Peers Supporting an Inclusive School Climate

Two students working together

Author: Toni Riester-Wood, Ph.D.

Inclusive schools promote respectful and supportive relationships, avoid the bullying epidemic, and build the attributes of positive peer-to-peer interactions. Due to the current state of our national economy and shrinking education budgets, schools and businesses alike are striving for both efficient and effective ways to maximize resources. One very powerful resource that is often over-looked, underutilized and perhaps not well understood is literally right in front of us: peers supports. Let’s explore this “natural resource” because it is not only a fiscally responsible strategy, there are ethical, moral and human lessons that can be “capitalized” as well, some of which won’t be measured on a standardized assessment, but are absolutely necessary to preserving our democratic society and principles. 

At Stetson and Associates we view and promote inclusive settings as systems, schools and classrooms that have shared ownership between and among all staff for the learning of all students, equitably. From this culture and climate flows the professional collaboration that often shapes the manner in which students will work together. Do not doubt; they (our students) watch and learn more from what we do than what we say! 

As adults, we provide in-class supports through collaborative teaching and support facilitation. Although some students may not require this level of adult intervention thus, making peer supports ideal for an inclusive setting. 

Peer support is a strategy that involves placing students in pairs or in small groups to participate in learning activities that support academic instruction and social skills. This instructional approach does not require additional staff or extra funding. It is a research-based methodology that yields positive results related to student achievement and a sense of “belonging” over the course of time. Peer supports provide teachers with a learning tool to enhance instruction for students with and without disabilities. 

The following are 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. However, each of these models require upfront planning that includes selecting the right type of strategy, utilizing it at the right time with perhaps individualized outcomes all aligned with the lesson goals. 

  • Collaborative Learning – 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. 
  • Cross-Age Peer Support 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. 
  • 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, clarifying 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 of students who need to improve their social skills.   

Research has clearly defined the benefits of inclusion and peer supports for the student with a disability. However, these benefits are not reserved for the students receiving the assistance; the following is a list published by Kids Together, which boasts the benefits for all student groups when inclusion and peer supports have been planned and implemented individually and appropriately. 

Benefits for Students With Disabilities

  • Friendships
  • Increased social initiations, relationships and networks
  • Peer role models for academic, social and behavior skills
  • Increased achievement of IEP goals
  • Greater access to general curriculum
  • Enhanced skill acquisition and generalization
  • Increased inclusion in future environments
  • Greater opportunities for interactions
  • Higher expectations
  • Increased school staff collaboration
  • Increased parent participation
  • Families are more integrated into community

Benefits of Inclusion for Students Without Disabilities

  • Meaningful friendships
  • Increased appreciation and acceptance of individual differences
  • Increased understanding and acceptance of diversity
  • Respect for all people
  • Prepares all students for adult life in an inclusive society
  • Opportunities to master activities by practicing and teaching others
  • Greater academic outcomes
  • All students needs are better met, greater resources for everyone

The power of peers as shown here has a cumulative effect, which makes issues such a bullying incompatible.  Rather, we have peers helping peers become more integrated into the school culture.  In recent news there have been a number of inclusive schools where together the classmates and adults have created a school system where everyone can be celebrated.   A few examples include students electing their peers with disabilities to class officer roles and homecoming king or queen (USA Today, Nation, 4A Thursday September 30, 2010).  What a celebration this is – for everyone! Great things happen in inclusive schools!

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