Swan Mothers

Discovering Ourselves through Parenting

A Dark Side of Peer Pal Programs

on September 17, 2013

My son’s school has a program called Peer Pals though which student volunteers work and play with classmates with special needs. Reading the permission slip I was required to sign indicating my consent for my autistic son to participate in Peer Pals, I felt uncomfortable. While I understood how such a program might benefit children, the idea of assigning my child a friend, or friends, felt wrong.

Daniel, then 12 and in sixth grade, was doing well in his first year of middle school. I know he worked longer to complete assignments and homework than his classmates. I know he didn’t understand much of what teachers said in class. I know he didn’t have friends who knocked on our door. At the same time, he was pleased that he had learned to operate his lockers and navigate the hallways within days. He persisted in doing his homework independently. He was happy.

During  fall conferences, his Resource Room teacher told me that there was a friendship developing between Daniel and Brian, a boy who sat at his table in English and Math. Mrs. S was teary describing how the boys talked and laughed together. Daniel told me that he sat with Brian at lunch. The relationship did not extend outside of school, but Daniel never expressed an interest in doing so, and I never suggested it.

To Peer or Not to Peer?

I discussed the the Peer Pals program with Mrs. S. She explained that his Peer Pals would share notes with Daniel if he missed a class, that he would have a Lunch Bunch so he wouldn’t “have to” sit alone in the cafeteria, and that the children would participate in fun activities to facilitate socialization. I decided to sign, but asked Mrs. S ensure that Brian did not become Daniel’s Peer Pal since their friendship was developing naturally.

A few weeks later, I discovered that Brian was Daniel’s assigned Peer Pal. Distraught, I called to ask how this had happened. Turns out the arrangement was a mistake. The social worker who runs the peer program, Mrs. K, had not communicated with Mrs. S prior to seeking peer mentors among the sixth graders.

They asked if I wanted Brian removed as Daniel’s Peer Pal, explaining, “Brian volunteered because he wanted to help Daniel.”

It was too late. I didn’t want Daniel to think Brian didn’t want him to be his pal. I didn’t want Brian to feel that his good deed had been rejected.

Daniel and Brian remained Peer Pals, assigned to each other. I was devastated, disappointed that I’d allowed a potential friendship to be marred.

Full Circle

When Daniel asked, “What’s a Peer Pal?” I explained that a pal is a friend, that Brian had volunteered to help him if he needs help in class because he’s his friend, because Brian wanted to be the one to help if Daniel needed help.

The school year passed. Daniel sat at Brian’s lunch table every day. There was an indoor (due to rain) picnic for the peers in the spring. There was a field trip for The Peers.

Then, in the last week of school, the yearbooks were distributed. Among student groups in the back pages was a group photo titled Peer to Peer Mentors. Daniel saw Brian in the picture and asked, “Why I not in this picture?” tapping on the page with his finger and looking with me with wide-open eyes. He was confused, and sad.

All of the “normal” kids were pictured. You know, the ones who volunteered. The ones who helped the less fortunate. The heroes. What does that make Daniel and the other autistic kids, the ones with Cerebral Palsy and Downs Syndrome, the “other” peer in Peer to Peer?

What Now?

A new school year has started. I expect that the same form will come home in Daniel’s folder, asking my consent for him to participate in the peer mentoring program.

  • If you’ve been in this type of group, please help me understand.
  • Was the group helpful to you?
  • How did you feel about it at the time and in retrospect?
  • Does experience in a facilitated setting translate to other situations?
  • How can parents tell if they are helping and supporting, or imposing their values and goals on their children?

Perspective and Experiences from Autistic Adult Bloggers

Sometimes What Looks Like Empathy, Isn’t

by Lynne Soraya

My new teacher was very extroverted and people-centric – traits that would seem ideal in a teacher. But we quickly came to clash. In her estimation, being alone and isolated were the worst possible outcomes for anyone. I was both.

Not that I wanted to be…but I was coming from a completely different perspective. For me, isolation was a far less painful place than the world in which I had spent the previous year – a world in which it was impossible to tell the cruel from the kind, and being around people meant living in constant fear, wondering where and when the next attack would come. And my teacher unknowingly made it worse – in an attempt to integrate me into the social sphere of the classroom, she “assigned” me a friend. read more

Out of the Goodness of Your Heart

by Judy Endow

I have nothing against the goodness in the hearts of other people. However, I would like to explain how it feels to be on the receiving end when I am befriended out of the goodness of your heart.

