Think About a Mentor for your Special Needs Child

by Dawn Villarreal

One Place for Special Needs - Think about a mentor for your special needs childAccording to Merriam-Webster, a mentor is someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person.  Mentors are everywhere if we take the time to look.  They do not need to have a degree in special education or be in a disability related field.  They could be a relative, a neighbor, a teacher or even a fellow peer. It could also be a retired individual who might share a special interest or hobby.

When your son or daughter interacts with others, pay attention to those individuals who seem to enjoy talking to your child.  Make the time to create opportunities for this person and your child to get together. 

These friendships can be a self-esteem boost for your child.  It’s a chance for him/her to talk freely with a patient and understanding person.  It allows your child to create a bond with someone besides mom and dad.  This becomes even more important if your child has difficulty making friends.

My teenaged son has several mentors.  Grandpa Tony is happy to spend time train watching with my son.  The two of them bond over talking about trains.  Does grandpa like trains?  Not especially, but he knows that it’s a big deal for Logan and he gets some quality time with his grandson. 

Hans, has been Logan’s drum teacher for the past four years.  His teacher was impressed with his ability to learn songs and wowed by his absolute joy of drumming.  Their weekly classes have turned into total jam sessions—just two guys having fun while rocking out to favorite songs. 

Logan’s most recent mentor is Herman Suga, a medical student and our first formal, paid mentor.  This relationship happened by accident.  Logan’s math tutor was unavailable and a substitute came to our house.  I noticed right away that Herman had a very easy-going personality.  He joked around with Logan and really made the math session go by very quickly.

I pocketed his information for future reference.  This past summer I decided that I wanted to create a social skills program with an emphasis on the fun.  I didn’t want a one on one tutoring session in a quiet room.  What I wanted was a mentor that could form a relationship with Logan.  Someone that could take him out in the community for activities but have an eye out for learning in the moment. 

I immediately thought of Herman.  Although he never did a social skills program before, he was up for the challenge.  I had the chance to interview Herman about his time spent with Logan.

Have you had any prior experience working with children/teens with special needs?
No, this was my first time working with someone who had special needs.  But I did have tutoring experience working for West Suburban Education Associates.  And prior to that I worked as a tutor for Loyola University of Chicago.

What made you decide to mentor Logan?
This was a unique opportunity for me.  I always wanted to have an impact on the students that I tutored, but I was never able to observe or see how the students would perform on their tests or quizzes.  Working with Logan allowed me to directly see the effects of tutoring and mentoring.

What type of work did you do with Logan?
We worked on issues involving communication and several social skills.  Sometimes I would help Logan learn various techniques that would help him become more engaged in conversation and develop vital day-to-day skills.  I taught Logan how to work with money, how to summarize conversation, how to be polite towards others and how to develop a positive friendship.

However, I also learned from Logan the value of being patient and how to work with a special needs student.  We both grew from each other’s experience.

What gains did you see in Logan by the end of the social skills program?
He became more confident as an individual and opened up completely towards the end.  I saw his attitudes change when it came to studying new material and I witnessed his excitement to continue learning.

How did you handle frustrations with Logan?
In the beginning, it was a little difficult because I was unsure how he would react to me telling him to calm down.  But once our trust was established, it was very easy to work with one another.

If Logan became frustrated because he couldn’t answer questions, I just told him that I was a friend and wanted to be a mentor for him.  I wanted to help him understand these social situations better.  Once he realized that I was only trying to help, he would calm down and we would laugh away the stress.

Do you think this experience will help you interact one day with young patients with disabilities?
Yes, it allowed me to develop a sense of patience that I never had before.

What advice would you have for parents thinking about a mentor program?
Give it a try!  It’s amazing to see the direct impact on an individual.  I loved my time with Logan as both a friend and a tutor.  It is so beneficial for both the student and the teacher.

Read on if you would like to learn more about how I set up this summer program.

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