TIES Peer Engagement Practice Guides

The Power of Peers: Introduction to the Peer Engagement Implementation Guides

hands of five different kids touching one another

The Power of Peers: Introduction to the Peer Engagement Implementation Guides

Relationships are a defining feature of inclusive education. Schools that are committed to inclusion provide numerous forums for students with and without disabilities to learn together in ways that lead to rich social interactions and new friendships. The interactions students have with each other—within and beyond the classroom—promote meaningful learning, provide considerable enjoyment, and help students develop a sense of self and of belonging. As students work together on assignments, talk and laugh in the cafeteria, play on the playground, and connect outside of school, they develop skills and knowledge that are so important to their growth. Anything described as being “inclusive” must be rich with relationships.

Students with significant cognitive disabilities often need additional opportunities and support to develop these vital peer relationships. In other words, the emergence of friendships is not guaranteed simply because students with and without disabilities attend the same class or school. Location matters, but it is not all that matters. Research addressing inclusive education suggests six areas that should be considered when fostering peer relationships (Biggs & Carter, 2017; Biggs & Snodgrass, 2020; Brock et al., 2020):

  • All students should be considered full-fledged members in their classes and school.
  • Students with and without disabilities need regular opportunities to spend time together in both formal and unstructured ways.
  • Students with significant cognitive disabilities will benefit from learning social, communication, and other skills that can enhance how they are able to interact and participate in shared activities with peers.
  • Peers without disabilities will benefit from receiving guidance on how best to communicate with, support, include, and collaborate with their fellow students who have disabilities.
  • Educators must be strategic about providing instruction and support in ways that facilitate, rather than hinder, equal-status peer relationships.
  • Schools must remove any barriers that keep these other five areas from happening.

These six areas should all receive ongoing attention within schools that are striving to improve the quality and impact of inclusive education.

Promoting Peer Engagement

Peers can have an influential role in promoting inclusive education for students with significant cognitive disabilities at their school. There is good reason for schools to leverage the availability of peers as a natural source of support for students with disabilities. Peers are present in every typical school. They are capable of providing a wide range of academic, social, and practical support. They represent a less intrusive form of assistance than the pervasive use of one-to-one paraprofessionals. And, they are usually quite willing and interested in contributing their time and effort in a wide variety of ways. Because peers also benefit from getting to know their schoolmates with disabilities, peer engagement is a win-win-win proposition. It is good for students with disabilities, good for their peers, and good for the educators who serve both.

How can schools promote peer engagement across settings and throughout the school year? What would it look like to do this work well? A growing toolbox of educational interventions can be drawn upon by educators to promote relationships and inclusive education in their school. Below are nine of these very powerful approaches:

  • Peer networks
  • Peer support arrangements
  • Stay-Play-Talk
  • Recess-based approaches
  • Strategies for students who use AAC
  • Paraprofessional facilitation strategies
  • Class-wide peer acceptance efforts
  • Cooperative learning
  • Peer partner programs

Some of these approaches incorporate peer-mediated interventions in which peers are invited, prepared, and guided by adults to support students with disabilities in various settings. Others focus on changing the classroom or school environment in ways that encourage social connections and shared activities. Most incorporate a combination of both. Each of these nine approaches are feasible to implement in typical schools. Likewise, each can be effective at improving the educational experiences and outcomes of students with significant cognitive disabilities and their peers without disabilities.

Overview of the Peer Engagement Guides

We invited leading experts to share their expertise on implementing these nine educational interventions to promote meaningful engagement and relationships among students with and without disabilities. They created short, practical implementation guides based on their extensive experience working with local schools. All of the guides follow a common structure by addressing:

  • an overview of the approach and its goals;
  • how school teams can collaborate in all aspects of its delivery;
  • the importance of careful planning;
  • strategies for implementing each approach with students with disabilities and their peers;
  • ways of evaluating outcomes for students with disabilities, peers, and others in the school;
  • recommendations for expanding and sustaining a school’s efforts;
  • considerations for adapting the approach based on the needs of diverse students;
  • case examples to illustrate each approach in action, and
  • additional resources for readers.

The guides also include forms or resources that can be used when implementing the practice.

In addition, the Decision-making Guide on the next page is useful for determining which approach, or combination of approaches, to use. 


  • Biggs, E. E., & Carter, E. W. (2017). Supporting the social lives of students with intellectual disability. In M. L. Wehmeyer & K. A. Shogren (Eds.), Handbook of research-based practices for educating students with intellectual disability (pp. 235–254). Routledge.

  • Biggs, E. E., & Snodgrass, M. R. (2020). Children’s perspectives on their relationships with friends with and without complex communication needs. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 45(2), 81–97. https://doi.org/10.1177/1540796919901271
  • Brock, M. E., Carter, E. W., & Biggs, E. E. (2020). Supporting peer interactions, relationships, and belonging. In F. Brown, J. McDonnell, & M. E. Snell (Eds.), Instruction of students with severe disabilities (9th ed., pp. 384–417). Merrill.

  • Schaefer, J. M., Canella-Malone, H. I., & Carter, E. W. (2016). The place of peers in peer-mediated interventions for students with intellectual disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 37(6), 345–356. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741932516629220

  • Travers, H., & Carter, E. W. (2021). A systematic review of how peer-mediated interventions impact students without disabilities. Remedial and Special Education. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741932521989414


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TIES Center is supported through a cooperative agreement between the University of Minnesota (# H326Y170004) and the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. The Center is affiliated with the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) which is affiliated with the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

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