TIES Peer Engagement Practice Guides
A Guide to Implementing Class-wide Peer Acceptance Interventions
Addressing the attitudes that peers have towards students with disabilities is foundational to supporting interactions and friendships among students with and without disabilities. An important goal of inclusive education is that students with and without disabilities come to know and accept one another. Being known and accepted by peers is important for all students to experience a sense of belonging at school.
Efforts to promote peer acceptance can be addressed through either class-wide or individualized approaches. Class-wide approaches are different from individualized approaches because they focus on all students in a class. One advantage of a class-wide approach is that all children hear and learn the same information regarding expectations for a culture of acceptance and positive peer relationships in the classroom. However, class-wide approaches should still be tailored based on the age, needs, and abilities of students. Three related factors are typically incorporated into class-wide peer acceptance efforts: indirect experiences, direct experiences, and the student’s primary social group. Each plays an important role in shaping the attitudes of peers toward their classmates with disabilities.
Indirect experiences refer to how children learn about and encounter disability, particularly through depictions of people with disabilities in ways that challenge stereotypes and misconceptions. This can occur through materials such as books, videos, displays, toys, and tools (e.g., wheelchair, communication boards). It can also involve exposure to communication modes such as sign language or Braille. It is important that students with disabilities see themselves reflected in their surroundings. Further, the presence of materials that represent a greater diversity of people can help all students (with and without disabilities) better understand themselves and others (Favazza et al., 2017; Yu et al., 2016).
Direct experiences refer to the opportunities students with and without disabilities have to interact directly with each other through being members of the same general education classroom community and participating in academic and social activities that are flexibly planned, rigorous, and engaging. Shared activities are a great way for students with and without disabilities to practice social skills such as turn taking, sharing, and helping one another. For example, cooperative learning activities bring students together in small groups to learn, play, or work together on projects that extend the curriculum (e.g., building bird houses as an extension of a science lesson or painting a mural as a group art project). Within these small groups, environmental strategies can be used to support positive interactions. These strategies include the intentional seating of particular children next to one another to encourage interaction, limiting materials to create a need to share, and using materials that require students to help each other (Bovey & Strain, 2003).
A primary social group refers to individuals who share close, personal, enduring relationships with a child—such as family members, teachers, and peers. These groups are marked by concern for one another, shared activities, and long periods of time spent together. Although the family is a child’s first social group, the group expands to include teachers and peers as children enter school. A child’s social group plays a key role in shaping their attitudes. Therefore, initiatives aimed at promoting attitudes and friendships can maximize outcomes by including teachers and parents. For example, both parents and teachers can expose students to materials (i.e., books, videos, toys) reflecting high expectations for persons with disabilities, facilitate conversations, and support social opportunities and interactions with peers as members of their age-grade inclusive classroom community.
The Making Friends Program (Favazza et al., 2016) is a research-based example of a class-wide approach to promoting peer acceptance. Making Friends provides a toolbox of adaptable, practical strategies that support students’ respect for, acceptance of, and celebration of each other's differences. Making Friends can be used with kindergarteners through 2nd graders, which are important ages when students are first forming attitudes about individuals with disabilities. The program is literacy-based, which means that shared book reading and discussion are critical components. Moreover, Making Friends incorporates all three factors known to influence the attitudes of peers.
It is important that general and special educators, specialized instructional support personnel (e.g., physical therapists, speech-language pathologists, school counselors), and family members partner together to promote peer acceptance. Collaboration can help everyone learn from one another about how to foster attitudes of acceptance across grade levels at school, and how to extend school practices to the home and community. For example, siblings and peers could be involved in book or video clubs that bring people together for conversations about disability and inclusion. Peers could participate in cooperative activities with other children with disabilities within church or community groups such as community centers and scouting programs . Extended family members such as grandparents could help support acceptance through their words and actions. General and special educators can share ideas with families through classroom newsletters, by having informational sessions on the topic of peer acceptance, or by inviting staff from community programs to share about inclusive community experiences (e.g., Down Syndrome Buddy Walk) or recreational programs that celebrate inclusion and diversity (e.g., Best Buddies, Project Unify).
Additionally, students with significant cognitive disabilities interact regularly with speech-language pathologists and physical therapists. These professionals can also collaborate with teachers on efforts to support peer acceptance. For example, a physical therapist might provide therapy to a student with significant cognitive disabilities in the general education classroom. Her focus may be to work on standing, but she can do this by having two peers play a card game with the student while the student works on strengthening his leg muscles. All three classmates are engaged in a positive interaction, see each other’s strengths, and have adult support to build positive relationships with one another. In this example, physical therapy involves much more than just working on gross motor muscle development. It is also a means to support social development and peer acceptance.
