Partners in Play: Building Skills and Friendships

On weekday afternoons, Katie Madlung’s classroom at Lake Bluff Elementary School is bustling with the usual activities of early childhood education. But the program she directs, Partners in Play, is unique in its design and goals.
Not quite preschool, not quite kindergarten, Partners in Play is designed around students with special needs, to foster progress in their education and development with help from typically developing peers.
Madlung is the Shorewood School District’s early childhood special education teacher. She and her team conceived Partners in Play to provide a new opportunity for children aging out of Birth to 3, Wisconsin’s early intervention program for infants and toddlers with special needs.
Previously, Madlung and other intervention experts provided state-supported services for qualified 3- and 4-year-old students in the classrooms of the District’s preschool program, Bright Beginnings. “We thought, ‘What about if the occupational therapist, the speech pathologist and I were to do our own early childhood program, and tailor it to what our students really needed for their individualized education plans and goals?’” Madlung says. “And also, bring in typical peers, so they would have those wonderful role models.”
Partners in Play launched in fall 2017 with 12 students, six of whom were qualified to receive interventional services. All 12 attended K4 in the mornings, then would come to Madlung’s room for lunch, rest time and an afternoon of more learning and play.
Madlung says it’s ideal to have at least equal numbers of special-needs students and typical peers in class, or even a majority of typical kids, which she has this year. “The biggest benefit of Partners in Play is that my students see behaviors that they are able to emulate,” she says. “So they see students sitting on the carpet, engaging appropriately, raising their hands…all the things we want to see them doing. And the goal is, ‘Oh, I see my friend doing that, I’m going to do that, too.’”
Jessica Micol Buss, whose son Winston, 4, is one of Madlung’s current students, says she was thrilled to find a program designed around Winston’s educational needs that also included daily exposure to typical peers.
“Winston absolutely loves going to school and he loves his school friends and teachers,” says Buss. “His play skills and social skills have grown incredibly over the course of the school year and we see these skills carrying over at home and in the community. His is making amazing strides in his goal areas while he learns excellent foundational skills for school readiness and behavior. Partners in Play has completely exceeded our expectations.”
Madlung says inclusive early-childhood educational settings like Partners in Play are beneficial for all students. “Once the typical kids get to know my students, and having grown up with them from a young age, they just perceive them as part of their class, no matter how they act or what they do,” Madlung says. “They just accept them, and will even look out for them and care for them. It can be a really powerful relationship.”
For more information about Partners in Play, contact the Special Education team at 414.963.6906.
(Story written by Paula Wheeler and photo taken by Jon Kirn for Shorewood Today magazine.)