Hamilton Community Schools: LINKS Peer to Peer Support Program
This article originally appeared in START Connecting in April 2015.
Written by Becky Myers, Hamilton Community Schools
During the 2012-13 school year, Hamilton Community Schools attended the START intensive training and learned about peer to peer support (LINKS) along with many other strategies to support students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). We began peer to peer support in the spring of 2013 with one 4th grade student with ASD supported by 7 LINKS.
Two short years later, we have over 200 kids supporting 12 students with ASD ranging from 1st grade to 12th grade. Each of our LINKS groups has created its own group name based on the interest of the student with ASD. A few of the names include: “Chernobyl Tribe,” “KFC Veterans,” “Hamilton Secret Service,” and the “Spartans LINKS.” During our LINKS meetings, we teach the students that they have more in common with each other than differences. Our staff uses video clips, quotes, skits, and role playing to demonstrate this message and promote problem solving techniques.
Hamilton’s LINKS program has not only gained attention and support from our students, staff, and administrators, but from our entire community! Community members and parents have donated supplies, time, lunches, and money to support our lunch meetings so students are able to learn about ASD. Our teachers have embraced the program by creating LINKS schedules for the classroom, asking questions, implementing and monitoring behavior management plans, implementing a variety of educational strategies, and attending LINKS lunch meetings.
By attending the START intensive training, our staff was educated with the same information and we were given time to collaborate. Our trained staff shared the information with other teachers throughout that school year. We took the advice from START and began peer to peer with a small group. We quickly observed the significant impact it had on all students involved. LINKS has naturally grown because we are all committed to the same vision and outcomes for the program. Everyone involved is becoming more emotionally intelligent, not only about ASD, but about themselves and each other.
The following statements come from a few of the staff, students, and parents involved in Hamilton’s LINKS program:
Melinda Bronkhorst, 4th Grade Teacher (“Jedi Masters”) – “As a teacher, I have been blessed in a plethora of ways to be a part of the LINKS Program. I have seen my 4th grade students become compassionate leaders and responsible friends to our classmate with ASD. Students genuinely want to help and do what is best for him. I am so impressed with the program's goal of building awareness about ASD. Each meeting is filled with new information or examples of people living productive, successful lives while having ASD. My students gain valuable, new, and helpful information to assist them in being more qualified to help our classmate. The LINKS program is helping build the bridge to friendships between all of my students. I find myself being emotionally caught off guard while watching videos of various people beating the odds stacked against them. I find myself "rooting" for them and becoming emotionally attached to their stories. It has helped me become more educated in how students with ASD think, feel, and behave. This program opens the eyes of all the participants to the endless possibilities for students with ASD. I am blessed to be a part of this program!”
Alisha Boeve, teacher (“Jedi Masters”) – “The LINKS program (Jedi Masters) at Bentheim Elementary has impacted me personally, as well as our students and staff, in numerous ways. Together, we have grown in our understanding of ASD. We have collaborated and problem solved a variety of different situations to help our student with ASD continue to become an active and engaged member of our school. I feel as though our LINKS program has cultivated unique relationships in, not only our LINKS group meetings, but also as the students go back into their classrooms. They are learning to work together, share ideas, and support one other during difficult situations. With the support of the peer to peer support program, our student with ASD is able to access the general education curriculum with a much different approach. It is so exciting to see the students collaborating together, laughing, ‘cheering,’ and being a great support group for not only our student with ASD, but for each other as well. They see things that teachers do not always see, and with their insight and ideas, we are able to work together to create an amazing community that respects and supports one another.”
Jason, 4th grade student with ASD (“Jedi Masters”) – Jason enjoys the LINKS lunch "parties," especially when we have cheese pizza. He likes all the attention his friends give him. He also loves having friends playing with him at recess.
Dan Scoville, Bentheim principal (“Jedi Masters”) – “The LINKS program in Hamilton has been instrumental in helping our students better understand ASD in general, and the individual needs of our student with ASD. The LINKS program has required a lot of thought and communication, but it has been relatively easy to implement. The student LINKS are more perceptive to the needs of their student, and they feel empowered as to how to assist in an appropriate manner. The student receiving support is more receptive to cues he gets from his peers than those he gets from adults because it is their acceptance and attention he desires.”
Katie Lillmars, 6th grade teacher (“Emergency Master Builders”) – “I am experiencing LINKS for the first time this school year. I am learning so much from many of my students, who became LINKS in elementary school. It has been amazing to watch students come together to brainstorm, to learn, and to suggest ideas to help us all interact in positive ways with our students with ASD. Student LINKS have led the way in my classroom in many situations. I have been very thankful for many different aspects of LINKS and will continue to be a proud member in the years to come!”
