What is the most underutilized resource in schools today?
Peer assistance in schools has been a valid teaching strategy for as long as schools have existed. Peer programs allow students to help other students with academic and social support throughout the school day. It takes different forms ranging from informal programs to structured formal systems, but there is much research about the value of building these natural supports—peers, buddies, friends—in and out of the classrooms.
None of this is surprising to a parent, however. How often have we painfully tried to convince our child to do something; but once a friend effortlessly suggests it, their language is magical. Poof! Suddenly it’s a great idea!
Success of Peer Programs
Studies confirm what we have experienced—that cross-age and same-age peer support programs are as effective or more effective than traditional teacher-mediated practices for students with and without disabilities.
As a teacher, I have witnessed first-hand in my school district the success of peer programs—truly, a win-win situation for all involved.
Students needing assistance are accepted as full members of the general education classroom receiving academic and social support from their peers. All are welcomed, valued, and appreciated.
Students without disabilities gain a better understanding and acceptance of diversity while improving their own skills.
Teachers who use peer tutoring or cross-age tutoring and peer supports in their classrooms see the benefits of a responsive classroom with a cooperative environment—a safe place where all kids belong and work together. A place where it is an accepted norm that we all need help from time to time.
Parents and community are welcomed, and the educational system truly becomes a model of what society can be like.
What a preparation for real world experiences!
Components of Peer Programs
Typically, there are two components of peer programs: academic support and social support. Both have the goal to increase the positive interaction between general education students and students with special needs. Both are important for our children to feel included and have the opportunity for success in school.
Academic Peer Support
An outstanding example of academic peer support is the PALS program in many schools today. PALS is considered a best practice by the U.S. Department of Education Program Effectiveness Panel for Inclusion.
Academic peer support programs involve several steps from a dedicated planning team and coordinator to thoughtful recruiting, selecting, and training of the peer tutors, to ongoing monitoring, assistance, and guidance of the program.
Social Peer Support
A favorite quote of mine embedded in the Stetson Step-by-Step Training for Inclusive schools is from Norm Kunc:
The Need to Belong: Rediscovering Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
“All children are children. The perception that some children are normal and others are deficient and therefore need to be repaired in some way is still a concomitant of a society that values uniformity rather than diversity. When children are given the right to belong, they are given a right to their diversity. They are wholly welcomed into our neighborhoods as ones who enrich our lives…without having to…jump through hoops…to be normal enough to belong.”
Kunc, N. The Need to Belong. Axis Consultation and Traing Ltd.
How are we doing in promoting social support—peer friends?
Do we highlight similarities between the child and the peer friend?
Do we re-direct conversation to the child with a disability rather than to the adult present so peer conversation is encouraged?
Do we give responsibilities to our children that require interactions with peers?
Do we make interdependence a goal for every child?
Four Types of Helping
I still enjoy hearing the lyrics to the James Taylor song, “You’ve Got A Friend,”
When you're down and troubled
and you need a helping hand,
and nothing, nothing is going right.
Close your eyes and think of me
and soon I will be there…
Many individuals with disabilities may need help and support throughout their entire lives, as is true of any person. Mara Sapon-Shevin offers four types of helping in her book, Because We Can Change the World: A Practical Guide To Building Cooperative, Inclusive Classroom Communities . I think these are beneficial guidelines for the home and the classroom.
1. Asking for help appropriately—“Could you help me with this?”
2. Offering help respectfully—“Would it help if I read that problem out loud for you?”
3. Accepting help graciously—“Thanks for noticing I needed help with that.”
4. Rejecting help kindly—“No thanks.”
When peers are used to support inclusive practices, everyone benefits! Check out the many resources available throughout this website. Find out what peer support programs are available to your child at school and in your community. These natural supports help our children to experience and believe the message, “You’ve Got a Friend!”