2017-04-30 / Insight

LINKS program at Schickler connects students with autism to their peers

BY NICHOLAS PUGLIESE
810-452-2601 •


Many of the kids at Schickler with whom LINK volunteers share their time are preschoolers enrolled in Lapeer Community Schools’ ECSE program, like Jayden Fantozzi, who receives attention and assistance by some of the 100 school volunteers each day. 
Photo by Nicholas Pugliese Many of the kids at Schickler with whom LINK volunteers share their time are preschoolers enrolled in Lapeer Community Schools’ ECSE program, like Jayden Fantozzi, who receives attention and assistance by some of the 100 school volunteers each day. Photo by Nicholas Pugliese LAPEER — Starting school is a challenge for any student, but for children living with added hurdles like Autism Spectrum Disorder or severe social acclimation issues, that challenge is compounded. At Schickler Elementary in Lapeer, 100 students from kindergarteners all the way to fifth grade volunteer their time and effort to the school’s LINKS program, lending a hand, a kind word or their attention to their developmentally disabled classmates to help better transition these classmates to school life.

LINKS, which began in Lapeer West High School several years ago and has since grown to establish networks in every school in the district, is a peer-to-peer support program that identifies students that need extra assistance due to developmental disorders and pairs them with classmates who help with socialization and independence as they navigate school life. At Schickler, the program is a wild success, with 100 student volunteers helping out with nine “target” students, as well as the school’s Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) program which houses roughly 25 preschool-aged children.


A preschooler with the ECSE program, Jaxon Young used PECS (Pictures Exchange Communication System) to ask for a ball from a fifth-grade LINK student Genevieve Paterson while Kaylynn Little, another ESCE preschooler, looks on. A preschooler with the ECSE program, Jaxon Young used PECS (Pictures Exchange Communication System) to ask for a ball from a fifth-grade LINK student Genevieve Paterson while Kaylynn Little, another ESCE preschooler, looks on. “One-hundred students are supporting about 35 kids,” said school social worker Sarah Mignano. “And you don’t have to be the perfect kid to volunteer to be a LINK, you just want to help.”

With the program at Schickler growing in number each year, it has become clear that many students want to do just that. LINKS students help their classmates as assistants in sensory rooms, which are areas that provide solace if a student becomes overwhelmed. LINKS students also act as “playtime helpers, help with just walking with the kids in the halls or sitting with them at lunch or recess, or if the kids just need someone to sit with them and play,” according to Mignano.

Every parent of a student at Schickler receives a letter to inform them about the LINKS program, and both LINKS volunteers and their special needs peers are required to get parental permission before being involved in the program.

“Peer-to-peer research shows that it’s way more help to have a peer show a kid the ropes (of school),” said Claire Chiodo, a speech language pathologist at Schickler. “And it’s super helpful to the LINKS students too, it has been shown in studies that participating in peer-to-peer programs benefits the volunteers by bringing grades up, cutting down on behavioral issues and increase personal responsibility.”

Beyond the studies, according to Chiodo the difference made in both the LINKS volunteers and their classmates is obvious. “I think it’s really empowering our LINKS kids to be leaders and help their target student,” she said. “And for the target students, it provides them friends and someone to count on.”

Chiodo shared that the LINKS students can communicate with their classmates in ways that parents or educators might not be able to. “The LINKS kids can share fashion tips and what’s cool,” added ECSE teacher Robin Wood. “Things that adults might not know about, how to stay up with their peers.”

At the end of the year, Mignano, Chiodo and the ECSE teachers throw a celebration thanking the LINKS students for their efforts that features inflatables, games and perhaps even surprises, and all funds used by the program are generated primarily by fundraising and donation.

“We just finished a spirit week fundraiser, some of the LINKS kids brainstormed ideas like “mismatch day”, and participation was a quarter,” said Mignano. “But we raised $119.”

Earlier this month, Lapeer Optimist Club donated $40,000 to assist the program across all LCS schools, which they deemed to be of an enormous value to LCS and is keeping with the Optimist’s motto, “Friend of Youth.”

LINKS volunteers are always paired up with students their grade level or younger, and the benefits to the program can be seen not just in the volunteers and their classmates, but the entire student body. “It really helps with acceptability among all the kids,” said Mignano. “Students aren’t confused about seeing support devices or technology and have a better understanding of their peers with special needs.”

The volunteers are coached by Lapeer Community Schools staff members, each of whom volunteer their time as well, in monthly meetings to learn tips and strategies they’ll use to better aid their peers. “In a lot of (LINKS) student volunteers it gives them a sense of purpose — a lot of the kids are just looking to be a part of something,” said Chiodo. “And being in LINKS makes them more tolerant and better citizens.”

Schickler LINKS staff making a difference

MAYFIELD TWP. — The LINKS program at Schicker Elementary School is supported by several staff members, who volunteer their time and efforts to provide LINKS volunteer students with the tools and passion to assist their classmates.

The staff includes:

• Megan Thornsberry — ECSE speech pathologist

• Claire Chiodo — Speech pathologist

• Mike Orr — Special education teacher

• Amy Hundt — Special education teacher

• Jennifer Parker — Special education teacher

• Kendra Carter — Second-grade teacher

• Jennifer Farley — First-grade teacher

• Sarah Mignano — School social worker

• Robin Wood — ECSE teacher

• Jenny Bontrager — ECSE teacher

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