TIES Peer Engagement Practice Guides
A Guide to Implementing Peer Network Interventions
Social relationships are undeniably linked to human thriving at all stages of life, including for students throughout elementary and middle school. For students with disabilities, inclusive education can offer a powerful means for promoting interactions and relationships with peers, including strong and lasting friendships (Biggs & Snodgrass, 2020). However, without some support, peer relationships can be limited. Some research has shown that students with disabilities may rarely interact or engage with their peers, even when they are present in the same classrooms, lunchrooms, playgrounds, hallways, and other school settings (Chung et al., 2012). Students with significant cognitive disabilities may also be less likely than their peers to have reciprocal friendships, and they may feel isolated or lonely in their school.
Teachers often want to support positive peer relationships among students with and without disabilities, but they may be uncertain about how to do this. Shared interests, shared activities, and positive social interactions with peers are how friendships start and strengthen. However, teachers often recognize that putting themselves too much in the middle of interactions between students can actually stifle friendships—particularly for older students beyond the early elementary years. The challenge for teachers is to know how to support peer interaction and relationships without being overly intrusive.
Peer networks are an approach to promoting social communication, engagement, and relationships among students with and without disabilities by supporting greater integration into social environments at school (Biggs et al., 2018; Carter et al., 2013). A peer network involves: (a) inviting 2-6 peers and a student with a disability to form a social group, (b) providing regular opportunities for the group to meet and engage in a shared activity that all students will enjoy (e.g., eating lunch, playing a game or with toys, listening to music), and (c) providing adult support to the network, but fading this support over time. Peer networks also involve an orientation or informal training for peers, or for the whole network. This orientation is designed to give the peer network a strong start and support positive interactions by equipping all students in the peer network (i.e., the peers and the student with a disability) with information, examples, and practice on different ways to talk, play, and spend time with one another.
Peer network interventions should be individualized, which means that teachers and other team members can choose to incorporate different strategies to support the goals they have for the student with a disability, the peers, and the group as a whole. Examples of these other strategies can include:
- teaching peers to support communication with augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) such as a speech-generating device;
- incorporating social skills instruction for the student with a disability or for the whole group;
- teaching peers different strategies to support positive interaction (e.g., initiating communication, using wait time after asking a question, modeling AAC), and;
- promoting interactions across group members outside of regular network meetings.
Educational teams often set up and support a peer network for a student when there are limited opportunities for that student to get to know their peers without disabilities, spend quality time with peers (e.g., talking, playing, having fun together), and become friends. As one of the first steps, whoever first became interested in peer networks should consider how to collaborate with, hear from, and gain support from others at the school. Peer networks will be the most successful if many different team members have a shared vision for the goals, a clear understanding of what it will take to get started, and a plan to support the network over time. This might include parents, special and general educators, paraprofessionals, specialized instructional support personnel (e.g., physical therapists, occupational therapists), social workers, and school administrators. For example, the advice of a speech-language pathologist about supporting communication may be especially important if a student utilizes AAC. General educators, club leaders, and school counselors will likely know many peers without disabilities in the school. They could identify peers who might enjoy participating in the peer network, and could possibly be the ones to invite them to do so.
After a team has decided to set up and support a peer network for a student with a disability, they should identify who will facilitate the intervention. The adult who meets regularly with the students in the peer network is typically called a peer network facilitator. The facilitator supports the peer network when it meets. This involves leading the orientation meeting and providing ongoing support during regular peer network meetings, such as finding ways for all of the students to actively participate in shared activities, teaching simple ways to support positive interaction, and checking-in regularly with the student and peers along the way.
The peer network facilitator is very important to the success of the peer network, but they do not have to do everything alone. Ideally, the facilitator has good support from others at the school. When thinking of the roles of the facilitator, it may be helpful to think about the word facilitate itself, which typically brings to mind more of a behind-the-scenes role, rather than a front-and-center role. The same is true for a peer network facilitator. The facilitator’s role is crucial, but remains behind-the-scenes providing the opportunities and support students need to get to know one another and have fun spending time together. Doing this provides fertile soil out of which students with and without disabilities often choose to become friends. Mutuality and choosing one another is the “stuff of friendship” that facilitators can strive to support, but should not think they can create or force.
