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Breaking Communication Barriers, Forging Extraordinary Friendships

Kids in classroomStudents from different grades filled the Pequenakonck Elementary School playground playing tag, climbing, and creating imaginary games. Amid their laughter and activity, some older students partnered with younger students signing or using a computer tablet to talk with each other.

"Meeting our friends was a whole new experience. I realized that not all friends have to be your age or like the same things or do the same things, they can be different," said fourth-grader Sadeen.

Her classmate Dean remembered feeling shy at his first recess playdates. "Over time, I've become more comfortable and have had fun playing with everyone," he said. "Even though we're different we can still be really good friends."

Last fall, the scene was different as students met for the first time and were uncertain how to connect since not all spoke with their voices; some communicated through sign language or specialized tablet software. However, their natural curiosity pushed them to try different forms of communication, including smiling, hand gestures, proximity, and play. 

The barriers dissolved as the students played together, and the smiles spread. They asked to meet again the next day and then the next. As the days became weeks and the weeks became the daily routine, more children chose to be part of this burgeoning class partnership.

Jane Burdett vividly remembers the initial spark of the partnership. In September, Michele Grossman, a fourth-grade teacher, visited Burdett's classroom to wish her a good year. During the conversation, Burdett shared her idea of creating a collaboration between her blended-grade special education students and a class of older students.

7 girls in classroom by table"Michele looked at me and said, 'We are going to make this happen' with such confidence," recalls Burdett, whose kindergarten, first, and second-grade students are enrolled in the district's Structured Teaching Education Program (STEP). This program supports their diverse learning needs and abilities by teaching academic, social, and functional skills to help them achieve their individualized goals. Many students in STEP use alternative forms of communication.

"At first, there was an unknown as they were interacting with students that communicated differently. But there was such curiosity about how to figure this out," said Grossman. The teachers fostered an environment where students felt safe to ask earnest questions, like why a student used a computer tablet to communicate, or another preferred to walk alongside instead of holding hands.

"I've learned that you can understand them by their actions and know how they can talk in a different way," said fourth-grader Marcos.

The teachers were in awe of how quickly the students' friendships developed. "The fourth graders were learning what their friends were telling them," said Grossman. "They were picking up on their nonverbal cues."

three boys outside"At the same time, our younger friends were enthusiastically learning how to use their words, gestures, and communication devices to ask their friends to play," said Burdett. For example, her students often ask to visit Grossman's classroom, where there is a dedicated area for the younger students to participate. During free time, older students often visit the STEP classroom to see their younger friends until Grossman calls to remind them that math class is starting.

"Their empathy, their curiosity, their kindness; it overflowed our hearts," said Burdett. "Their questions, their learning, the way their connections started to happen was just beautiful to observe and has continued to grow. Now they celebrate each other's accomplishments."

"The reciprocal gifts were apparent early on," said Grossman about the critical and creative thinking skills her students developed from learning to communicate with their younger friends. She recalled an afternoon when the older students had difficulty teaching a younger student how to climb up a play structure. However, by modeling the moves, the younger student grasped the technique. When Anthony successfully made it to the top, everyone celebrated together.

"There's a lot of joy in learning sign language. Not only am I helping them, but they're helping me learn," said fourth-grader Vivian, inspired to learn American Sign Language to communicate with first-grader Sophia. Vivian and her classmate Sadeen have been practicing at school and home. Grossman laughed as she recalled noticing their silent conversations across the classroom.

"It's amazing how students are growing based on their desire to foster their relationships," said Grossman.

The students' families have been drawn into this developing community as well. "We had a younger student and an older student celebrating Ramadan. Their family members came to school together to share their culture and traditions," said Grossman. The classes often join together for celebrations and read-aloud books, and they plan to hold a combined family picnic before the end of the school year.

The teachers are not the only ones making plans. The fourth graders are already discussing how to continue these friendships next year and into high school. They look forward to one day driving their younger friends to the mall.

"I want to support kids who have their own way of talking and help others understand the way they communicate," said fourth-grader Marcos who is looking even further ahead to a potential career. He believes everyone can communicate effectively and that people are more alike than different.

"I love listening to the conversations happening, not only for the here and now but for the future. How wonderful it is for the students, and their families, to know that these friendships are developing and are going to continue to flourish," said Burdett, who has cheered courtside for the new high school unified basketball team, where neurotypical and neurodiverse students compete on the same team. She expects that these students will be teammates when they grow up. "We're seeing these relationships happen organically here, expanding far beyond recess or a school day."

"Their understanding of inclusion and what it means to be inclusive, and the power and the beauty of being inclusive, has impacted their lives and others," said Grossman. "Everyone's world has grown."

May 2023