by Michael Murphy
The benefits of a mixed ability group program such as The Friendship Academy at Easter Seals, have long been advertised as great social interaction for students with special needs, unique opportunities for peers to learn from each other and an exciting adventure through diversity in the classroom. Often times, the benefits are only seen on the side of the students with special needs, however as I have seen the interactions between Friendship Academy students and other students throughout Easter Seals’ Bucks County location, I can say that the benefits of the “typical” student experience are just as rewarding as those of the students with special needs.
After a short time attending the Friendship Academy students have begun to exhibit empathy and respect for all of their classmates and the other students around the building. We have seen students develop new ways of asking their friends questions and solving problems with or without formal language. Students have taken on positions as role models or leaders to their friends and support them through difficult tasks. In the middle of a circle time you hear students complimenting others on their efforts to sit quietly or nicely. They praise each other for trying new foods or engaging in new experiences. Whether they use verbal language, sign language or a thumbs up, they are encouraging and embracing their new friends.
Friendship Academy is not just about giving friends with special needs an opportunity for typical peer interaction, but it is about introducing ALL students to the many ways of creating and maintaining good friendships and interpersonal skills. Every day there are new experiences that help all students to build and improve skills in listening, positive communication and building respect for others. Children at the preschool age have no idea what any of that means, and they shouldn’t, there is time for that. Right now it is important to focus on being good listeners, hard workers and building very important FRIENDSHIPS