Planning an approach to promote class-wide peer acceptance typically starts with teachers self-reflecting and evaluating the school and classroom environment.
Before getting started, teachers should consider how their own attitudes toward people with disabilities (or others) developed. This reflection is important because teachers’ attitudes influence students’ attitudes. Specifically, teachers can benefit from reflecting on all of the things that shaped their own attitudes about individuals with disabilities (e.g., the influence of family members), how they make one feel (e.g., curious, uncomfortable), and how they influence one’s behavior (e.g., avoidance, acceptance). Making Friends (Favazza et al., 2016) provides three tools teachers can use to understand: (a) how attitudes are formed (The Attitude Exercise), (b) when and how early perceptions about individual differences were formed (Unpack Your Perceptions), and (c) how culture influences attitude development (Remember Who You Are). Unpack Your Perceptions is provided in Figure 1. This self-reflection exercise asks teachers to think about one of their own childhood experiences that contributed to a positive or negative attitude toward someone with a disability.
Evaluate the Environment
Representation of children with disabilities in classroom materials can support children’s understanding and acceptance of themselves and of others (Ostrosky et al., 2015). This might include a student seeing his teacher read books that include photographs of children who use wheelchairs and walkers. Or it could involve a middle schooler noticing photos of students with Down syndrome in the cafeteria. Teachers should examine how individuals with disabilities are depicted throughout all aspects of the classroom, such as in curricula, in books, in dramatic play materials, through communication modes (e.g., use of sign language, Braille), or elsewhere in the environment (e.g., posters). All students see themselves somewhere in their surroundings. The same evaluation should occur throughout the school. This includes the availability of friendship-focused programs (e.g., Best Buddies, Making Friends, Special Olympics), counseling units addressing topics like human differences or diverse abilities, or signage. Tools like the Inventory of Disability Representation (Favazza et al., 2017) can guide deeper reflection across both class and school environments.
The Making Friends program (Favazza et al., 2016) is a research-based approach to promoting peer acceptance, is one example of how teachers can implement strategies to promote peer acceptance. Figure 2 illustrates how teachers can address the three inter-related factors that are typically incorporated into class-wide peer acceptance efforts (i.e., indirect experiences, direct experiences, primary social group), using the Making Friends program as an example. Below, additional information is provided about implementing three sets of strategies: (a) guided discussions about books (to promote positive indirect experiences), (b) cooperative learning groups (to promote positive direct experiences), and (c) engaging families (to address each child’s primary social group).
Figure 2. Example of a Research-Informed Intervention to Promote Class-Wide Peer Acceptance
Influences on Attitude Development
Components of Making Friends
What it Looks Like
Children learn about peers with disabilities through books, videos, toys, conversations, materials, and tools (adaptive devices, communication systems such as sign language).
Provide carefully selected books, guided discussion, toys, tools, and classroom materials reflecting or used by individuals with disabilities.
Two/three times a week, teachers read/discuss a book that includes character(s) with disabilities.
Guided Discussion Emphasis:
Highlight similarities between characters in the story and students in the class, use current terminology, clarify misconceptions, introduce disability-related toys and tools, and discuss how to be a good friend.
Children learn about peers with disabilities through first-hand interactions such as inclusive play and/or cooperative learning groups.
Cooperative Learning Groups
Provide carefully structured cooperative learning groups and environmental arrangement strategies to support interactions. When possible, use materials for cooperative learning that depicts diversity, including depicting individuals with disabilities.
Two/three times a week, students are placed into inclusive groups of 4-6 children.
Use heterogeneous groups (diverse with regard to disability, race, gender, languages spoken), environmental arrangement (e.g., limit materials to encourage sharing and turn taking, intentionally partner or seat children next to a child with a disability to support interactions), and materials that positively reflect diversity.
Primary Social Group (Family Involvement)
Children learn about peers with disabilities from their first social group, their family. In the family context, a child learns values, beliefs, and attitudes. Therefore, family members are included in the implementation of peer acceptance efforts.
Repeat the school-based literacy by including families (parents, grandparents, siblings) in home literacy activities that align with school literacy efforts (e.g., books and guided discussions reflecting individuals with disabilities).
Story Time at Home
Once a week, child selects a previously read book to read/discuss at home with family members.
Guided Discussion Emphasis:
Highlight similarities, use current terminology, clarify misconceptions, introduce tools (e.g., walker), and discuss how to be a good friend.
Guided Discussions about Books
Children’s books have an important place in every classroom. Unfortunately, books positively depicting characters or children with disabilities can be rare. School and community librarians can help teachers identify books with disability content, and parents can also provide assistance in evaluating and selecting high quality books. Figure 3 displays criteria to help teachers select high-quality books.