Many different school staff members can serve as a peer network facilitator. A special educator might be the first person who comes to mind, but many others can also serve in this role, such as paraprofessionals, school counselors, social workers, club leaders, coaches, and general educators. Several things are important to consider when identifying who should act as the peer network facilitator. First, facilitators should be available to meet with the peer network on a regular basis. Second, facilitators should know, at least to some level, the student with a disability (or have ways to get to know and spend time with this student). Third, the facilitator should be invested in the goal of supporting reciprocal interactions and relationships among students with and without disabilities.
After identifying a facilitator, there are three main considerations that should be addressed: (a) how to identify and invite peers, (b) what shared activities will structure the peer network meetings, and (c) when, where, and how often the peer network will meet.
Peer networks can involve different numbers of students, typically ranging from two to six peers and the student with a disability. How many peers to invite is an important decision. When students are younger (for example, K-2) or have more extensive social and communication support needs, it may be beneficial to keep the peer network smaller (i.e., no more than two to three peers). Doing this can help make sure the student does not become overwhelmed by or left out of interactions during the peer network. Educators should ask the student with a disability who they would want to be in the peer network. If the student has trouble communicating their preferences with speech, educators could provide pictures of peers so that the student can respond with their ideas about who they like to spend time with. It is okay if the student is unable to provide suggestions of peers, particularly if they have not had a lot of opportunities to get to know their peers without disabilities. When this is the case, educators can play more leading roles in identifying peers.
There is not a single right way to select and invite peers for a peer network. However, educators should consider whether there are peers without disabilities who: (a) have shown interest in getting to know the student with a disability; (b) interact with the student as a friend, not primarily as a teacher or “helper”, (c) enjoy doing some of the same things as the student, and/or (d) would have opportunities to spend time with the student during other shared activities. Educators should also think about peers who would likely enjoy the peer network, and who get along with or are friends with one another. Some ideas about what educators could say when inviting peers is shown in Figure 1.
The next important step is to plan shared activities for the network meetings. Many activities can be chosen, but they should be things that promote social interaction and are fun for the student and peers. For example, shared activities can involve playing with toys (e.g., magnet tiles, kinetic sand, cars, paper dolls), making a craft or doing art, playing board or card games, listening to music, doing a simple service project, eating lunch, and much more. Educators should consider activities that are age-appropriate, align with the interests of all of the students in the group, promote interaction, are feasible in the setting, and allow the student with the disability to fully participate. Educators do not need to come up with these activities all by themselves. Ask the students for ideas about what they would like to do together.
Educators also need to plan logistics, such as when, where, and how often the peer network will meet. Here too, there is much flexibility. It is important for the peer network to meet often enough that the goals for the group can be accomplished (e.g., the students have fun getting to know one another, develop and strengthen friendships, and/or strengthen social and communication skills). However, there are many different ways to plan meeting times. For example, in middle schools, peer networks might happen during 30-minute lunch blocks, one to two times per week. In elementary schools, it may be helpful to do shorter play-based peer network sessions more frequently throughout the week, such as just 10 minutes at a time, but three to four days per week. These shorter sessions may be easier to fit inside of natural routines such as recess, shorter transitions or breaks, or even center-based activities in the general education classroom. It can also work better for students who do not attend as well to longer activities.
The setting is also important to consider. Settings such as general education classrooms and cafeterias offer advantages because they are social and inclusive contexts. However, things like noise levels, crowded seating, and other distractions in these settings may make them less conducive for a peer network. Educators need to use discretion, which may involve adapting to changes in setting if needed. If quieter and more distraction-free settings are needed, peer networks can meet almost anywhere in the school, such as in empty classrooms, outside in a courtyard, or even at a small table in a hallway.
