Montabella encourages peer interaction through LINKS


By Meghan Nelson • Last Updated 10:18 am on Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Brennen Smith, 7, shows his buddy MaKayla Helmer, 7, a multiplication keyboard he found during a LINKS lunch group on Friday at Montabella Elementary School. — Daily News/Meghan Nelson

HOME TOWNSHIP — After grabbing their lunch boxes and lunch trays, six Montabella Elementary School kindergarten and first-grade students headed down the hall to the library to eat their lunch together.

The lunch group is part of Montabella Community School’s LINKS Program, which is a peer-to-peer program to support students with autism. Montabella currently has LINKS programs in kindergarten through ninth grade.

“The program promotes social interaction and independence through teaching peers,” teacher consultant Amanda Foster explained. “Students are constantly encouraged to interact with each other. Our students with autism often need to be taught how to initiate interaction.”

One example Foster and Carlee Gifford, school social worker, gave was preparing a question before the group meets for a student with autism to ask the group.

Foster said one of the LINKS students often sits on the floor or faces away from the group and won’t respond to an adult asking him to sit at the table. She and Gifford are teaching the peers to ask the

During Friday’s LINKS lunch, the group worked on appropriate greetings. Peers would say hello with the goal of having other students say hello back.

Amanda Foster, teacher consultant for Montabella Community Schools, gives Brennen Smith, 7, on left, and his buddy MaKayla Helmer, 5, chips to taste during Friday’s LINKS lunch group.

“Students are constantly encouraged to interact with each other. Our students with autism often need to be taught how to initiate interaction,” Gifford said. “We, as adults, also often don’t know what is age-appropriate, which is why it is so crucial for these students to learn social skills from their same-age peers.”

Through the LINKS program, students with autism are able to eat lunch with their a buddy and learn how to socialize through modeling. During lunch, Gifford and Foster plan an activity to keep the students interacting with each other.

Friday’s lunch group included a tasting guessing game. Foster had different flavored chips in bags and the students had to guess the flavor of the chips they ate. The activity encouraged students to talk with each other about the possible flavors

Brennen Smith, 7, and his buddy MaKayla Helmer, 5, tried the chips together. After they had tried all the chips, together they played with a multiplication keyboard they found in the room.

Gifford and Foster have seen socialization between the students with autism and their buddies branch out into other environments so the students are interacting in natural settings as well. And, some of the grade levels have even incorporated the buddy system into the classroom, so the student always has a buddy who sits next to them and model positive behavior.

“It’s easy to assume that people with autism don’t want to interact with others. However, research has shown that many people with autism want to interact with their peers but either doesn’t know how or have had negative experiences socializing,” Foster said. “This program allows these students to have positive interactions and experiences with their peers, which greatly increases their social skills.”

Foster and Gifford said their favorite part of being involved with LINKS is seeing the small victories that come out of the program.

“We have one student with autism who has been participating in LINKS groups for two years. When he began the group, he was not interacting much with his peers,” Gifford said. “Now, you can observe him standing in the hallways at passing time giving everyone high fives.”

Foster told a story about one of the students with autism who is afraid of bees. When his classmates realized there was a bee in the classroom, they worked together to distract him. Once he saw the bee, the class then worked together to calm him down.

The LINKS program — and the students it services — has grown since it started two years ago, and Gifford said they plan to continue implementing and improving the program.

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