Circle of Friends - The Path to Inclusion is a social language skills program of inclusion, providing valuable support for students with special needs. It is based on the establishment of friendships between students with disabilities and their trained non-disabled peers through meaningful interaction in a natural environment. Many groups exist that build connections between peers, using various names (and some even using the 'Circle of Friends' name!), but again, their groups build connections only…they don't provide a systematic approach that teaches and supports social and life skills.
Here are a number of the characteristics that make our Circle of Friends program unique:
Circle of Friends establishes a different group of non-disabled peers (2 to 4) each day around a student with social skill challenges, enabling students with disabilities to develop multiple friendships over the school year.
Circle of Friends' small groups meet weekly, sitting at various locations of their choosing, fully woven into the fabric of their campus.
Circle of Friends provides on-going training to all non-disabled participants throughout the year. They learn how to model social language skills for their new friends with special needs. They learn how to guide and shape the skills of asking and answering questions, increasing sentence length, topic maintenance, changing topics, appropriate body language, etc. They learn how to improve pragmatics.
Weekly phone calls provide opportunities for students with special needs to develop the life skill of speaking on the phone. They learn to dial, leave messages, ask for friends, and talk to peers over the phone…a skill different from face-to-face conversations.
Monthly large-group activities within the community or on campus are encouraged as part of Circle of Friends. This inclusive model brings the understanding and acceptance of differences into the community and demonstrates genuine friendships between students with and without differences. These large group activities provide additional social opportunities for students with special needs to interact with other participants in the program.
A student officer board (under the supervision of a school advisor) meets weekly to organize and run the Circle of Friends program, planning monthly activities outside of school, disability awareness presentations for general education classrooms, a year-end award banquet to honor all participants, and more.
Disability Awareness presentations are given to classes by small groups of students both with and without special needs. These presentations provide a better understanding of disabilities. The campus climate therefore develops a heightened sensitivity to differences.
Parent meetings are held two times per year for parents of students with disabilities. This is a place where parents can share their concerns, challenges, and experiences…it becomes a sanctuary in which true support and trust develops.
Non-disabled students, teachers, and administrators increase their awareness, understanding, and acceptance of people with special needs. They discover that people are people and learn to embrace differences. The climate of the campus is therefore positively impacted and encourages staff to further integrate and include students with disabilities into the classroom setting and campus life.