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two students hugging


There’s a palpable excitement in Killybrooke Elementary School’s Multi-Purpose Room as Teacher Deija Ray Johnson wheels in a cart filled with painting supplies. Smiling students carefully tape sheets of paper to tables and place napkins and cups of water on desks. A trio of students comes into the room, one of them carrying a tray of freshly made popcorn in little paper bags. 

Young girl holding paintbrush and smiling

The activity comes to a halt when a group of neurodivergent students enters the room with their teachers and aides. The students who were once carefully setting out paper and supplies rush to greet their buddies, animatedly finding seats and explaining the afternoon’s project. Today’s meeting of the Best Buddies Club has now begun.   

In October 2022, Killybrooke became the first Newport-Mesa Unified School District elementary school to launch a Best Buddies chapter. The monthly meetings aim to foster friendships between neurotypical students and their peers with intellectual and developmental disabilities through learning games and hands-on activities. Neurotypical students receive education about their peers’ disabilities, including the vocabulary necessary to advocate for their new friends. 

“All students in the Best Buddies Club  gain more than just understanding; they form connections, and that is important for all children’s growth and success” said Johnson. 

Those connections sometimes happen organically, with hugs and laughter. Some neurotypical students have family members with disabilities, so they already have an anecdotal understanding of their friends’ challenges. Others are drawn in through sheer curiosity and develop new perspectives. All of them become well-versed in how to communicate in new ways, including through augmentative and alternative communication devices (or “talkers”).  

Teacher Dejia Ray Johnson with a a student and popcorn

“Many of our students with intellectual and developmental disabilities communicate using assistive technologies, yet they continuously show us just how they are able to connect with their buddies at each meeting,” said Principal Laura Taylor.  

In addition to painting, which builds hand-eye coordination and encourages creative thinking, meetings have included cookie decorating, reading books aloud, making ice cream and dance parties.

The day’s meeting ends with hugs and high-fives. One sixth-grader approaches Johnson with a neurodivergent student clutching her hand. She asks permission to walk her friend back to his class. His face lights up when Johnson agrees, and the two leave the room hand in hand.  

Approximately 75 students participated in the program during the 2022-23 school year, and Johnson and Taylor believe the program will continue to grow, with new activities planned for the 2023-24 school year.