Special-needs students and their schoolmates model respect and caring

Every Monday afternoon at Burke Middle School in Pico Rivera, California, something special happens in the library. Seventh and 8th graders from a mainstream class gather together with students who have special needs. The students greet each other enthusiastically, then break into small groups, pull out picture books, and share the experience of reading together.

While it’s the general education students who read aloud, and the students from the special needs class who listen with rapt attention, don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s just the listeners who are reaping great benefits from the relationship.

“For the general education kids, they feel they’re needed,” says guidance counselor and CHARACTER COUNTS! team member Mrs. Alma Garcia. “They have a chance to be in a leadership role. They know that, ‘This person looks forward to me reading to them.’”

Mrs. Garcia created the idea for the Story Time project while looking for ways to build connections and community among students.

“Schools should really model our community,” she said. “We all shop at the same [grocery store]. We all use the same post office.”

At Burke Middle, part of the El Rancho Unified School District, mainstream students also help out in the adapted P.E. class, and special-needs students are encouraged to take leadership roles in the school, as appropriate.

The formal opportunities for interaction lead to informal interactions in the halls and the cafeteria, and an overall friendlier school climate.

“General education students get to know the kids with disabilities,” Mrs. Garcia said.” At lunchtime, when they see each other, they go up and say hi. The special-needs kids remember who comes (to reading), and they say to him or her, ‘You coming Monday?’ or ‘You coming to read?’ Some of the special-needs kids  have limited verbal skills, but they understand what you’re saying, and they communicate in some way.”

The positive impact of these interactions is that everyone feels more included. Special-needs students are no longer so far on the margin of the school’s social world. And mainstream students who are a bit adrift feel special.

In fact, Mrs. Garcia says, it’s the “typical” kids who are struggling academically or socially who may experience the greatest boost from the project. Being entrusted to model Respect, and Caring, and receiving admiration and appreciation in return, is a huge self-confidence builder.

For teachers and counselors who want to build similar projects in their schools, Mrs. Garcia has practical advice. First, look for logical ways to make connections between currently existing projects and academic goals. Mrs. Garcia’s story project began when she approached two teachers – one who leads the special-needs class, and one who teaches an elective called “Reading for Enjoyment.” The Story Time project fit perfectly with the academic aims of the Reading class.

Second, make the project voluntary, and open to all.

“I let any kids who want to volunteer, volunteer. It’s not based on GPA. If you have heart, that’s what I want,” Mrs. Garcia said. “Maybe this 30 minutes a week will help the kid who really doesn’t feel like they were part of the school, maybe it will give them a reason to keep coming back.”