Teachers can extend the impact of indirect experiences with disability through books by facilitating guided discussions with their class of students. In this way, books can promote peer acceptance by acting as a springboard for carefully guided conversations about disability, as well as ideas around friendship, inclusion, and acceptance of others. It is important for teachers to pre-read books and prepare guided discussion questions to facilitate good conversations with students. For example, discussion questions can focus on similarities in students and characters with disabilities from stories, particularly because recognizing shared interests and characteristics can be key to promoting accepting attitudes (e.g., Who likes ice cream like Rosa? Who likes to sing like Omeed?). In addition, guided discussions about books typically include questions about the story, an explanation of the disability using appropriate terminology, and/or an explanation of the tools and equipment used in the story (i.e., wheelchair, sign language, speech therapy). The discussion might conclude by asking students to talk about what it means to be a friend (i.e., share, take turns, help others) and encouraging them to be caring friends with their classmates. An example of a guided discussion is presented in Figure 4.
Being full-fledged members of the same general education class community and engaging in enjoyable social interactions with classmates with disabilities are among the direct experiences that can often make the greatest difference for promoting peer acceptance. Materials and activities that require students to work together or help one another will naturally increase social interaction, and can therefore also help promote acceptance. When selecting classroom materials, educators should prioritize materials and activities that will foster peer interactions through cooperative learning. For example, socio-dramatic play themes (e.g., grocery store, veterinarian, restaurant) and small-group projects (e.g., creating a diorama) provide many opportunities for social interaction and for students with and without disabilities to get to know one another, see one another’s strengths, and have fun together. The use of adaptive tools (e.g., communication board, sign language, braces) and toys (e.g., dolls and animals with glasses, wheelchairs, hearing aids, canes) can be embedded into these activities.
School-based efforts to support acceptance and inclusion for all students will be more effective when intentional efforts are made to involve family members. Parents, siblings, and other family members are key figures in a child’s development of attitudes. Before launching class-wide peer acceptance efforts, teachers should communicate with families about what they can do at home to enhance a sense of the importance of inclusive communities that celebrate all people. Let parents know that they can participate in the peer-acceptance program, to the extent desired, by reading books and having conversations with their child. If resources allow, teachers can send home duplicate books and guided discussion questions that are similar to the ones used at school. Teachers should also consider how technology could be used to support home-school connections, such as having volunteers video record book readings that could then be the basis for discussions at home. Additionally, family members can be involved in peer acceptance efforts by participating in community conversations regarding the value of inclusive school and general communities, helping to select and evaluate books, and volunteering to read aloud different books to groups of students or whole classes at school.
When evaluating the impact of a class-wide peer acceptance intervention, teachers should focus on students with disabilities, peers without disabilities, and the broader school community.
For Student with Disabilities
As a result of class-wide peer acceptance efforts, students with disabilities may experience more frequent interactions with peers, less bullying, and a greater sense of belonging. Additionally, positive changes in self-esteem and self-confidence may occur, especially when students with disabilities are engaged more with peers both inside and outside of school. Finally, improvements in learning may result as students with and without disabilities have more opportunities to watch and learn from each other. Several strategies can be used to evaluate these potential outcomes for students with disabilities. For example, teachers could interview students or use simple questionnaires to learn about their friendships with classmates. They can document the frequency of bullying behaviors when it is a concern. Finally, they can interview parents about any changes they have seen in their child and ask their impressions of the benefits and challenges of engaging in class-wide peer acceptance efforts.
Positive outcomes for peers may include more accepting attitudes about individual differences, as well as increased comfort with students with significant cognitive disabilities and with assistive technology (e.g., wheelchairs, walkers, communication devices). Teachers may also notice growth in confidence, self-esteem, and leadership roles. Teachers can gather information about these areas of impact by interviewing peers, observing during academic and social activities, or asking students to draw pictures or write a story about their experiences with classmates.
For the Broader School Community
Peer acceptance efforts can also produce changes among teachers and other school staff. This might include greater awareness and use of materials or books that portray positive representations of individuals with disabilities. Teachers may also report greater openness to, and comfort with, talking about disability. Self-reflection journals or interviews with teachers provide ways of better understanding teachers’ thoughts about the benefits of efforts to promote peer acceptance. These same methods can be used to solicit teachers’ suggestions for improvement.
