Written by: Dr. Kimberlee Ratliff
Although many students who qualify for special education placement are mainstreamed into classrooms, there are some students who need specialized care based on the severity of the disability. Entering the world of middle school counseling, I served students at a middle school with a designated classroom for students with severe disabilities. These students spent the majority of their day in one classroom with the other students who also had severe disabilities with limited interaction with the remainder of the student population.
I knew I needed to serve ALL students and I was disturbed by observations I made in the hallway one morning as the students with severe disabilities arrived to start their day. The stares, facial expressions, and jokes aimed at our students with severe disabilities bordered on bullying; clearly it was time for a change.
Erin Tucker, our gifted education teacher, and I decided to create a program to increase acceptance and empathy of our students in the severe disabilities classroom. We created a peer buddy program called Panther Pals (the panther was our school mascot) that involved two special education groups: those in the gifted education program and those in the special education program, particularly the severe disabilities class. The outcomes exceeded our expectations.
We started with proposing the idea to our principal and discussing the purpose and goals with the teachers. Once approval was granted, we discussed the program with the students identified in the gifted program and encouraged them to apply to be a buddy. The application included questions regarding why they want to be a buddy, hobbies and interests, and basic information to help us in the pairing process. For protection of our students in special education classes, we did request parent permission for participation in the buddy program. We were surprised by the overwhelming support from the parents.
Once we had applications and permission forms signed, we met with the students in the gifted program to give them an overview of working with their buddies, to explain confidentiality and what to expect, and to share information about some of the disabilities they might encounter. The teachers from the special education classes assisted with this sensitivity training and provided excellent insight to help the students understand the best ways to communicate and befriend their buddies.
We did activities that showed what it would be like to be blind and have physical disabilities. Students were able to gain some understanding through experience the challenges that their buddies face. We paired buddies based on mutual interests. Each month, the students had a program and activity to help build the friendship with their buddies.
Examples of program and social skills activities:
- Reading day – buddies read stories together (many students in the severe disabilities classroom do not speak, but they loved reading time with their buddies)
- Valentine’s Day – made heart cookies and decorated them with icing
- Made mini-tote bags with their buddies
- Bowling field trip and pizza lunch
- Stations of different exercise activities
- Social lunches
- Buddies paired with students with cognitive disabilities went on a field trip to the mall as students learned how to include tax in purchases
The goal at first was to reduce the potential for bullying or exclusion of students with special needs by creating acceptance. Additionally, we wanted to foster empathy when engaging with the students to promote understanding and genuine friendships.
The success of the Panther Pal program was evident during the planned activities as well as interactions on a daily basis.
We discovered that the students in our gifted program learned how to communicate with students who may not be able to talk, learned a sense of self-worth as they served as a buddy, and became defenders of these students if anyone said an unkind word or gave a disapproving look.
Although inclusion is very popular and students in special education programs often attend classes with non-disabled peers, students with severe disabilities are often still left out of the mainstream school environment. I strongly recommend creating a peer program such as Panther Pals to support a positive school climate for students who may not engage with all of their peers on a regular basis.
Social Skills Activities and Resources:
Social Skills Activities on Pinterest
Peer buddies and social skills activities printables
Peer buddies and social skills activities for children and teenagers
Free social skills activities here
Peer buddies and social skills activities for elementary students here
About the Author
Dr. Kimberlee Ratliff is a National Certified Counselor (NCC), National Certified School Counselor (NCSC), and Trauma and Loss School Specialist (TLC Institute). She is currently the Program Director and Associate Professor of the M.Ed. School Counseling Program at American Public University System (APUS). Prior to her career at APUS, Dr. Ratliff worked as an elementary and middle school counselor in North Carolina and Northern Virginia in addition to teaching at George Mason University. She received several awards including the Virginia Counselors Association Counselor of the Year Award, Prince William County Schools (PWCS) Above and Beyond Award, Prince William County Education Foundation Hero in Education Award, and the APUS Teaching Excellence Award for the School of Education. Dr. Ratliff has held previous leadership positions in the Prince William County Regional Counselors Association (PWRCA), Virginia Counselors Association (VCA), and Virginia School Counselor Association (VSCA). She is also a member of the American School Counselor Association and American Counseling Association. Dr. Ratliff has presented on the local, state, and national levels on bully prevention and counseling multiracial children. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Social skills and peer buddy resources can be found here too.