Building Natural Peer Supports

Kids with tech

Too often when thinking about students with special education needs being included in a general education classroom, many will make the assumption that we need to provide an adult to “accompany or assist” the student. Then, too often this well-meaning adult may “velcro” themselves to the student which may actually create more dependency vs. independence.

Now we know, thanks in part to an article written by Michael Giangreco, et al; “Be Careful What You Wish for: Five Reasons to Be Concerned About the Assignment of Individual Paraprofessionals (see referenced article) that this practice can actually have both short and long term negative effects for students with disabilities. Our purpose here is not to dismantle the practice of providing in-class support; but rather, in increasing the recognition of the benefits of utilizing natural peer supports in the classroom.

It is important that we caution the role of adult(s) in the classroom, simply because natural peer supports and friendships will not unfold if the adult supports are in the way. For an example of this – Read Micah’s Story below (see referenced article):

Over the years, our son Micah has benefited from the support of several talentedPara-professionals. Yet as he moved through school, we felt ambivalent. We knew Micah needed some extra help in the classroom, but we also knew the more he was surrounded by adults, even well-meaning ones, the harder it would be for peers to connect with him. Adults encircled him and often, though unintentionally, became a wall separating him from his peers—a wall most teenagers would not easily climb over.

We were fortunate to learn about a program where peers without disabilities received credit to serve as mentors to support some of the learning needs of their classmates with disabilities. Under the direction of a special educator, a skilled para-professional provided coaching to peer mentors. This coaching allowed the para-professional to step back, which resulted in several of Micah’s classmates moving closer and interacting with him in new and unexpected ways. During a team meeting, Beth, one of Micah’s peers, mentioned she sometimes had a hard time helping him focus on a particular teacher’s lectures. She blurted out, “You know what! Sometimes this teacher can be boring—a lot of us have a hard time paying attention in her class.  The real difference is that Micah doesn’t know how to act as if he’s paying attention.” Laughter filled the air. Beth blushed and quickly apologized for revealing something negative about this well-liked teacher. The next step for Micah was practicing “paying attention” behaviors, and who better to teach him than genuine inhabitants of the teen world—his peers? Working together strengthened the new bonds they were developing. It also gave the teachers some food for thought.

A real turning point was the day an insensitive substitute teacher mimicked the way Micah said his name in front of the class. Oliver, Micah’s peer tutor, leapt out of his seat, rushed to the teacher’s desk, and demanded that he stop! This call for respect was much more powerful coming spontaneously from a friend than it would have been coming as feedback from an adult. This incident helped Oliver realize, somewhat to his own surprise, just how much Micah’s friendship meant to him. Equally as important was the impact that Oliver’s actions had on others. Afterward, several students began approaching Micah in more engaging ways. Oliver nurtured these interactions and demonstrated how to keep a dialogue going with Micah beyond “Hey, what’s up?”  Oliver was truly a link between Micah and his other classmates.

The information that follows details three innovative ways that peer supports can be used to meet the instructional and social needs of students with disabilities in the general education setting. There are several types of peer support that can be used to assist with instruction.  The three that will be reviewed in this article are collaborative learning, cross-age supports, and peer modeling.

Peer Supports or Collaborative Learning

Peer supports, also known as collaborative learning, is an instructional strategy used to reinforce skills taught by the teacher. This teaching method allows time for practice, review, and opportunities for students to use higher-level thinking skills.  When planning lessons, it is important to determine if the use of peer supports could assist in meeting your instructional goals.  Teachers should ask themselves the following questions:

  • Would small group discussion be more effective than calling on individual students for answers?
  • Would participation in a small group activity involving listing attributes or identifying characteristics provide a better learning opportunity than individual students making their own lists?
  • Do collaborative groups provide additional opportunities to apply, analyze and evaluate concepts taught in a lesson?

If you take time to answer these questions, it may become more apparent to you that collaborative activities do afford additional opportunities to check for understanding and reflect on the key concepts of a lesson.  During the lesson planning process, teachers should determine their learning objectives and decide which collaborative activities could be used to assist with the learning process.

The following tool is a guide to assist teachers in considering appropriate collaborative activities to supplement and enhance classroom instruction.

View our “Incorporating Peer Supports into Inclusive Instruction”

Cross-Age Peer Support

This is another strategy that assists with the learning in the general education setting.  This approach typically involves older students, usually high school age, who provide instructional support for elementary or secondary students.  A new component of this strategy is the use of email communication in addition to face-to-face assistance.  Programs such as Pals and Do It pair cross-age peers with students identified by the teacher as needing assistance.

The cross-age peer tutors are selected and assigned based on a predetermined criterion that includes the peer mentor’s academic ability, personality traits, and communication skills.  Peers are trained prior to beginning the mentoring process and receive ongoing monitoring and support from the classroom teacher and/or program advisors.  Their training includes the use of positive supports, effective questioning techniques, active listening, as well as using a simple step-by-step approach for tutoring.

The incorporation of online communication with cross-age peer support allows the peer mentors additional opportunities to provide encouragement, check on the student’s progress, and help students formulate questions that they can later ask the teacher. Most school districts have computers available that can be used for online support. The Do It program uses online communication exclusively to support and reinforce social skills and assist with post-secondary planning.

Cross-age peer tutors should complete a form like the one that follows to document their support sessions and provide the teacher with information about student successes throughout the tutoring session.

Download the Peer Tutor Weekly Log

Peer Modeling

Peer modeling is another support that can be used to help students learn academic processes and classroom routines.  It also provides the classroom teacher opportunities to use peers to assist with instruction, clarify directions, and give social reminders with little or no disruption to the lesson cycle. It is an excellent way for peers to provide appropriate behavioral models for students who need to improve their social skills.

Students may also model steps in a process related to an academic task or teacher directions.  One example might include using peer modeling to review directions for an assignment.  In this example, students have been told to get their math worksheets and calculators and move to their assigned color-coded table to begin work.  A student is then called on to demonstrate how to follow the teacher’s directions.  Another example of using peer modeling when teaching academic processes may include the teacher calling on a student to solve an algebraic equation on a whiteboard using a math process previously taught to the class by the teacher. This approach allows the lesson to be extended in a real way that supplements the learning process and decreases the number of reminders that teachers may need to provide to students.

Many teachers, of course, are already using some peer support during instruction. However, best practice tells us we should plan for and include these strategies when designing lessons. There should be a plan that includes selecting the right type of support to align with the lesson goals. Using the appropriate teaching strategy in the correct way at the right time is one of the primary goals of instruction.

It is not always necessary to use adult support or look for the newest strategy to meet our students’ educational needs. Teaching in the new millennium does not mean we need to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes, we just need to tailor the lesson design to address the educational needs of our students in inclusive settings.


Michael Giangreco, et, al; “Be Careful What You Wish for: Five Reasons to Be Concerned About the Assignment of Individual Paraprofessionals. Teaching Exceptional Children, Volume 37, No 5, pp, 28-34, 2005.

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