Links program breaks down barriers

Challenged students get a little help from a friend

by BETH ALTENA

A program that pairs successful students and those that face learning differences is so successful that teacher Emily Molesta hopes it

The Links students at Appleview Elementary.

will become a model for other schools. “Links” at Appleview Elementary in Sparta is a new program that links children with learning challenges such as autism with their peers, who mentor them and often form special friendships. It is called Links because it links students together like the rings or loops forming a chain.

Darby Andreini is one of the links who has several students within her mentorship, and the relationships with her new friends have become a staple of conversation at home. “Not a day goes by without a Ferd story or an Alex story,” said Katy Andreini of her daughter, a fourth-grade student at Appleview.

Darby was interviewed by TV ? recently and will be featured in a news segment this week.

“She has developed amazing leadership skills,” Katy said of her daughter.

Darby Andreini with her Link Ferd.

More importantly, the relationship between Darby and her links is one of mutual care. “She doesn’t look down on them or patronize them,” Katy said.

Katy said her daughter can be frustrated when others assume her role with her links is to discipline or boss them around. “They mentor their link by helping them with their school work or making sure no one is picking on them on the playground,” she described. She gave the example of offering a special toy or incentive to complete tasks.

“One of her links loves Thomas the Train, so she found one and said, ‘Do you like this Thomas? If you fill out your planner every day this week, it’s yours,’” Katy described as an example of how Darby encourages her links.

The relationships that have become apparent between the 50 or so students who are involved in Links are a secondary result of the program, first developed by Grand Valley State University. The main goal of the peer support program originated as a way for children in the autism spectrum of learning challenges to be more successful at school. Integrating students with developmental disadvantages is a concept that is coming into its own, and Molesta believes other schools can look to Appleview’s success.

KIDS COMING TOGETHER—Scenes such as this, kids of different learning abilities coming together in friendship, have become common at Appleview Elementary.

Molesta went to training seminars and developed the Links program for the Sparta Public Schools. She said she hopes other educators will contact her to find out more about integrating challenged students successfully. Molesta said the program goes beyond the school boundaries and started with just a few links. Now, there are so many participants she and her assistant are having trouble keeping up with them. It’s a good problem to have. “It’s been wildly successful,” she described.

Part of the program is to recognize the efforts put forth by each of the students. A Link of the Week is recognized in her classroom, and the paired students are thanked with treats such as a special Subway lunch. Recently the mentoring links took a trip to the Special Olympics Speed Skating, where they cheered on their peers in competition.

Molesta said the program has improved the educational success of the challenged students, but just as gratifying, it has brought all the students in her classroom closer together. “If they see this kid they can relate to hanging out with a student they normally wouldn’t relate to, it makes them think,” she described. “If he is hanging out with that kid, maybe it’s okay for him to hang out with me, too.”

She said examples of the program’s success are endless. Students who in the past declined participation—hanging back and tending to stay to themselves—are now running and playing with the others. “It’s breaking down that wall,” she said.

The program is currently funded by the Sparta Education Foundation (SEF), with donations from local businesses. She said Jack Brown Produce, Choice One Bank and The Ink Spot have all helped supplement the $1,400 SEF donated.

“For many of these students, school is hard. It’s a day-to-day grind,” Molesta said. “It’s good to see this peer-to-peer program. What it is all about is learning right from wrong from a peer.”

Molesta said she hopes to grow the Links from this first-year success in her classroom up to the middle school level. There, students with Downs Syndrome are currently taught in a self-contained classroom. She hopes, with Links, to bring relationships like these to those students as well.

Molesta can be reached at the school at (616) 887-1743 for more information about Links.

 

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