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Bringing kids together

Students helping students in the CCA Middle School’s Peer PE program
Olivia Webb encourages classmate Sam Stewart to propel himself around the CCA Middle School gym in a special walker during a Peer PE class in December.

TIFFIN– Seventy Clear Creek Amana (CCA) Middle School students have taken on a role typically more mature of seventh and eighth graders, and their classmates with special needs are the beneficiaries. The students, led by Physical Education (PE) Teacher Nick Boeset, spend time each week in a Peer PE program working one-on-one with their classmates in an open gym format.
The program started five years ago to coincide with the adaptive PE sessions the school had already been doing. Boeset explained Adaptive PE is a stand-alone PE class for students with physical and/or cognitive challenges. Those challenges often hold them back from being able to fully participate in a traditional PE class, or to be successful in working on specific motor skills during a regular PE class. Adaptive PE allows more time for specific tasks and goals as spelled out in the student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
“It’s a lot of motor skills,” Boeset explained. “A lot of balance, getting the hands and feet to work exactly the way you want them to.”
Most of the adaptive kids are integrated into the regular PE classes, but the Peer PE sessions provide a little extra time to focus on their particular needs with help from their classmates.
“It was a way to pull kids together,” Boeset said.
Instead of the special needs kids working just with teachers and other adults, Bosest said, an effort was put forth to intertwine more socialization and getting to know each other with kids coming in to be helpers, rather than just having the adults running the show all the time.
“It has gone from myself and our associates, and it takes us a little bit into the background and allows some of our students that are looking for an opportunity to lead, and to get to know kids, to come in and take over that role,” Boeset explained.
The students who come in to help provide encouragement, coaching, leadership and guidance to their challenged classmates. On a Wednesday morning before the Christmas break, the gym was busy with several small groups of student leaders working with their fellow students on shooting baskets, tossing a ball back and forth and helping and encouraging a wheelchair-bound student as he perambulated around the perimeter of the room in a special walker with wheels. Smiles were in abundance as were words of encouragement and joyful excitement.
“The results have been incredible,” Boeset said. “We’ve seen the motivation level go up, we’ve seen a lot of good things that the kids are getting out of the adaptive part of it. The motivation level is so much higher, they’re just so much more engaged when kids are in the room, they’re much more willing to jump into some of the activities they need to be doing, and they’re working more without us having to prompt them.”
Boeset and other adult staff are always present during the Peer PE sessions, but the format is generally kept fairly loose.
“Our associates teach the kids about how to interact with each other, being the model of how to interact,” he noted.
Gradually the associates are able to step away, but are always ready, with Boeset, to step in and offer guidance to the students when necessary.
“One of our awesome (special education) associates, Meagan Hayes, has been the one doing a really good job of helping coach the kids, of pairing the kids up, and guiding them through (the sessions),” Boeset iterated. “She’s really been the rock star in there.”
He noted the program isn’t a CCA innovation.
“Vanessa (Special Education Teacher Vanessa Rapier) and I sat down and said we were missing something,” he said. “We were wanting to help build a culture of acceptance, understanding, and just getting to know all kids. So our philosophy has been, if a kid is interested in being a part of it (volunteering to help), then we want them in. We want to give every kid the opportunity to be a part of this, if it’s something they can commit to.” Boeset does a recruiting drive toward the end of each school year with the sixth and seventh graders, and sends out an online application form for interested students to sign up on. The students also answer a few screening questions to gauge their interest including reasons for wanting to participate.
“For the most part those questions are there so I can get a feel for them, but ultimately we want as many kids to participate as possible.”
Boeset acts as a coordinator, lining up which students will come in for particular sessions on specific days. The sessions are something of an extra on the schedule, which means students wishing to help have to leave a core class 20 minutes early. This means other teachers have to be willing to let the students out and possibly make some adjustments for them. If the student has a test however, they remain in their class for the entire time and help out with Peer PE on another day. The students, eight to 10 scheduled as help on any given week, are responsible for getting caught up on any instruction they miss.
“Our teachers have been amazing of understanding that this is an important thing,” he said. “There is a lot more value in 20 minutes of this than what they can easily kind of catch up on the next day. There’s a lot of good things that come from it.”
The high school utilizes a different adaptive PE program called Unified PE, with several former middle school (now high school) students helping out in a similar fashion. With a push to have middle school students explore potential career paths, participating in Peer PE has shown the potential for cultivating a passion for helping others in some students, Boeset said.
“I have kids that are freshmen, sophomores now, even some of my middle school kids, that it’s like… oh my goodness, I think that you have found your niche. This is something I would hope you at least consider, because they do such an outstanding job, whether it’s as a teacher in general or a special education teacher, or someone who focuses in on the therapy aspect. They seem to have a really good heart for helping out with the things we’re doing, and figuring out how to be a leader for different types of kids.”
While some other programs do a more intensive application process, resulting in a cadre of a dozen or so kids, Boeset and Rapier prefer opening it up to all who show interest.
“It’s so much more about changing the culture (of the middle school) to more inclusive and inviting, and walking down the halls having more kids saying hi to each other, or sitting at a table at lunch with kids that they maybe wouldn’t have before,” he said. “By involving as many kids as we can, I think we’ve made good progress in that. We were hoping that by starting with this, it spreads to just understanding that all of us, whether it’s the differences we see on the outside, are a whole lot more like each other on the inside than we realize sometimes.”
Boeset said he’s happy with the number of students participating, and appreciative of his fellow teachers’ willingness to accommodate them.
“It’s been a big growing point for our school,” he praised.