Creating a Supportive Classroom Through Peer Education
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has”.
Peer education is a popular way of facilitating the process of peers (or equals) talking among themselves and determining behavioural change. There are several ways of facilitating this type of discussion. One way would be for the child or other children to do the training (peer-to-peer). Another way would be for a teacher to facilitate the training (peer education) or a speaker from an organization or support group does the training (in-service).
It is important for students to understand differences in people, in general, to create a supportive classroom environment for students with special needs or exceptionalities. Set the tone in your classroom for acceptance of differences. Remember, for a presentation about an exceptionality, the permission of the student and student’s parents is essential before going ahead.
Here are a few activities for a classroom setting. They may need to be modified based on your students’ age group and the nature of the difference:
- Have a discussion with how your students are alike and how they are different (green eyes, wear glasses, boys or girls, doesn’t like homework, allergic to bees, have 3 sisters, likes singing, plays chess, plays piano, etc). You could even brainstorm a list of attributes on the board. Then show them a brown egg and a white egg. Discuss the eggs’ similarities and differences and list them on the board. Then break the eggs in a bowl and ask if they can tell which was from the brown or white egg. Conclude the discussion that people may look or act differently, but they are similar on the inside. (You could also use a green, brown, and yellow banana for this activity.)
- Have a discussion with your students about similarities and differences. Using brightly coloured paper cut into strips, have each student write one attribute that makes him or her similar to the other classmates and one attribute that makes him or her different. Once everyone has finished, you could go around the room and ask students to share their similarities and differences. Finish the discussion by talking about how similarities and differences make everyone unique and allow each student to bring a new and interesting perspective and personality to your class. Gather the strips of paper and create a chain with them. This chain can be hung in your classroom as a visual representation of how the students’ similarities and differences “link” them together.
- For a presentation specifically on a child’s exceptionality, ask the students to write down everything they know about that exceptionality and what they would like to learn. If they do not know what it is, have them write down what they think it is. Then gather the papers and ask the children what it means to be different. Write their responses on the board, then discuss how to treat people who have differences and write these responses on the board. There should then be a resource (story or a video or facts) about the exceptionality which specifically explains that exceptionality. Afterwards, you can ask the students to share what they now know about the exceptionality and what they had gotten wrong before they received the information. Do they have any new thoughts on what it means to be different? Any new ideas on how to treat people with differences?
- Give your students a taste of what it feels like to have the exceptionality. An example of someone with a tic disorder could look something like this: Ask the class to pull a book out of their desks. Explain that you will give them a signal to start reading, but that while they read, every time they hear you clap, they must look up and turn their heads to the right.
- Give them the signal to begin. Over a 2-minute period, clap randomly many times as the children read, then tell them to stop. Discuss how reading with a tic felt. Was it harder to read? Did anyone feel frustrated? How would they react if they were trying to take a test while experiencing frequent tics?Another example to demonstrate what it is like for someone with attention difficulties might be to turn on a television, and play a music CD and have someone flickering the lights. Ask the students to recall the message on the television. Was this difficult? Why?
- Ask yourself what is the goal or benefit to disclosing this information about the student. What is it that you want the students to feel, to act/behave, or to learn? Why is this important? How will it help the student with the exceptionality? When is it best to disclose all or a little information? Who is the best person to talk with the class (the Student, Teacher, Special Education Teacher, Social Worker, representative from an association, parent)?
- Remember to tell students that a neurological disorder like ADHD, Anxiety, Tourette Syndrome, or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders is not a fatal disease and that they can’t catch it from another classmate (we know this, however students often don’t and may get scared).
- Talk with the child for whom the peer education is being conducted before the presentation to find out what s/he wants the class to understand. Encourage the child to be present at the peer education, however, don’t push it. If the child would like to help teach or run the peer education program, that’s terrific, as it helps them learn to advocate for themselves. But again, never push a child to do that –even if they are in the room. Tell them privately beforehand that you won’t call on them unless they want you to but if they want to add or explain something, you’d love to have their help. If they prefer to not be present, that’s ok too.
- There are a number of DVDs, videos or books that are well suited to showing the class. Parents or the School Board are often a good resource for this.
- The message is simple: kids with a difference come in all shapes and sizes, just like every other kid, but they just have this difference that may seem weird if you don’t know what it is. But now that they know what it is, they’ll know that the best thing to do is to just ignore it or be supportive of their peer.
- Following a peer education, you will probably notice a “honeymoon” effect where peers are nicer to the child for awhile. But keep track over time and see if the peers’ behaviour actually changes towards the child. Is the child now getting included in more activities on the playground? Are they getting invited to more birthday parties? You may need to conduct some “booster” awareness sessions at different points during the school year.