Because of the freezing weather, I could not go to sleep waiting for the news to announce that school was cancelled. Unfortunately, the news was not good and I had to drag myself out of bed into the cold. All I could do was sigh as I walked by and saw my two dogs and one of my teenagers sound asleep on the couch. As I dragged myself into building, I was greeted by my secretary and our athletic director who was waiting on coffee to be made (coffee, yes!).
After coffee was made, the three of us shared our disappointment about our favorite football teams losing over the break. I was sad because Georgia lost and the coach was devastated that Alabama was not going to the BCS Championship (the man is a true Crimson Tide fan!). As we talked, he asked us if we saw the story about “AJ and AJ”. I told him that I had watched so much football and sports specials that I could not remember what I had seen over the break. At that point, he eagerly grabbed his laptop and opened it up to a video called “The Real AJ”.
As I watched the story about the friendship of these two young men, I was overwhelmed with emotion (in fact, all three of us had tears streaming down our face). The video shared the story about a young man with cerebral palsy who was befriended by the quarterback of Alabama, AJ McCarron. “The Real AJ’ as he is called by the team, did not seem to fit in and lacked strong advocates at the university. Not only was the story about his disability, but about friendship, the love for the game of football, and peer advocacy. In fact, I think this video is an awesome way to introduce peer helping to our athletes and student leaders to stand up and advocate for our special needs students or students who are often overlooked in schools.
I have a special place in my heart for students with disabilities as I have a younger sister who has autism. Unfortunately, she was bullied and misunderstood by her classmates in middle school. Back in the 90’s, no one understood autism and the social peculiarities of these children. My sister was very socially awkward and the other children picked on her almost daily. Fast forward 20 years and things have not changed much in schools. Autistic students are still bullied and are excluded by mainstream students.
One person leading the way in autism education is Dr. Temple Grandin. Grandin was born with autism and did not talk until she was four years old. Thanks to her willingness to speak publicly about her disability, she has exposed the secret world autistic students’ thinking and interactions with others. In 2010, Clare Danes starred in the HBO movie “Temple Grandin” which is a great resource to educate others about autism, especially peer helpers. In addition, Grandin has a great site with lots of resources for educators, parents, and professionals that you may want to explore.
If you are like me, you may struggle to find effective ways to support special needs students. If you are interested in advocating for special needs students through your counseling office or peer helpers, consider establishing a peer advocacy program. Julie Hertzog, Director of Pacer’s National Center for Bullying Prevention, is a true believer in advocating for special needs children.
Hertzog was afraid that her Down syndrome son, David, would become the victim of bullying because of his differences. Hertzog decided the best course of action was to go to his school and advocate for him by educating students and teachers about his disability. During David’s elementary and middle school, Ms. Hertzog educated teachers, met with the cafeteria workers, and talked to the students. She found that the students were not as concerned about his mental abilities as they were confused why he never talked to them. Once, the students understood the mystery behind his disability, his peers were able to act as his voice at school. Although the concept of peer advocacy sounds simple and this approach may not work in every schools, Hertzog believes that schools can find the right strategy to teach students about acceptance, inclusion and respect.
Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center defines Peer Advocacy as the ability to speak up for others. Peer advocacy works for several reasons:
- Peer influence is powerful.
- Peers are more likely to know what is occurring in classes rather than adults.
- dynamics of bullying
- the characteristics, traits of circumstances of the students for whom they are advocating
- options for intervening
If you are interested in working with special needs or isolated students, what are some of your ideas? I would love to hear about them.