HILL School S3 Camp

Jill Bennett Moore of Square Books Jr. sings along with students at the HILL Schools Summer Social Skills Camp. The camp pairs children with special needs with neurotypical children with the goal of building empathy and bridging the gap of understanding between them.

OXFORD – Willie Price Lab School at the University of Mississippi hosted the first Summer Social Skills (S3) Camp organized and overseen by the HILL School for communications disorders.

The HILL School is a graduate school at the University of Mississippi that focuses on helping children who fall into the spectrum of communication disorders. The school is under the direction of Amy Livingston and Gina Keene. They oversee graduate students in the communication sciences program to work with children who have communication issues, most of whom are on the autism spectrum.

The S3 camp is something Livingston and Keene have been hoping to do for years. They’ve been looking for opportunities to reach more children in the community. When they finally got the chance to do just that, they jumped at it.

“We were trying to figure out how we could see more kids,” Livingston said. “We have a great partnership with Willie Price and they allowed us to use their space this summer, which has been unbelievable.”

Over the six weeks of the camp, children with disabilities were paired with neurotypical children. They maintained a one-on-one ratio of 8 kids with disabilities and 8 kids who were neurotypical during each session of the camp, totaling 32 children served, plus the occasional extra helper.

“We’re using a model called ‘Stay, Play, Talk’ this summer,” Livingston said. “The research has shown that neurotypical peers help kids with social skill impairments more than practitioners like us can. It’s a two-way street. These neurotypical peers are learning how to interact with children with disabilities, but also helping children with disabilities see what typical play looks like and what typical interactions look like.”

Each week, campers worked on a specific social skill. They learned about appropriate greetings, friendship protocols, listening, taking turns and more. Everyone helps each other learn a little more about what it takes to function in society.

“Some of the nice things we’ve seen through these relationships these kids are developing, is that our kids not only have improved play and language skills, but they also have a chance to just interact with more people,” Keene said. “Our neurotypical peers can now go out into the world being more empathetic in the community. Hopefully, we’re making these small changes that will improve inclusion in our communities.”

Livingston said that a few of the neurotypical children at the camp have siblings there with special needs. They made sure to pair these children up with someone other than their sibling. Each child in this scenario benefits from this. The neurotypical sibling gets the opportunity to learn from a child who has needs that are different from their brother or sister, and with that they learn empathy.

The kids with special needs benefit as well, because they now have the opportunity to learn from a new role model.

Each day, there were eight undergraduate students working with neurotypical children and eight graduate students working with the children with special needs. Keene and Livingston had to create a whole new class for the undergraduates in order for them to receive credit for participating in the camp this summer.

Over the six weeks the camp operated, 16 children with special needs were served and slightly more neurotypical children were able to attend the camp as helpers. Each day, they had a few guided lessons or situations, but for the most part, it was kids being themselves.

Everything done at the HILL School is based heavily in research. Current studies indicate that the best way to help close those social gaps between children with special needs and neurotypical children is just to let them play together.

For more information about the HILL School, their work in the community and how you can donate or get involved, email them at hilltop@go.olemiss.edu.

chaning.green@journalinc.com Twitter: @chaningthegreen

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