Sustaining and Expanding
Implementing class-wide peer acceptance efforts should include plans for sustainability. By regularly reflecting, teachers can make changes to best meet the needs of their students. For example, teachers can maintain a list of books that sparked good discussions or activities that worked well in promoting positive peer interactions. Teachers might first introduce peer acceptance programs in one class or grade level before expanding to other grades. Eventually, efforts may shift from pursuing class-wide peer acceptance efforts to pursuing school-wide initiatives. Teachers can also support and mentor each other in this area of their work. For example, they can exchange ideas for activities, share materials across classrooms, and, if feasible, observe in each other’s classrooms. Teachers can also share information about peer acceptance efforts with student teachers, which will provide “real time” professional development and increase the likelihood that future teachers will strive to promote peer acceptance and create positive attitudes in their classrooms.
Across Age, Development Level, and Grade
Special consideration needs to be given to the age, developmental level, and grade level of students. Attitudes and understandings of disability change as children get older. Therefore, planning activities and discussion topics that match students’ interests and developmental level is critical. Books and materials should also contain age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate themes and language. For example, while socio-dramatic play themes may be relevant for kindergarteners in inclusive cooperative learning groups, small-group activities focused on planting a garden or working together on stories and pictures for a weekly class newspaper might be better suited for fifth-grade students.
This guide focuses on promoting peer acceptance at a class-wide level, but this does not mean that teachers cannot tailor supports to the individualized needs of the students in their classroom. Most students with significant cognitive disabilities will need individualized support to be fully engaged in class activities. This support may include augmentative and alternative communication or AAC (e.g., sign language or communication devices), behavioral support (e.g., visual supports, adult support), or other assistive technology or adaptive devices (e.g., walkers, adaptive scissors). Whenever students with disabilities use these various tools, peers should also become acquainted with them. Another way to individualize efforts to promote peer acceptance is to build on the interests and strengths of individual students. Teachers can notice which students have shared interests and appear to enjoy each other’s company, and then use these connections to promote social inclusion and peer acceptance for each student (e.g., Ga Kyung and Camilla, I noticed you both like drawing and painting. Can you work together on this part of the mural?).
Because of the wide diversity represented in many classrooms, it is important to be sensitive to how people from different cultures view disability. This consideration pertains to both peers and students with significant cognitive disabilities. Talking with family members can help school staff understand cultural differences and perspectives. This information can have implications for how teachers select books and materials that are well-suited for their classroom, including resources that reflect the intersection of culture and disability. School staff may benefit from professional development to understand how families from different cultures think about people with disabilities, and how this might influence interventions aimed at promoting peer acceptance.
It is three weeks into the school year and the Eacotts have just moved into town. They have three children between the ages of 6 and 10. Shawn—who is 6 years old—has significant cognitive disabilities. As a preemie, he weighed just 3 pounds at birth and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy in his first year of life. He loves interacting with his siblings, Shannon and Missy. The children can often be heard giggling as they play together. Shawn will be attending his local elementary school with his sisters. He will be included most of the day in the kindergarten classroom, with therapies provided predominantly within this general education setting. His teacher, Ms. Han, has one other student who has a disability in her class of 20 students. Ms. Han is excited to have Shawn join the group. She has an older sibling with cerebral palsy and she wants to make sure Shawn feels like a true member of the classroom community, not just a guest. She wonders how to create an environment with a culture of inclusion—where class-wide peer acceptance exists and where friendships between students with and without disabilities are supported.
Six months later, Ms. Han is reflecting on the growth she has observed in all of her kindergarteners. She has spent these months intentionally focused on implementing a class-wide approach to promoting peer acceptance. She has been awed by her students’ ease in discussing books that include individuals with disabilities in the storyline, and their ability to see the strengths and needs of each other. She recently heard one of her students say “The sister in this book has Down syndrome, just like my Uncle Errol. He plays softball and I go to his games sometimes.” She also has noticed the increased inclusion of Shawn in playground activities as peers naturally adapt games like tag and soccer to include him. Finally, parents have commented on the positive changes they have observed in their children toward individuals in their family and community, and two other kindergarten teachers have asked Ms. Han to brainstorm with them about possible changes they might make to their curriculum to mimic what she has accomplished. There is still much work to be done, but Ms. Han is confident that her efforts in implementing a class-wide intervention are well worth the planning and collaborating, as she strives to promote peer acceptance.
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Books About Children with Disabilities:
Helping Young Children Develop Friendships (Resource List): https://illinoisearlylearning.org/reslists/friendships/
National Inclusion Project: https://www.inclusionproject.org
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Ostrosky, M. M., & Favazza, P. C. (2022). A guide to implementing class-wide peer acceptance interventions. In E. E. Biggs & E. Carter (Eds.), The Power of Peers. TIES Center. https://publications.ici.umn.edu/ties/peer-engagement/practice-guides/peer-acceptance
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