[Excerpted from Peer Support Strategies for Improving All Students' Social Lives and Learning by Erik W. Carter, Lisa S. Cushing, and Craig H. Kennedy. (Published by Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.; 978-1-55766-843-1. Copyright © 2009; all rights reserved.)]
Peer support arrangements are a promising approach for promoting access to rigorous, relevant learning experiences; expanding opportunities for students to establish new relationships with their peers; and helping educators and paraprofessionals to support inclusive education more effectively. Put simply, these intervention strategies involve arranging for one or more peers without disabilities to provide ongoing social and academic support to their classmates with severe disabilities while receiving guidance and support from paraprofessionals, special educators, and/or general educators. 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.
Peer-mediated approaches -- in which students assume instructional or other support roles with their classmates -- have been a staple intervention strategy in classrooms for as long as there have been schools. Indeed, countless variations on these approaches exist -- ranging from informal, casual pairings of students to more structured, intentional systems. As these strategies have been tested in the classroom and refined through research, a powerful and effective set of techniques have emerged for use with students with disabilities. Although peer support arrangements share the strong theoretical and empirical support of other peer-mediated strategies, they also differ in important ways. First, in peer support arrangements, somewhat greater emphasis typically is placed on exchanging social support, encouraging peer interactions, and promoting social connections. Social goals are often prominent in the IEPs of students with severe disabilities, and general education participation frequently is advocated for as an avenue for meeting these goals. Second, unlike other peer-mediated interventions in which all participating students assume very structured or static roles, educators are encouraged to individually tailor peer support interventions so that they reflect the unique support needs, strengths, and characteristics of participating students with disabilities and their peers. Third, peer support arrangements usually are not implemented as classwide interventions and thus involve a smaller number of peers. Fourth, most peer-mediated interventions were developed primarily for students with high-incidence disabilities such as learning disabilities or emotional or behavior disorders. Recognizing that the academic and social support needs of students with severe disabilities may be more intensive, peer support arrangements typically offer a more sustained and focused source of support. Finally, peer support interventions are designed to be implemented in inclusive contexts. Self-contained classrooms or segregated school activities simply do not offer the same depth of natural support available in inclusive environments.
Because peer support interventions should be individually tailored to address the instructional and social needs of students with disabilities, they can be implemented in a variety of ways. However, the following steps usually are taken when establishing these arrangements in inclusive classrooms:
- Identifying students with severe disabilities who need assistance to participate in class activities
- Recruiting peers from within the same classroom to help provide some of these supports
- Arranging for students to sit next to each other and remain in close proximity during class activities
- Orienting peers to their roles, explaining the rationale for their involvement, and showing them basic strategies for supporting the academic and social participation of their classmate
- Providing ongoing monitoring, feedback, and assistance to peers and their partners throughout the semester, as needed
- Shifting paraprofessionals to a broader support role in which they assist all students in the classroom or complete other responsibilities as directed by the teacher