This week I am taking a departure from book reviewing to share an important program that has been introduced to New Jersey this week by Mr. Ian Hockley, founder of the Dylan's Wings of Change Foundation. On December 14, 2012, Hockley's five year old son, an autistic child named Dylan, was gunned down in his classroom in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Dylan, a shy and adorable child, was described by Hockley as “a happy little boy,” and his death absolutely shocked and shattered the Hockley family.
Rather than remain paralyzed with grief, Hockley and his former wife, Nicole, galvanized into action; she directing her energies into stronger gun laws in this country, and Ian in forming a foundation that would work to effect positive change in human behavior in an effort to promote the inclusion of all children as members of society as a way of promoting social and psychological acceptance.
On Tuesday, March 6, Ian Hockley presented a symposium for school superintendents, principals, teachers, and guidance counselors at the Educational Services Commission in Piscataway. I had the honor of presenting Hockley to the participants in the workshop as part of my responsibilities as a member of the Board of the Educational Services Commission. The timing of Hockley's visit could not have been more purposeful considering that educators, parents, and the general public are still reeling from the latest school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
The audience was held rapt as Hockley began the program by talking about his child's struggles to communicate, but also spoke of Dylan's charm and loving kindness. Hockley shared with the group that Dylan did a lot of flapping with his arms, one of the motions that autistic children make. His mother asked him, “Dylan, why do you flap so much?” and he responded, “Because I'm your beautiful little butterfly.” Dylan's favorite color was purple, and so the symbol of Dylan's Wings of Change is a silhoutte of Dylan reaching for a butterfly, created in a purple hue.
The mission of Dylan's Wings of Change is as follows: “Dylan's Wings of Change is a foundation to the memory of Dylan Hockley, devoted to helping children with autism and other special needs develop to their maximum potential.” In order to accomplish this mission, it is the goal of the foundation to teach children the importance of the acceptance and inclusion of people with these conditions, so that they experience all of the developmental opportunitites that those without disabilities take for granted.
In order to accomplish the mission of the foundation, the Wingman program evolved, and was launched in several schools in Connecticut. Introduced through sports, dance programs, and ultimately directly into school curriculums, the Wingman program is now in over twenty schools in Connecticut and is beginning to spread to New York and New Jersey.
“We started working on a program and came up with the name Wingman,” Hockley stated. “In the Air Force, the wingman is the one who has got your back, looking out for problems and taking care of situations.” Hockley believes that during Dylan's brief life, he had many adults and friends who were his “wingmen,” including the aide who was shot when trying to protect the boy during the attack by Adam Lanza, who killed seventeen children and six adults within seven minutes of intense rage.
The Wingman program is a student led organization, which seeks to improve the culture and climate of a school. After being trained by the adults who are familiar with the program, the students create and implement activities according to what they see as the needs of their current school culture, following a building needs assessment. The program can be adapted to address respect, courage, bullying, support, empowerment, and above all encourages students to develop empathy with their peers and elders. By fostering empathy, students learn to coounter to root causes of rejection, exclusion, and isolation. In studying the backgrounds of the perpetrators of the shootings which have taken place in Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and now Parkland, each one of those young men felt isolated and excluded from the rest of society.
In answering the question of why the Wingman program focuses on social and emotional learning, research has shown that it now has to be the responsibility of school and society to impart the universal values of compassion, empathy and inclusion to our children, not only because it teaches them to be good citizens, but such values improve academic achievement as well.
Over 100 educators attended the March 7 conference, and many of them are anxious to get Wingman programs started in their schools. I had the opportunity to spend the entire day with Mr. Hockley, who imparted to me the details of Dylan's death, and the struggles of the survivors of the Sandy Hook tragedy. In fact, Jake, Hockley's older son, was in the school at the time of the shooting so the Hockley family has struggled with both sides of the tragedy; victim and survivor.
Mr. Hockley will be returning to New Jersey on March 21st to continue to discuss the implementation of the Wingman program in New Jersey. If you are interested in learning more about the foundation and the Wingman program, please go to www.dylaswingsofchange.org and www.wingmanleague.org. If you are interested in becoming an adult trainer and visiting schools to help teach the program, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As an educator I can attest to this fact; our teachers do not want to carry guns into their classrooms. Dedicated instructors believe that not only should they teach curriculum; they need to teach how to be a contributing member of society in the 21st century. Hockley's program offers teachers the opportunity to use the strengths of our children to help them rise up and empower their peers and themselves.