After seeing her autistic son dread going to school because he was bullied, Stacey Montgomery realized kids could blunt the ridicule by embracing their unique qualities. So she created cards, journals and a curriculum to boost the confidence of kids who felt different. Autism Acceptance Month encourages others to welcome those differences too.
Diane Moca: We are out here on a farm to talk about bullies. In fact, in the animal kingdom, it seems kind of natural for one animal to bully another. But in our world, that's condemned because it can damage a person. And that's why one woman is on mission to teach kids to shield themselves from the meanness of bullies. Stacey Montgomery: No child should walk into this school building and feel immediately unhappy, feel unsafe because they don't feel that they belong because the other kids do not accept them. Diane Moca: I am here with Stacey Montgomery and we are talking about her social-emotional learning program that she founded to give kids more confidence. What is social-emotional learning, and what does your program do? Stacey Montgomery: It involves the skills, the feelings, and the attitude that help do better at school and in life. And it includes things like motivation, self-regulation, resilience, and social connections, things like that. Diane Moca: What made you come up with this idea? Stacey Montgomery: I always had an interest in empowering kids and I did it through a line of products, stationary gifts that feature my illustrations of kids with different skin tones, different hair colors, different ethnicities, glasses, hearing aids, and things like that. And hearing feedback from parents about how my son and my daughter needs this because of... And then they would share their stories. That led me to developing my guided journals and my curriculum, which is actually based on this book, Why is Different Awesome? And this is the book, this is the curriculum that Elizabeth uses with her students. Diane Moca: This is Elizabeth Nielsen, and this is Piper, and she is the owner of Tiny Voice Therapy Services. And she heard about Stacey's program and thought it would benefit her students. So why did you think that? Elizabeth Nielsen: So a lot of my students they're autistic, some of them have articulation disorders. So a lot of times their confidence isn't just... They need to build up their confidence. And so I feel like Stacey's journal is great because it's really bringing up their confidence. Diane Moca: So I think Piper wants us to talk about the animals. So why do you do therapy services for kids in this setting? Elizabeth Nielsen: Yeah, this is such a great setting. So it helps the kids stay regulated. So when they're on the horse, they can figure out where their body is in space. It's so fun. They don't think they're working when they're on a horse. And so it's just a lot of fun for them to just be out in this natural environment, to help carry over the skills that they learn here. Diane Moca: I understand that this started because of some experiences that you and your son went through. Tell me about that. Stacey Montgomery: Yes. So I have a son and he's now 20 years old, but when he was younger, he really struggled in school. He is on the spectrum. He has ADHD and throughout most of his school years and upper elementary through high school, he was bullied. He didn't feel comfortable at school. He didn't have many friends. And while the school really tried to help and they were very well intentioned, their efforts were didn't really help him. He was just unhappy. He was an unhappy kid most of the time during school. He dreaded going to school. And as a mom, that just made me feel sad. It really made me feel upset. I wanted to help him. He did not fit in and he didn't have a whole lot of friends and it wasn't his fault. He just acted in what some kids, some people may think a little bit different. Stacey Montgomery: He didn't make eye contact and he didn't understand social cues. So all of those things may have led other kids to feel, to see he's different. He's strange. He's weird. We don't like him. We don't want to hang out with him. Why does he act that way? He doesn't act like us. They're treated as if they're different and that's a bad thing. That was my son's experience. And I didn't want that for any other child. So that's what the curriculum based on this book is all about, helping kids to embrace what is unique and special about themselves and to accept, to respect differences in others. Diane Moca: So you basically created a company around this idea. Stacey Montgomery: Yes. Diane Moca: And then you went on and created a foundation so tell me about that. Stacey Montgomery: I did, I did. Non-profit organizations heard about my books and my program. And they would ask me to come in and give a workshop. Some of them could afford to pay, some couldn't. And I was donating a lot of time and a lot of books and I couldn't sustain that. I decided it was time to start a nonprofit to do this. They want to be heard. They want the opportunity to speak. They want to think about their emotions, about their experiences. And a lot of kids won't say that, won't admit that, but it has an impact. Diane Moca: These programs help kids find that strength and their voice. And we are grateful, Stacey. Stacey Montgomery: Thank you. Diane Moca: That you've done that for children. Stacey Montgomery: Thank you. Diane Moca: For Talking Cities, I'm Diane Moca.