Orient the Students to the Peer Network
Launching the peer network begins with an initial meeting that helps all students in the network know what to expect and get excited about participating. Educators can also use this meeting to gain insight from students about what would make the network fun. If peers do not already know the student with a disability or each other well, this first meeting will help them get to know one another. When preparing the student with a significant cognitive disability to introduce themselves, educators should focus on the student’s interests, strengths, and ways of communicating—not on the student’s disability or disability label. The facilitator might also share ways that peers can support the student and each other. However, these should be described as supports that students would provide a friend, not something a teacher would do. The facilitator should not encourage peers to take on strictly “helping” roles. For example, instead of saying “You can help Zahid learn to communicate better,” the facilitator could share, “Zahid uses a device to communicate. It’s pretty cool. Zahid, would you like to show everyone?” As Zahid shows his speech-generating device to the other peers in the network, the facilitator could explain how to find different words on the device. The supports that the facilitator will describe, explain, and model should be individualized for each specific student and network. This support could include having peers:
- use AAC as a shared way of communicating, which means that peers might use AAC to talk about what they as a group are doing or playing during the peer network (not just the student with the disability using this way of communicating);
- use plenty of wait time to give the student an opportunity to respond;
- initiate interactions;
- learn to recognize and respond to all of the different ways the student might communicate (e.g., gestures, sounds, facial expressions, AAC);
- demonstrate social skills such as eye contact, asking questions which continue on the same topic, or taking turns, and;
- demonstrate play skills, such as ways to play with different types of toys, pretend play, or play games with rules (e.g., card games, board games).
The facilitator should have a plan for the different things they want to talk about or do with the students. An example checklist for this first meeting is shown in Figure 2.
Hold Regular Peer Network Meetings
The primary goal of these regular meetings is for students to have fun, interact socially, and develop and strengthen mutual relationships with one another. They also give a safe, welcoming, and reinforcing environment for students with disabilities to practice and build social, communication, and play skills. Peer network meetings will typically follow a simple and predictable format, with the shared activity taking up most of the allocated time. For example, a peer network involving first grade students might involve 10 to 15-minute sessions several times a week. The facilitator might gather the students together, encourage them to greet and talk with one another, and set up a play-based activity (e.g., magnet blocks and race cars). At the end of the session, the facilitator might give the students praise and feedback, have them clean up their materials, and ask them what they would like to play with next time. In contrast, a peer network involving middle school students might meet for 30-minute sessions during lunch, one to two times a week. The structure could consist of time for students to get their meals and meet at the same table, to eat and talk, to play a quick card game, and to wrap-up and talk about how to connect more with one another before their next meeting (e.g., meeting briefly between classes, texting one another).
No matter the structure, an important part of each peer network meeting is the support that the facilitator offers. Without being too intrusive, facilitators should look for opportunities to provide information that could support interaction, ensure the student with a disability is participating fully, encourage students to interact more with one another, and provide natural reinforcement. For example, the facilitator might help peers understand what a student was trying to communicate, or comment on how well students were taking turns with play materials. Or, the facilitator could suggest ways to change up the activity just a little bit so that everyone—including the student with a disability—is more involved. As students become more comfortable with one another, and more skilled at interacting with one another, the facilitator should gradually fade back their support.
The facilitator should also help peers learn a few simple interaction strategies that can support positive and reciprocal communication, engagement, and/or play. This can be particularly helpful if the student has complex communication needs or has difficulty with joint engagement with peers during shared activities. For example, the facilitator of a peer network with second grade students may want to use visual supports to teach peers and the student “Great Ways to Talk and Play” (see Figure 3). The facilitator can teach students interaction strategies through very brief but carefully planned mini-lessons, which might include visual supports, explanation and modeling of the strategies, role play, prompting or reminders, and specific feedback. Over time, this support can fade as everyone demonstrates their skill and comfort with using the strategies.
Peer networks can lead to many positive outcomes, including increasing peer interaction and engagement, promoting students’ social and communication skills, and supporting friendship development (e.g., Biggs et al., 2018; Kamps et al., 2015). Not every peer network will result in new friendships, but many will. Peer networks provide the opportunity for students with and without disabilities to get to know one another and ultimately choose if they want to be friends. In all cases, it is important for educational teams to identify ways to evaluate the impact of peer networks on students with significant cognitive disabilities, their peers, and others.
