They were words of encouragement we all need from time to time.

“Way to go,” he cheered as one of his peers completed a task.

“If you need help, you can always ask me,” he assured another who was struggling and getting visibly frustrated.

These heartwarming, empathetic words came easily Thursday to Mason Meyer, 4.

It’s the type of interaction one hopes is taking place in all elementary classrooms. But, it was even more special because Meyer is a typically developing peer in an inclusive early childhood program at Bristol School.

The Peer Model Program is designed for children (age 3 at the time of enrollment) with and without disabilities to learn from and form relationships with each other. They meet three days a week from 8 to 11 a.m. at the school.

On Thursday morning, the class of eight was taking part in activities centered around a spring theme. Teacher Lynell Caya sang a song that directed students to find an egg with a specific color, shape, pattern or picture to put in a basket. When, after some consternation, his classmate chose the correct egg, Mason was quick with his praise.

Bridging the gap

Jessica Meristil, director of special education and pupil services, and Sarah Singleton, a speech pathologist, developed the free program in an effort to bridge the gap between birth-through-age-3 programming and 4-year-old kindergarten.

“One of our goals is to have this type of inclusion develop throughout the building,” Meristil said.

The school year begins with five peer models and two students with special needs. The number of special needs students grows throughout the year as additional children turn 3 and become eligible for enrollment. But the number of peer models is always greater.

A peer model is a child without a disability who demonstrates typical development in all areas and displays appropriate behavior in the classroom setting, she said. They act as “a leader, a helper and a friend” who “helps special needs students reach their goals in the areas of play and social interaction and can model appropriate school behaviors such as sharing, turn taking, participation and self-advocacy.”

At the same time, Meristil said the peer models are also learning and growing in their confidence, empathy and their school readiness skills.

Mason’s mom, Erin Meyer, said he has developed a greater level of patience when it comes to doing painting and craft projects and has learned other academic skills.

“He now knows how to write his name and recognizes his numbers one through 10,” she said “I have loved seeing him in the classroom helping others, both special needs and his peer model friends. It has taught him more patience, sharing, compassion and kindness.”

Katie Eckhart said her daughter, Claire, has grown “not only academically, but socially as well” as she has built new relationships in the class.

“The class has given her confidence and taught her to always be a good friend,” Eckart said.

Looking for new peer mentors

As this school year comes to a close, the district is looking for a new group of five peer mentors for next fall, Maristil said. Children wishing to be a peer model must turn 3 years old by May 1 and cannot turn 4 prior to Sept. 1 of the 2019-20 school year.

The classroom is led by a dual-certified special education teacher and supported by a special education classroom assistant, occupational therapist, physical therapist and speech and language therapist.

Parents are required to provide transportation to and from the program. The last screening date is May 10.

For more information, contact Kim Rudolph at 262-891-4016 or via email rudolph.kim@bristol.k12.wi.us to schedule a screening appointment.

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