Most special education teachers spend their days helping students learn core subjects; however, recent studies have shown that students with disabilities often have lower confidence and self-esteem because it can be hard for them to “view their disability as one component of their lives, not the only component.”
Tammy Greenwell, special education teacher at Muncie’s Southside Middle School, didn’t need a study to validate her observations. To combat the lack of confidence she was seeing in her students, she created the Panther Paw Pals program, which started in fall 2019.
“I noticed that my students are always the ones who are asking for help, and this causes their self-esteem to be really low. Some of them would just stop doing their schoolwork,” said Greenwell, who co-teaches with math and English teachers to help students with mild learning disabilities. “I wanted to create a program that helped the moderate students achieve their goals and help increase the confidence of my students by giving them the opportunity to help others.”
The program pairs a student with a mild disability with a student who has a moderate disability, which requires them to be in self-contained classrooms. Typically, the severity of a learning disability is often determined by how many skill areas are affected (academic, life, social) and how much the disability affects the student’s ability to function, according to the Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario (LDAO).
Greenwell works with Angela Pickering and Sara Coggins, who are both special education teachers for students with moderate disabilities. For two hours every Friday, Greenwell takes her students from different class periods to meet with their Pals in Pickering and Coggins’ classes.
“Students [that] Mrs. Greenwell works with often have few opportunities to be leaders in their community and in the school,” Coggins said. “Working with my students gives them the opportunity to be ‘experts’ and help others instead of being the ones who are helped. It allows them to develop empathy.”
At the beginning of the year, students in both Pickering and Coggins’ classes set goals for themselves for the year. Goals range from learning to send emails and understand sight words to learning how to ride a bike.
“I think this program has really helped Mrs. Greenwell’s students be more accepting of peers that may seem different than themselves,” Pickering said. “It also helps both groups engage in more conversations which will help them interact better socially in the future.”
Some Fridays, instead of continuing to work on their goals, the two classes will volunteer with the Panther Pantry group to help fill bags of food that are sent home with students each weekend.
Coggins said one of the biggest benefits beyond gaining confidence for Greenwell’s students is that they learn to interact with people who do not socially interact in the same way as everyone else.
“For example, one of my students absolutely loves being with his Partner Paw Pal, but he doesn’t necessarily show it while he is here,” Coggins said. “He often interacts with them for a few minutes and then walks away.
“Last week, when he walked away, his Pal followed him and started passing a mini football with him. The Pal did a great job of giving him space, but also giving him a way to interact and be social. Plus the Pal figured this out completely on his own without the help of an adult.”
More than one classroom
Ball State senior Alex Leckron, who uses a wheelchair, said he never struggled with his confidence because he had a great support system, but he has met many people playing wheelchair basketball who have low self-esteem. Although he doesn’t recall programs like Panther Paw Pals at his middle or high school, he said he believes they would have been beneficial to help students achieve academic and personal successes.
“I think programs like this could definitely help with the confidence of students like me,” said Leckron, a sports administration major. “When I was little, I used to think asking someone for help would bother them or they would make fun of me. But I learned that if you just ask, most people are perfectly fine with helping. So, I think having something like that, especially here at Ball State, would help because it would help them be more self-sufficient and know where to go to get help.”
Even though Ball State does not have a program partnering students, the office of disability services offers the Faculty Mentorship Program, which pairs students with disabilities in their first semester with a faculty member who helps guide them through college. There is also an Alliance for Disability Awareness group on campus that helps connect students with disabilities.
Since the Panther Paw Pals program started, Greenwell said she and the other teachers have seen improvements in both groups of students. They are on their way to achieving the goals they set for themselves, she said, and other teachers have also seen boosts in confidence. Many partners have also become friends as well.
“There was a more severe student they [Pickering and Coggins] would try to get to say sight words and match them to the correct pictures, but he would just shove them off the desk. They kept trying but never had any success,” Greenwell said. “The first day I brought my students in that same student, working with my student, started pointing to the words, saying them and matching them with the pictures.”
One day, Greenwell wasn’t able to attend school, so the three teachers decided to cancel the program for the day. When Greenwell returned, Pickering and Coggins told her how upset the students were because they missed their pals.
“My students love having a pal,” Pickering said. “Since they are in a self-contained classroom most of the day, it’s fun for them to see new people and new faces. They light up when they see their pals in the hallway or the lunchroom, and they hug or high-five ... This program could help both groups engage in conversations or just interact in the future.”
Because of COVID-19 concerns, Greenwell, Pickering and Coggins are working to continue the friendships created through the program with WebEx calls at least once a week. Greenwell also said the three teachers plan to continue the program next year and create new partnerships among the students.
“It was hard for my students [when school was moved solely online] because they are all eighth graders, so they no longer get to be with their friends, their Panther Paw Pals or have a graduation,” Greenwell said. “But, I hope they have gained more confidence than they had before and that they cherish the connections they were able to make.”