For Students with Disabilities
One of the best ways to understand the impact of peer networks for students with disabilities is through direct observation. As the facilitator fades their support, they can collect data on students’ communication, social skills, and/or play skills with peers. Another team member, such as a special educator, could also want to come and observe. Determining whether any improvements extend beyond the context of the peer network meetings is also important. For example, if a peer network takes place during lunch for a middle school student, educators may want to see whether interactions with peers spill over to other times of the school day, such as in general education classes or in the hallways. Educators should also ask students with disabilities about their experiences. Ask students many different types of questions, such as whether they like participating in the peer network, if they are friends with other peer network members, what could make their peer network better, and if there are other peers they would like to get to know. When asking these questions, it is important to consider how to provide communication support for students who need them, such as a communication board with pictures that students can use to communicate.
Peer networks can also have a positive impact on the peers who participate. Peers may benefit in many different ways, such as feeling more comfortable around students who have disabilities, learning new ways to play or talk with their schoolmates, growing personally (e.g., becoming more patient, developing a greater understanding of themselves and others), and building new friendships. Educators can ask peers about: (a) what (if anything) is good or is challenging about their experience in the peer network, (b) if anything has changed for them as a result of their involvement, (c) their relationships with the student with the disability and the other peer network members, and (d) if there is anything that could make the peer network experience better.
Educators should also consider whether and how peer networks impact others in the school. For example, they might be interested in whether there is any impact on the attitudes or behaviors of other peers who are not directly involved in the peer network. Or, they might be interested in how facilitating a peer network could impact the adult facilitator. These broader impacts can be evaluated by informal interviews or reports, questionnaires, or observations.
Sustaining and Expanding
Over time, the student and their peers should need less direct support from the facilitator. However, educators should not expect to stop providing support altogether. Adult support will remain helpful, particularly for younger students in elementary school. However, the nature of this support will shift over time so that students can take greater ownership over the network. Educators may also want to look for opportunities to expand the use of peer networks in their school or district. For example, a school or district may create a “support team” consisting of different educators at the school who have some experience setting up and supporting peer networks. This support team can offer training, provide coaching, and help educators who are new to peer networks problem solve and plan how to support other students using this approach. An essential part of successfully scaling up any effort is that school staff feel ownership of the goals, process, and outcomes. Efforts should focus on adjusting to the culture of a school and ensuring many different stakeholders can participate, share input, and participate in decision-making.
Across Ages and Grades
Peer networks can and have been implemented with students with disabilities across elementary, middle, and high school levels (Biggs et al., 2018; Carter et al., 2013; Kamps et al., 2015). However, it is important to consider how peer interactions and relationships are different for students across different ages. For example, social interactions among students in the lower elementary grades (K-2) are typically based around different types of play activities. These interactions involve different ways of communicating and playing than those for upper elementary or middle school students. Educators can learn a lot by observing peers at different grade levels and thinking about what positive interactions and relationships look like. What types of activities across these ages or grades are most supportive of social interaction and friendship development? What does it mean to be a friend at this age? How do students talk to one another, play with one another, or spend time together?
Peer networks can be tailored in many different ways to meet the individual needs of students. Educators should consider the strengths and interests of each student with disabilities. Building on students’ strengths and interests can help peer networks be more successful. This could involve using students’ interests to identify shared activities, identifying peers who have interests in common with the student, or finding ways to highlight the strengths of the student during the peer network. Educators should also incorporate individualized support into peer networks. For example, the special educator and peer network facilitator may want to consult with a physical or occupational therapist if a student has physical disabilities. Doing this could help the team identify ways to adapt materials and identify activities that would support the students’ full participation. If a student has complex communication needs, a speech-language pathologist could work with the facilitator to identify the best strategies to teach peers that could support social interaction (e.g., wait time, recognizing and understanding all the ways the student communicates).
Any approach to supporting peer engagement should be culturally responsive, both for the student with a disability and their peers. Partnering with family members is one of the best ways to help ensure that the plan for the peer network aligns with their goals, values, beliefs, and culture. Parents or other family members may want to provide input on whether a peer network would be good for their child, what peers to invite, how to plan the network (e.g., what types of shared activities the student would enjoy), and whether they see positive outcomes result from a peer network.