First of all this doesn’t a friendship make because authentic friendships are reciprocal. This means that giving and receiving go both ways. The benefits are mutual. When you befriend me out of the goodness of your heart – and then tell me so – I understand that you are assuming the role of a kind benevolent person while I am perceived as a less than person, assumed to not be able to have real friends so will be grateful to you for including me. – See more at: https://ollibean.com/2013/12/10/goodness-heart#sthash.0L1iIM0b.dpuf

 

 

 

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29 responses to “A Dark Side of Peer Pal Programs

  1. This is very thought provoking. I am not sure how I would feel about the whole thing. Have the boys continued to be friends this year?

  2. redngold1 says:

    To me traditional school fails our kids. (And fails parents, too.) We took our son out of school mid-sixth grade. That was 18 months ago. He has blossomed as a person. Which we (his parents) rate higher than academics. (Maybe that’s just us.) We homeschool now.

    From your post I think you ought to have more discussion with your son.
    From your post I would ask him if he would like to have a peer. Would like to have a helper. Does he want to lunch with a bunch or does he like having lunch by himself.
    To me these questions address assumptions made by the peer pal program and the school staff.

    To me the risk of Daniel being disappointed (again) by a picture in the year book is too great to repeat the possibility a year later.
    To me the risk of school employees not communicating an *extremely* important parental request is too great to repeat the possibility a year later.

    And I have a comment on “…the children would participate in fun activities to facilitate socialization.” To me socialization in traditional school is a myth. Briefly: A child in a traditional school interacts only with other children his own age. (And even that interaction is limited.) All *ALL* adults the child interacts with in the school setting are authority figures. That’s not the real world. That’s not socialization.

    • I agree that academic proficiency is less important than happiness and well-being. My oldest (now in 10th grade public school) was enrolled in a traditional preschool, a Montessori school, an innovative private school, public school, a Waldorf school, homeschooled for five years, then chose to return to public school. Both of my boys have been homeschooled at some points, and I still homeschool my youngest.

      I know that homeschooling can be a beautiful thing. I know children can thrive when taught away from the stresses the school environment can create. I also know that school can be a wonderful place. Daniel prefers to be in school at this time, and, in general, has a positive experience there. His teachers and support staff are kind, caring, and open to making accommodations that make school a confidence-enhancing, happy experience for him. They are learning, as I am.

      This post poured forth because I intended to write a note to the social worker about Daniel’s response to the photo. Obviously, I still had a lot of emotions attached that moment.

      Thank you for commenting. This parenting thing is quite a journey. I’m glad you’ve found what works for your son and family.

  3. Sometimes, an “error of omission” is the same as an “error”. Either way, imagine the following flow of life force energy….The same way that the petals of a flower slowly unfold, so do our lives unfold. There is no *good* or *bad* or *right* or *wrong*…it just IS. Rejoice in the mystery…the passion…the unexpected. Sometimes, life is about letting go…It is not always easy to be self-objective, especially since our *Collective Unconscious* (Jung), is, in reality,
    a journey into The Unknown…”All The World Is A Stage,” is the phrase that begins a monologue, from William Shakespeare’s, “As You Like It,” spoken by the melancholy Jaques, in Act II Scene VII…Ultimately, it’s all about faith, with nothing to guide us except God’s endless Love…Mercy…Empathy…Grace…Divine Intervention…Compassion…

  4. TONI BARCA says:

    What the schools fail to understand is that by highlighting this peer to peer mentors in the yearbook they flagged/outed the supposed “disabled” ones. Its a cruel twist of fate and I would have a meeting with the principal with my year book in hand and talk to them about the choices they made last year and their lack of communication. I would also ask them for one second to put themselves in your son’s shoes when he opened that yearbook and ask you why he was not represented.

    • I’m not sure that I understand how not having all of the children in the photo “outed” the special needs students. Please help me understand so that I can see as many angles of this situation as possible.

      • Geri thissell says:

        I am an SLP and I run circle of friends social skills group at my school. I do not assign students to partners rather we have a weekly group with the asd student and those who have signed up to participate. I do not use the word ‘help’ as I feel the students are very capable. We are making friends and part of friendship may be asking one another for help when needed but I make a point to hi- lite the unique talents each student has. The pictures we include in the yearbook include group shots of the friendships/ memories we have made.

