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Teachers find success in using friend groups, lunch bunches

These third-graders in special education teacher Zach Stephen’s lunchtime friend group giggle and converse together as they enjoy lunch in the classroom. When they finished eating, they practiced taking turns while playing a game. (Photo by Sarah Young)

Fourteen years ago Meg Farrington saw a big influx of kids diagnosed on the autism spectrum entering their schooling years at Somerset School District, and she knew something needed to be done to adequately help these students.

Farrington, who was the speech and language pathologist, asked the principal of the elementary school if she could have a few extra hours in her schedule to go to trainings and workshops to better meet the needs of these students; and he agreed.

“Back then we didn’t know how to instruct kids on the autism spectrum well,” Farrington said as she sits in special education instructor Zach Stephen’s room at Somerset Elementary.

Farrington, who retired in June, said the program has grown to include any children who have social and emotional needs, or who lack social communication skills.

Farrington, and eventually other special education teachers, began attending workshops, researching and learning about the benefits of small play groups when addressing social communication issues. They received a grant for action/research through CESA 11, which is the Cooperative Educational Service Agency for northwest Wisconsin.

Farrington credits gaining much of her knowledge from a book about play groups by Pamela Wolfberg, Ph.D., a professor of special education at San Francisco State University.

She sent out letters to all the parents of kids entering junior kindergarten that year, asking for their children to participate in play groups with children with social communication needs. They had close to 100 percent participation, Farrington said.

Children were taught how to respond and play with kids on the autism spectrum in a controlled setting. Small groups of kids played together on a rotation of 15 to 20 minutes.

“When we started 14 years ago, we didn’t know what we were doing at all,” Farrington said.

“We tried to find strategies, not curriculums.”

“We take different ideas and tweak them to our school and our students,” Stephens said.

Farrington said she was lucky to be in a district that sent her to a lot of training and supported her efforts.

“It was obviously needed,” Farrington said. “Kids were in flight or fight mode. They were running and hiding with no social skills. It was trial and error.”

@sub:How friend groups work

@t:Currently, students with social communication needs, some of which are diagnosed on the autism spectrum, meet with small friend groups of three to 10 kids. Sometimes these groups are during lunch so the kids can have a quiet lunch away from the hustle and bustle of the cafeteria.

Other times the groups meet to do art projects, play at recess or make food.

“Many of the special education teachers here use friend groups or lunch bunches as an opportunity for students to learn from their peers important social skills in a small group setting,” Stephens said.

Special education teacher Sonya Stewart said she sometimes has the older kids do more intensive projects together, such as pumpkin painting, cooking projects, Wii games, or more structured activities that involve taking turns.

One of Stephens’ third grade lunch bunches sat eating lunch together while he gently instructed them on how to listen to each other and ask questions about each others’ weekend plans.

He likes to work on the concept “tiny reaction to a tiny problem,” Stephens said.

“Winning and losing we work on a lot,” Stephens said. “We work on giving compliments, taking turns, all of which is sometimes hard to do appropriately.”

They also encourage students to stay calm with breathing exercises and to be a “three” on the five-point scale of emotions posted around the classroom. A three represents being in the middle of being “blah” at one, and “upset” at five, Stephens said.

Stephens said he likes to focus on social skills-type lessons, controlling their bodies and staying on topic, while making sure they eat.

The teachers like to then observe the students at recess and in the cafeteria to see how the kids apply what they’ve learned. They also like to get feedback from their regular class teachers.

But most importantly, Stephens and the other special education teachers like to see the kids make friends.

“Every day is different and it’s based on an individual’s needs,” Stephens said. “It’s nice to see when they’ve made a friend.”

Farrington agreed, and said research suggests the most gains are made socially when kids are working with their peers.

“Everyone want to be successful and they find success,” Farrington said. “These kids are getting invited to birthday parties.”

Farrington said whatever the cause, it’s a plain fact that more and more children are diagnosed with disorders on the autism spectrum, whether it’s genetics or environmental.

“It’s just so complicated,” she said. “Being close to the Twin Cities and the Minnesota Autism Society is beneficial.”

Sarah Nigbor

Sarah J. Nigbor serves as a regional editor for RiverTown Multimedia, a position she began in April 2017. She joined RiverTown Multimedia in October 2013 as a news reporter for the New Richmond News, before being appointed editor of the Pierce County Herald in Febraury 2015. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Spanish and French in 2001. She completed a minor in journalism in 2004. 

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