Peer support increases classroom social interactions for students with disabilities

iStock_000020536048XSmallMany schools are committed to inclusive classrooms for students with severe disabilities. But, numerous observational studies of inclusive classrooms draw the same conclusion: Social interactions among students with severe disabilities and their non-disabled classmates remain fairly infrequent.

A recent study in Exceptional Children describes the use of peer support arrangements to increase social interactions in high school classrooms between students with severe disabilities and their classmates and teachers.

“The paucity of interactions is particularly evident in high schools, which reflects a period during which the dynamics of adolescent peer relationships and the nature of instructional delivery diverge considerably from what students encountered in elementary and middle school,” the researchers write.

Providing peer support to students with severe disabilities almost immediately increased the number of social interactions the students had every day, the study found. However, peer support did not seem to lead to increased academic engagement.

The study in Exceptional Children describes how the peer support program worked and examined the kinds of social support students with severe disabilities received from their peers and compared it with the support they receive from the paraprofessional individually assigned to them.

The researchers conducted a study of the interactions of 6 student peer partners and 3 students with severe disabilities. One student with severe disabilities, James, was enrolled in a 50-minute morning culinary arts class, and the 2 other students, Bridget and Brad, were enrolled in a 50-minute morning ceramics art class.

General education teachers were asked to nominate students who already had displayed an interest in developing a friendship with the focal student, or who might benefit from being a peer partner. Teachers were encouraged to consider peers who had interacted with the student in the past.

One of the researchers conducted a baseline observation of each of the 3 students’ classrooms and made suggestions for how each student could be supported during the different class activities. The researcher held 1-hour orientation sessions outside the classroom with peer partners and paraprofessionals, separately or as a group.

Orientation sessions

During the orientation sessions, the researcher explained the purpose of the study, gave background on the focal student (e.g., shared interests, favorite activities, preferred communication modes), explained the responsibilities of the paraprofessional, shared the focal student’s goals and expectations for the class and discussed ideas for peers to support the focal student in various class activities and to encourage his or her participation.

The researcher used a structured planning tool to work with peers and/or paraprofessionals to identify specific ideas and general strategies for supporting the student during the different portions of the class: (a) at the beginning of class, (b) during lectures or whole group instruction, (c) during small, group activities, (d) during independent seatwork and (e) at the end of class. For each of these class segments, the participants identified 3-6 ways to support the student.

The paraprofessionals all received a checklist for monitoring peer support arrangements. As the peer partners became comfortable in their roles, paraprofessionals allowed them to take an increasingly active role in supporting the student with disabilities. The teacher assigned the peer partner a seat in class that was close to the focal student.

To evaluate the impact of peer support, the researchers used partial-interval recording (30 seconds observe, 30 seconds record) to document students’ social interactions and academic engagement.

They recorded facial expressions, gestures, signs, vocalizations, speech and use of electronic and nonelectronic communication systems (e.g. communication books). Also recorded was the specific person with whom the student was engaging (peer partner, other classmate, paraprofessional or teacher) and the nature of the interaction (academic-related, social-related or other category).

Peer proximity to focal student

The researchers developed an observational checklist to code the support behaviors of peer partners. (e.g. academic, social, etc.) They recorded the proximity of peer partners and paraprofessionals to the student with disabilities.

“For all three students with disabilities, the mean percentage of intervals containing social interaction with peers increased immediately and substantially upon introduction of the intervention,” the researchers write.

All three students had fewer intervals of interactions with their paraprofessionals, although interactions continued to occur fairly often. They spent less time in close proximity to paraprofessionals and more time in close proximity to their peers.

Interactions that occurred between peer partners and students with disabilities included sharing class materials and notes, explaining concepts, facilitating participation in group activities and prompting interactions. All of the peer partners reported positive experiences as a result of the study and described personal benefits, including developing new friendships, recognizing contributions of peers with disabilities, a greater understanding of students with disabilities and improved social skills.

“It is intriguing that peer partners had few conversations with students with severe disabilities prior to being asked to assume this role, but interacted fairly frequently afterwards,” the researchers write

. “Prior qualitative studies suggest that adolescents often are quite willing to interact with their classmates with severe disabilities, but may be reluctant to do so when adults are continuously present or without initial encouragement.”

“Efficacy and Social Validity of Peer Support Arrangements for Adolescents With Disabilities,” by Erik Carter et al., Exceptional Children, Fall 2011, Volume 78, Issue 1, pps. 107-125.

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