PISCATAWAY, NJ - School leaders from across Central New Jersey and other parts of the state met for a workshop on how to teach children empathy and empowerment and inspiring them to go above and beyond to form inclusive communities in their schools.

Tuesday’s session at the Educational Services Commission of New Jersey’s Piscataway campus featured Ian Hockley, the director of the Dylan’s Wings of Change, a Connecticut based foundation named for his son who was among those killed in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.

He presented the foundation’s Wingman program, a student-led program for elementary and middle schools that addresses school climate and culture issues throughout the school year.

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Hockley said he was inspired to create the foundation and its Wingman League as a way to both honor 6-year-old Dylan’s memory, and to help other children like him navigate through life.

“Dylan had autism, he struggled to communicate, he spoke in his own way,” said Hockley, explaining how the first grader was able to navigate the world and enjoy life with the help of others.  

After his passing “we thought we could help other children get into sports and the arts and dance to get them doing things other children take for granted,” Hockley continued.

But to do that children needed to have a “wingman”, someone to help them make decisions, he said, describing how the foundation’s mission expanded in 2015 to include students of all abilities.

At the school level, Wingman empowers students to be leaders, implementing strategies to address their physical, behavioral and emotional development in a format that can be customized to target specific needs.

“The experiential activities get the kids involved with their mind, thinking about it, and with their body physically, and indeed their heart, getting their emotion in it as well,” said Hockley.

Beth Moroney, a member of the ESCNJ board of directors said when she first learned about the impact Dylan’s Wings of Change was having on students in Connecticut school districts, she invited Hockley to present the Wingman League’s concepts to the commission’s member districts.

“I was the enforcer of the New Jersey HIB law and always felt that it only protected the school but did nothing to effect change in student behavior,” said Moroney about her responsibilities when she was an administrator in the Edison Public Schools district. “The more I learned about the program the more I began to feel that this is how we change the behavior and empower children and teach them empathy.”

“Once they start, because the program is flexible to their needs, it becomes their own program,” said Hockley, adding how they also have partnerships with sports programs, camps, and dance studios across the country and Canada.

Eric Bullock of Foundation Academies Charter School said he likes that about the Wingman framework and hopes it can be implemented in his school in Trenton.

“If you have a program where the students are allowed to implement their own ideas and take part in how the school is run, then you can’t lose,” said Bullock. “We all know that when you’re mentally and physically invested, then you own a stake in that.”

“When they are invested in their own education, it becomes a reality for them to know how important it is,” he added. “I think working with this group here, and embracing these ideas, and making it your own situation, depending on the school you’re in, you can’t lose.”

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