Oh, SNAP! Peck Fifth Graders Make Kindness Cool

Posted: October 13, 2011

Aimed primarily at students in grades three through eight, the SNAP (Special Needs Athletic and Awareness Program) educational workshop is intended to develop sensitivity to the feelings and experiences of students who are challenged in a variety of ways. President and co-founder Zachary Certner developed the workshops as a means to bring experiential sensitivity training directly to the school environment. The overarching theme of the SNAP program is also one of bullying awareness—teaching kids that kindness is cool in all situations regardless of disability.

An integral part of The Peck School mission is to build in each student the capacity for consideration of others. This value pervades the everyday experience of a Peck student—from classroom, to athletic fields, to overall community structure. Under the auspices of Peck’s acclaimed InDeCoRe (Individual Development and Community Responsibility) Program, which guides age-appropriate service learning and character formation activities within each grade, the Fifth Grade dedicated an hour of their school day to learn firsthand what life may be like for a child perceived as “being different.”

Zachary Certner and SNAP
Zachary Certner, a 15-year-old local Morristown teenager, launched SNAP with his brother Matthew in 2009. (SNAP was originally founded as SCSN—Sports Clinics for Children with Special Needs in 2006.) Inspired by family friends with an autistic child, the brothers set about creating an organization that delivers athletic and social opportunities for kids with special needs. SNAP's mission is "to inspire youth to work together through athletics, peer-mentoring activities, and educational programs." The program, which received a $13,000 grant from Autism Speaks, has expanded from its roots to encompass the broader educational goal of teaching awareness and acceptance, and to deliver a clear anti-bullying message in hopes of inspiring change.

In May of 2011, The Peck School presented the Peck School Award for Community Service to the Certner brothers, given to a member of the greater Morristown community who merits distinction as a result of his or her personal dedication and commitment to the community and service to others.

Making Kindness Cool
Mr. Certner, who went to his first period classes at Morristown High School before spending his next free period at Peck leading the workshop, began by talking about SNAP’s program and raising awareness about autism and other developmental disorders. He told students that he came to Peck to help them understand why it’s important to befriend and advocate for a child who needs a hand; how to incorporate each other into the classroom, gym, recess, and everyday life. SNAP’s motto, “Making Kindness Cool,” acknowledges that while it’s not always easy for kids to step outside of a comfort zone to resist bullying or befriend an at-risk child, it’s the right step to create a “culture of awareness and acceptance of all.” He asked students to realize that “there is no growth in the comfort zone, and there is no comfort in the growth zone.”

To candidly illustrate SNAP’s message, students participated in each of four six-minute stations designed to simulate the physical challenges of a few common disabilities. By creating such concrete experiences, concepts are easily, quickly, and plainly understood. Each task produced an immediate, visceral response in most students—some were unexpectedly frustrated, discouraged, or even embarrassed by being suddenly unable to accomplish everyday tasks normally taken for granted.

One station simulates the challenges of coping with dyslexia. Students must write their name and complete a maze on a piece of paper while looking only in a mirror, writing both upside down and in reverse. The experience gave students a quick insight into the time and effort it takes to manage this information processing disorder.

Another station simulates visual impairment and dexterity problems manifested with other developmental disorders. With specially-made fogged goggles and socks on both hands, students must use their non-dominant hand to cut out an “S” shape from paper, and knot and string a plastic lanyard with beads. This particular station evokes a context familiar to many elementary and middle school students—art class.

A third station asks students to attempt to button a shirt and tie shoelaces while also wearing fogged goggles and socks on both hands, simulating disorders including Asperger’s syndrome. The underlying message is that many kids with disabilities may need time to accomplish small tasks, such as getting dressed in the morning. Most students take at least five minutes to tie both shoes, which is the majority of time allotted at each station. Mr. Certner has only seen two or three students finish buttoning the shirt.

The fourth station is a lesson in the physical experience of persons with autism or cerebral palsy. To illustrate the often-seen arm waving and hand clapping an autistic child may employ while struggling for balance, students are asked to stand on a balance ball, while wearing fogged goggles, and attempt to catch and throw a ball. Mr. Certner, after helping students find their initial balance on the ball, gently tosses a foam ball from a close proximity. Students are asked at the end, “would you pick you to be on your team at recess?”

Although stations simulate challenges of a disability, SNAP’s underlying theme applies to all children, regardless of a diagnosis. At its core, this training is simply about reaching out, especially when seeing another person being shunned by his or her peers. Fifth grade history teacher Jim Cross brought home the morning’s lesson as he reflected with his students, “we talk about this a lot here at the Peck School, don’t we? This ties directly to our InDeCore value of empathy.”

SNAP Ambassadors
Three Peck students, Fifth Graders Madeleine Manahan, Charlotte Crutchlow, and Mia Furtado, took on a broader role at the training session when they helped Mr. Certner and other SNAP high school volunteers lead the four activity stations.

Inspired by Mr. Certner’s presentation when he received the Peck Award for Community Service in May, Ms. Manahan, Ms. Crutchlow, and Ms. Furtado contacted SNAP to learn how they, too, can help make a difference. When asked about volunteering, all three girls felt that, simply, “it’s a good thing to do.”

As Ambassadors, each girl will help bring ownership of the program’s message to The Peck School community, advocate its ideals to their peers, and continue to embody the core belief that kindness “is cool.”

For additional information about SNAP and it’s programs, please visit www.snapclinics.org.

A full gallery of photos is available in our Media Gallery.