GREENFIELD — When Delaney Kent talks about going to preschool, she sounds just like any other kid.
She’s excited to see her friends, and she loves the activities – especially making goodies on “cooking” day.
“I like to play,” Delaney, 5, said while stringing colorful wooden beads on a rope on a recent afternoon at J.B. Stephens Elementary School.
What the 5-year-old doesn’t know is she is also a member of the school’s Typical Peer program.
That means that not only is Delaney getting used to the routine of the school day while receiving early-childhood education; she’s serving as a role model to children with special needs.
The J.B. Stephens preschool program is directed specifically toward children with disabilities, with the exception of typical peers – the majority of whom provide a valuable service without even realizing it.
The typical peers, selected before the start of each school year, are placed in preschool classrooms of children with special needs and serve as good role models of speech and social behavior to those with disabilities.
But like Delaney, most don’t know it.
“She just talks about them like they’re her friends,” said Delaney’s mother, Erin Kent, 33, of Greenfield. “She doesn’t realize they have special needs.”
The benefits of the program go both ways, educators say. Not only do children with special needs learn from the typical peers, but the typical peers learn the value of accepting others as they are.
“Preschool is a wonderful way to introduce the students not only to the academic goals … but also to socialization,” J.B. Stephens Principal Candy Short said. “The most important reason to have a child in this program is the children who are typical peers will develop empathy for students who might have a different disability or a different way to learn.”
As a certified special education teacher, Kent was drawn to the opportunity for her daughter. She said she discussed with Delaney that there might be students in her class who need extra help, but that was as far as the conversation went.
“She doesn’t grasp that,” Kent said. “She thinks they’re all her friends.”
J.B. Stephens has seven special-needs preschool classes, each of which meets for three hours.
Ideally, there are two typical peers, one boy and one girl, per classroom of about 10 children.
Preschool teacher Julie Rogers said there is a noticeable difference in classrooms with typical peers.
“By the time they’re 4, going on 5, they have a lot of conversational skills and they’re really good talkers,” she said. “They always have a comment, and some of our children that have special needs, … they learn how to answer questions and how to participate that way.”
The younger typical peers, who are 3 or 4, are placed in classes that meet twice per week. Pre-kindergarten typical peers who will be eligible for kindergarten the following year are enrolled in classes that meet four times per week.
Students do not have to live in the J.B. Stephens boundary, but they must live in either the Greenfield-Central or Eastern Hancock school districts to participate.
Mt. Vernon and Southern Hancock schools districts have their own programs.