        Hope this is helpful as I love my program and many great friendships have been formed outside of school and into high school.

        • Jennifer says:

          @ Geri Thissell …That sounds like an AWESOME idea! I may ask if they could get something like that started at our school.

        • Thank you, Geri. Sounds like you have a great program. I esp. love this:

          We are making friends and part of friendship may be asking one another for help when needed but I make a point to hi- lite the unique talents each student has.

          I want to clarify that I am not angry at the teacher or social worker. They are both amazing people and I know they care deeply for the students. I share the story because Daniel’s response alerted me to aspect of the program that I had not previously considered. I hope that our experience is useful to others.

  5. Jennifer says:

    My son has Autism and I would let him do the peer program and until now never thought about them putting the photos in the yearbook but I would want my child pictured along with the “typical” peers. I know the program was created to let the “typical” children help the “non typical” ones but I sincerely believe that BOTH end up learning from each other; so in my opinion, the “non typical” peer is also a peer tudor to their “typical” peer just in a different way. Plus, if your child is high enough functioning to realize he was part of this program and was left out because he is the “different” one, was the program really worth it? It is suppose to help the children feel included in all areas of the school environment. To me, it would almost be like a person wanting to date another person and so happy when the other person finally asks them out, but then learning they only asked you out because they were asked to do so by the parents and they didn’t like you at all – they saw you as a charity case.

    • To me, it would almost be like a person wanting to date another person and so happy when the other person finally asks them out, but then learning they only asked you out because they were asked to do so by the parents and they didn’t like you at all – they saw you as a charity case.

      Good analogy and exactly why I was sad that Brian shifted into this more formal role — even though Brian wanted to help Daniel. It changes the dynamic.

  6. Dona Wallace says:

    our public school was very very lacking in teaching the special needs population. Often, my son, was simply placed in the corner with an ipad and no one ever interacted with him the entire day. He was pulled out last year and we have been home schooling ever since. There are several parents of both gen ed and sped that have elected to remove their children from the awful public school system in our area and home school. It is night and day for us. We were told our son would never get past the 1st grade and they did not even attempt to teach him basic spelling or math. Well he is in the 3rd grade now, taking Spanish and ASL, bible study and all core courses. A’s in everything. We do field trips and he interacts with others every week. He is a very happy and well adjusted boy now. I am sure this does not help answer your questions – other than to say that the Peer to Peer program at our school was a huge failure and resulted in more exclusion rather than inclusion.

    • I’m glad to hear that homeschooling works so beautifully for you. I don’t know if you saw my reply to redngold1’s comment, but I have homeschooled all of my children in the past and am currently homeschooling my 10yo. Daniel and his older sister choose to be in school. We have determined that flexibility is important and are willing to change school (or not school) options as and when necessary.

  7. dj m says:

    thank you for this. I have been thinking a lot about how schools can help my child with socialization. i hadn’t thought about possible downsides.

  8. Marilyn Vigoren says:

    I feel the school was wrong in not putting all children’s pictures in the photo line up. We haven’t had to deal with peer to peer yet, will be interesting when we do this blog gave me a heads up of what to ask. Thank you.

  9. Neil says:

    Very thought provoking piece. The child study team at our school has suggested starting such a program and I had not thought of it in this light. Thank you for posting.

  10. Gail Armitage says:

    My niece has been a peer or special buddy as her school calls it to an autistic boy all through high school. To my knowledge, her school photographed all of the kids together not just the peers. This might have been an oversight made by your son’s school. The young man my niece befriended has matriculated out of the system now, but she still visits with him at his home. Don’t be too hard on the school, but do let them know how it made your son feel left out. I cannot imagine there was any intended malice.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience. I do not blame the school or teachers involved. I am relating our experience because I believe that hearing this short story can raise awareness of an issue some might not have considered.

      I love knowing that your niece’s friendship continues. 🌺

  11. lifeofpookie says:

    Have you approached the yearbook staff to ask if they could change the format of the Peer Pal page to include the children with special needs? A similar thing happened with my daughter. She was in a 1/2 inclusion 1/2 separate class. When class photos came home, her picture was with the separate class. I brought it to the principal’s attention that the parent’s of the kids in the separate class would appreciate being a part of the typical class photos and he apologized and made sure it didn’t happen again. He knew why, without my even stating it…

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