The benefits of a longstanding peer model program, presented at the Joseph V. Regano Early Learning Center, is invaluable for participating families.

Solon resident Nadeen Al-Jijakli Abbass recalled the first day she dropped her daughter Talia, now 5, to the school on SOM Center Road. Her daughter suffers from a rare genetic disorder that results in global development delays and experiences some behavioral issues like intense tantrums.

“I remember thinking, ‘what if they don’t take her? This was a fear for me,” she recalled. “There were so many unknowns.”

Ms. Al-Jijakli Abbass said the entire staff, right down to the security guard who walks kids into the door, welcomed her daughter with open arms.

“They made me feel like we are a team together and we got this,” she said. “This was such a new and special experience for us.”

Talia began in the schools’ peer model program this year, where typical students are paired with children with disabilities, and she has thrived, her mother said.

“Her communication skills have improved within weeks,” Ms. Al-Jijakli Abbass said. “She is learning things we don’t think of with typical children, who just play. But for kids with special needs, all these skills need taught from the ground up. Her play skills have really come along in the peer model setting.

“It has been an incredible start to the school year for her.”

The benefits of the program are two-fold, the center’s director and principal Terry Brownlow explained, with both the peer model and the typical student learning a great deal.

“It’s the best way to educate all students, not just the kids with IEPs (Individualized Education Plans),” she said. “It’s clearly a positive for children who are typical as well.

“The bottom line is, it’s a great learning program,” Ms. Brownlow continued. “Our curriculum is such that typical peers and IEP kids are benefiting from learning tasks they are doing, but also peer models are benefiting from being a leader and learning empathy.”

Disabilities of students, who are 3-5 years old, range from communication issues to those with fine motor or sensory issues, among others.

“It’s important in this day and age that we teach kids we are not all the same,” Ms. Brownlow said.

Learning to play with one another and accept those with differences will make the children involved better as they move in the school system, Ms. Brownlow added.

About 85 kids attend the Joseph V. Regano Early Learning Center, formerly known as the Solon Preschool.

A virtual information night on the school and its peer model program is planned for 6 p.m. Jan. 13.

“The preschool has had peer models as long as it has been in existence,” Ms. Brownlow said, which is for at least two decades or more.

She said that one of her greatest joys is watching how the students in the peer model program forge friendships, starting out the year not knowing one another or talking to playing and communicating with one another.

“It takes about three to four weeks before you see that happen,” Ms. Brownlow said of the relationships and friendships that form.

“That socialization is beautiful,” she said. “It is really a joy to watch.”

“It’s invaluable,” Solon resident Selena Boyer, whose children Sasha, 4, and Dash, 5, are in the program. “I cannot even explain how positive my experience has been.”

Dash had been on a speech IEP but has since graduated from it and Sasha has Cerebral palsy.

Sasha began in the intensive room at the age of 3, non verbal “and just very, very behind.”

This year, she has progressed so much that she is in the peer model room for part of her day, along with an assistant, her mother said.

“She is exposed to a lot more language and a lot more dramatic play,” Ms. Boyer said, “which is why the peer model program is so important.

“Some of the kids will rise to the occasion if they have a good model around them,” she added. “I am seeing Sasha blossom this year. It’s such a great experience.”

Ms. Al-Jijakli Abbass said that Talia chats all the time now, a far cry from the start of school two years ago.

“I always have this image in my head how tiny she was and so light that the person walking her in had to hold the strap on her backpack so she didn’t topple over,” she recalled. “Now, she hops out of the car and says ‘bye mom,’ with a big smile on her face.

“Three years later, when I see that process, it brings tears to my eyes,” Ms. Al-Jijakli Abbass said. “What a struggle it was and there were so many fears and anxieties at the beginning.

“Now school is just a normal and happy part of her life.”

Talia will attend kindergarten at the Solon Schools in the fall.

“They just take care of the children,” Ms. Boyer said, “and they love on them like you would, so you feel comfortable leaving them.”

“It’s just a warm family,” Ms. Al-Jijakli Abbass added.

“The beauty of this program is that, whether it’s kids with IEPs or without, or of different nationalities, there are all these personalities coming together,” Ms. Brownlow said. “At a very young age, our students are learning it’s OK to be with people not like you.

“That’s one of those intangible things that happens here that is really quite unique,” she said. “Our peer models come in and learn and grow and they all become better friends. We are providing kids the opportunity to be with people who are a mini world for them.

“And they appreciate it.”

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