Third grade students at Woodland Meadows Elementary were recognized May 31 for their work to help students with autism.
The Students Talking And Relating (STAR) program was developed by Jennifer Jozsa, a school psychologist, and Kimberly Munn, a speech and language pathologist as part of the Saline Area Schools commitment to inclusive special education services. The program utilizes peers to deliver instruction and intervention to students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). The main goal is to facilitate the development of communication, social skills, and independence of students with ASD by increasing their opportunities for social interaction with their typical peers. This type of peer-mediated instruction has consistently been shown to have positive effects on academic, interpersonal, and social development for students with autism.
Funded by the Foundation for Saline Area Schools, this program targeted third grade students in three classrooms at . Jozsa and Munn presented information about autism, peer-to-peer groups, and how the students could better help their friends with autism learn social, communication, and play skills.
Approximately 60 students received this information and an invitation to participate in the STAR group, and 40 students volunteered. These students met weekly during their lunch with Jozsa and Munn to learn about autism and specific strategies to use to help them communicate and play with their friends with autism.
While the main goal was to benefit students with autism, teachers and parents agree that peer volunteers have also benefitted from participating in the STAR program.
“I think it’s wonderful to address the issues of working together with people with special needs. It is often overlooked in today’s society," said Wendy Dorset, a parent of a child in the program. "Kids need to learn communication, compassion, and teamwork with all people.”
They learned communication and problem-solving skills, as well as leadership skills. Furthermore, the volunteers have learned to relate to people with different needs and are developing an increased understanding of individual differences.
“They learned so much about autism, leadership, and respect for others which will be carried on into their adolescence and adulthood," said - Aileen T. Figueras, also a parent. "I am so impressed with your program and that the other schools may be considering having this opportunity available to their students."
Woodland Meadows third grade teacher Drew Perry said the STAR program helped students with autism in social interaction.
“I have to say that no child is alike; however, in my experience, my children with autism tend to all struggle with social interactions," said Perry. "The direct influence the STAR program has had on our students with autism has been overwhelmingly positive. Thanks for all of your help with the STAR program- I think it has been a huge success!”
Jozsa and Munn said it has been an incredibly rewarding experience watching their students expand their skills in being reflective, responsible, and respectful.