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The Preview: Education

Peer supports for students with disabilities: Who else benefits?

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Under peer support programs, see how the role of paraprofessionals evolves into one of facilitator in these examples of strategies for fostering interaction between peers

Schools often use paraprofessionals to support students with disabilities in the general education classroom. However, having an adult presence can often have a stigmatizing or isolating effect on the student. As an alternative, more schools are looking into the use of peer supports, which have been shown to promote academic engagement and social interaction for the student.

What are peer support arrangements?

Put simply, peer support strategies involve arranging for one or more peers to provide social and academic support to their classmates with disabilities while receiving guidance and support (and sometimes service-learning credits!) from paraprofessionals, special educators, general educators, and school guidance counselors.

Recognizing that peers are an underutilized—but widely available—source of natural support in every school, peer support arrangements draw upon the involvement of other classmates to assist in helping students with disabilities participate more fully in the social and learning opportunities existing in inclusive classrooms, extracurricular clubs, and other school activities.

Getting administrators and teachers on board

Research has shown that the benefits of peer buddy programs extend far beyond the students themselves to student peers, teachers, and school administrators. The new books Peer Support Strategies for Improving All Students' Social Lives and Learning and Peer Buddy Programs for Successful Secondary School Inclusion summarize the findings of research studies that demonstrate the benefits of peer support arrangements.

See some of the benefits highlighted below that you can take to your administrator and colleagues to make a case for peer support arrangements at your school.

Benefit for Administrators

While administrators, teachers, and other school staff are likely familiar with mandates requiring improved student outcomes and inclusion, they may not be aware of how peer supports can help them meet such mandates. Recent legislative, research, and school reform efforts are calling on schools to think differently about where students with severe disabilities should spend their school days, what they should be expected to learn, and who they should learn it with.

These efforts call for every student to have meaningful opportunities to learn important curricular contant; to develop valued relationships with their classmates; and to experience the full range of social, learning, and other opportunities that exist within their schools and communities.

Administrators play a vital role in determining whether an educational practice becomes a permanent part of a school's culture. Peer support arrangements help administrators:

  • meet accountability mandates for improving access to rigorous, relevant learning experiences for all students
  • enhance educational outcomes for all students
  • align school practices with school reform efforts and legislation related to inclusion
  • improve the school climate by supporting practices that foster a cohesive school community

Benefits for teachers

A consistent theme in conversations with general and special educators surrounds their need for practical strategies to include students with severe disabilities socially and academically in inclusive classrooms. Teachers find that peer support arrangements:

  • provide additional assistance in individualizing instruction for students with disabilities within increasingly diverse classrooms
  • enable them to differentiate instruction more readily to better meet the needs of all their students
  • provide support for students with disabilities without requiring them to restructure instructional practices for the whole class
  • provide socializing opportunities for all students
  • increase the number of people in the classroom watching to make sure that the curriculum is appropriately adapted, needed materials are available, and ongoing activities match those of other students in the classroom

Specifically, teachers have found peers are quick to notice when their partners are doing work that does not resemble their own, and they can be extremely creative at brainstorming ways to adjust activities so that everyone can participate. When peers learn basic instructional and support stratgies as part of initial orientation activities, they can be quite adept at helping their partners stay engaged and acquire new skills.

Benefits for paraprofessionals

Paraprofessionals frequently share that they are uncertain about the responsibilities they should and should not assume within inclusive classrooms and that they feel they receive little guidance on how best to support students with severe disabilities. Peer support interventions outline clear roles for paraprofessionals, clarifying the kinds of support and assistance they should provide to students with and without disabilities.

As their role within the classroom broadens to one overseeing and facilitating peer support interaction, paraprofessionals report enjoying having the chance to get to know and work with a wider range of students.

Benefits for Peers

Research suggests that peer support strategies provide important academic benefits to peers. A study of student peers who were themselves struggling academically showed the peers substantially increased their engagement in instruction, homework assignment completion, and classroom participation. Notably, students at risk for school failure often show improvements of one to two letter grades over the course of a semester when serving as a peer support.

For peers, the additional contact they have with adults in the classroom may underlie some of their academic improvements:

  • Paraprofessionals regularly monitor students as they work together, providing any feedback and assistance students may need, as well as troubleshooting any problems that arise. As a result, peers usually receive more individualized attention, academic help, and praise from adults in the classroom than they might otherwise receive when working independently.
  • Peers also benefit personally from the support strategies they learn during initial orientation activities. They discover they learn more themselves when they know they are partially responsible for conveying or reinforcing key concepts and skills with their partner. To be effective in their support role, peers have to make sure they pay close attention to lectures, understand the instructions of teachers, and know exactly what is expected of them.
  • Finally, the relationships peers develop with their partners and adults in the classroom can have a motivating influence. When students develop new friendships and assume important responsibilities within the classroom, they may be more likely to want to attend class regularly. For some at-risk students, this also may be the only context in which they receive positive feedback and encouragement from adults.

Peers also benefit socially when they work together with their classmates with disabilities. Through working with their partners, peers expand their own social networks, learn valuable social and support skills, and develop new friendships. Students who are given the opportunity to interact with their classmates with severe disabilities consistently speak of other important benefits, including

  • learning more about people with disabilities
  • developing more positive attitudes
  • feeling a sense of accomplishment
  • gaining a greater appreciation of diversity
  • increasing their advocacy skills and awareness of disability issues
  • learning enhanced interpersonal skills
  • developing an interest in pursuing a career in human services
  • gaining increased empathy
  • having higher expectations for their classmates.

Peers' interactions with students with disabilities tend to be fairly reciprocal and balanced across both academic and social topics, easing concerns that such arrangements necessarily encourage primarily tutorial or hierarchical relationships. Indeed the reciprocal nature of these benefits higlights the value of these intervention strategies for all students.

Benefits for Students with Disabilities

A plethora of studies have documented how students with disabilities benefit socially when they receive support from their peers. Students interact more frequently with classmates and access a greater variety of social supports—such as information, material aid, emotional support, and companionship—when working with a peer, compared with working exclusively with a paraprofessional.

These social benefits are not just limited to increased social interactions. They benefit in other ways when they have the opportunity to work with and get to know their peers. They:

  • learn new social and communication skills
  • meet more of their classmates
  • develop new friendships
  • access valued social supports
  • attain important educational goals
  • spend time with age-appropriate role models
  • increase their independence and self-confidence
  • experience a greater sense of belonging and class membership

Studies have shown that students with severe disabilities are more engaged in ongoing class activities and have greater access to instructional content aligned with the general curriculum when they receive primary support from a peer. Working with one or more peers can provide students with disabilities with individualized assistance, additional opportunities to respond, and more immediate feedback and reinforcement. Peers help their partners participate in class activities, prompt them to stay on task, and provide needed assistance.

*Adapted from Peer Support Strategies for Improving All Students' Social Lives and Learning by Erik. W Carter, Lisa S. Cushing, & Craig H. Kennedy, and from Peer Buddy Programs for Successful Secondary School Inclusion by Carolyn Hughes & Erik W. Carter.

Start a peer support program in your school...

book coverPeer Support Strategies for Improving All Students' Social Lives and Learning


book coverPeer Buddy Programs for Successful Secondary School Inclusion


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