Andrew, 6th grade student ASD (“Emergency Master Builders”) – “I get to sit by my friends. I have more friends now because of LINKS. It was harder to talk to new people before LINKS. I was sort of the silent type before LINKS but now not so much. I eat lunch with more different people now. My LINKS help me in class with things like figuring out math problems. They help me when I get frustrated or upset. They tell me it’s going to be OK.”
Cathy, Jason & Andrew’s mom (“Jedi Masters” & “Emergency Master Builders”) – “LINKS has been a great program for my two boys. It's been very overwhelming and humbling to see the outpouring of help and compassion these kids have given my boys. Many go out of their way to see my boys have someone to play with, help them with their schoolwork, or console them if something is wrong. It makes me feel a little less stressed knowing they have friends who are watching out for them and that they understand my children's issues and still accept them as friends. It's also been amazing to see most of the kids in their classes have volunteered to be LINKS friends with them. That was very unexpected. My oldest especially has really thrived with all this help and attention, socially as well as educationally. A side benefit for my oldest has been all girls in LINKS. His ‘guy’ friends think he is the luckiest kid in school. Not only has this greatly benefited my sons, but it has been a great learning experience for all the kids in how to be compassionate and respectful for those who are different and to put someone else before themselves. It has even taught me a lot. It's been such a pleasure to get to know their friends.”
Benjamin, 6th grader with ASD (“Hungry Titanic”) – “Before LINKS I didn't have any friends and got bullied a lot. My life was lonely. No one wanted to be my friend because they thought I was very different. That's why I was bullied too. Now I have friends because LINKS training showed them I am just like everyone else. We are all different. We all want to be treated fairly. They are nice to me because they understand ASD now.”
Julie, Benjamin’s mom (“Hungry Titanic”) – “Before LINKS my son had no friends. He was bullied on the bus and at school. He was in the resource room more than half of the school day. Appropriate interactions with peers had always been an IEP goal that never seemed to progress. His social development was at an utter stand still. Two short years later our lives have forever changed.
His LINKS and non-LINK classmates now understand his behavior, they are accepting of his interests, they have learned non-verbal cues, and they have learned to accept him just as he is. He now is in general education for a majority of the day. He is learning to communicate with his peers without being prompted. His wrestling teammates were able to help the coaches (new to the world of ASD) understand many of the non-verbal cues they use in school. His world has opened up. He likes going to school, he now retells stories of his school day, including friends, detailing his life as a typical middle school student.
START has taught me how to be a better parent. I am now able to determine if his behavior is because of his ASD or something else. I feel more equipped to talk to others about ASD and how it affects the lives of those who live with It. LINKS students talk to their families about the program, and it amazes me to see how much these kids are teaching their parents. They are more accepting of our family and the challenges that ASD creates. START and LINKS change lives!”
Taylor Dykstra, teacher (“Emergency Master Builders” & “Hungry Titanic”) – “LINKS has been a phenomenal tool for working on social skills and behaviors of students with ASD. Between the academic aspects of education, there is not always adequate time for teachers to address social behaviors or communication difficulties. Students with ASD who struggle socially can learn appropriate behaviors from their peers. Learning social skills from peers also makes the skills more concrete and applicable for students with ASD. Another great benefit is the empathy that is instilled in each member of LINKS. In LINKS meetings and through experiences with students with ASD, Hamilton students have learned more about ASD and have become more accepting of others in general. They see the gifts in each person, regardless of their social or academic ability. LINKS has shown me how one person can drastically change the life of a student with ASD, and how a student with ASD can drastically change the lives of many others.”
Rylan, 6th grade LINKS student (“Hungry Titanic”) – Rylan was a part of the original LINKS group that began in the spring of 2013 with eight 4th graders supporting Benjamin. When I told Rylan there are now 12 students with ASD being supported with about 200 links, he commented: “I think it (LINKS) helps students with ASD and the other students. It (the program) helps them too. Other students are helped by this because many students behave or may do similar things as the student with ASD, so by reminding the student with ASD, it helps everyone. I like to help others. I think LINKS has helped me be a better person. If I did not know about ASD, I may think differently about Benjamin. I may not know how to respond to him. But now I use our cues and I get to go on scheduled breaks with him. If you didn’t know about ASD, you might judge them. I think students with ASD can get better with communicating and hanging out with friends. It reminds me of Anthony Ianni, who has ASD. He spoke to our school and he said how much he improved with communicating and reading social cues. I think this is an amazing program. Benjamin told me how he was bullied a lot before LINKS, but now the LINKS stand up to help.”
Rylan’s mom, Michele (“Hungry Titanic”) – “Rylan has such a passion for the LINKS program and for the child he is partnered with! I could see Rylan pursuing a career later in life helping those in need in some capacity, due to his participation with LINKS. The LINKS program is wonderful.”