Zahid is a fourth-grade student who attends Spring Hill Elementary School. Zahid is very good at art and loves drawing pictures, especially pictures of “things that go” such as trains, airplanes, and trucks. Zahid has autism and an intellectual disability and rarely successfully communicates with others at school. When he does communicate, it is primarily to request something, like a break, water, or paper to be able to draw on, and it is nearly always with adults rather than peers. He is beginning to learn to use a high-tech speech generating device, but doesn’t use it all that much yet unless someone else is modeling it during their interactions.
Zahid’s father wants him to get to know other students at the school. He also wants Zahid to strengthen his social communication skills. The father approached Zahid’s special education teacher, Mr. Holcomb, to see if he had any ideas. Mr. Holcomb had recently learned about peer networks and thought that building a peer network around Zahid’s interest in art and drawing could be a great way to support both of these goals. He thought it could give Zahid a chance to practice and develop social communication skills. It would also support him to get to know a few classmates and possibly develop new friendships.
Mr. Holcomb knew that pulling off a peer network for Zahid would go even better if others were also involved, so he talked with Zahid’s general educator, a paraprofessional who provided support to Zahid for part of the day, and Zahid’s speech-language pathologist. Everyone was excited, but not sure about their next steps. So, they decided to meet to make a plan. The team decided that the best time to have the network meetings would be during a transition time in the general education classroom that happened after Math and before lunch. This was a short “free” time when students were generally reading quietly, drawing, or writing in their journals. Zahid had difficulty attending to any activity for much more than 10-15 minutes, and so the team thought that holding the peer network during this transition time would allow them to have shorter peer network sessions several times a week. Although Mrs. Garcia, the paraprofessional, said she would be willing to be the peer network facilitator, she felt somewhat nervous about this new role. They decided to start with Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Ms. Reece, the general educator, mentioned that there was one boy in the class, Dante, who also really liked drawing, and another boy, Matt, who was interested in trains. She wondered if they would be good peers to invite, particularly because they had interests in common with Zahid.
The team made a plan, and Mr. Holcomb met with Mrs. Garcia to help her learn more about peer networks and become comfortable in her role. When they were ready, Mrs. Garcia and Ms. Reece asked Zahid, Dante, and Matt if they would like to spend some time drawing together during the transition time after Math class. Dante and Matt excitedly accepted the invitation. Zahid didn’t say anything, but got excited when Mrs. Garcia said that he could show Dante and Matt how to draw a train. A note was sent home to all three of the boys' parents to explain what they would be doing, when they would be doing it, and requesting parent permission. The first time that Mrs. Garcia got the students together for the network, she provided a brief orientation, with Ms. Reece standing by for support. She explained that the boys had several things in common (e.g., drawing, an interest in trains and transportation) and might enjoy spending time together. Mrs. Garcia helped Zahid show Dante and Matt how his communication device worked. Along with the students, she searched for and pointed out words related to drawing and trains, as well as other words like “cool” and “my turn” that she thought could be helpful. She explained that Dante and Matt could also use the device to communicate, as long as they asked Zahid first if it was okay with him. Next Mrs. Garcia asked the boys if they had ideas for how they could draw together, rather than by themselves. Dante suggested they look up a picture of a different train, plane, or truck, and then all draw the same thing.
The next time the network got together, Mrs. Garcia had printed off a few different pictures for the boys . Zahid chose the first picture—a locomotive with a bright red engine—and the boys got to drawing. As they drew, Mrs. Garcia modeled ways of communicating with one another (e.g., pressing “cool!” on the communication device to comment about one of the boy’s pictures). She explained some of Zahid’s behaviors to peers (e.g., “He’s flapping his hands because he is excited”). She gave suggestions to peers (e.g., “Give Zahid a little more time to respond when you ask a question”). She also encouraged the students (“Your drawings are awesome!” “Dante, I like how you asked Zahid if he wanted the marker.”). Mr. Holcomb stopped by to watch for a little bit, and debriefed with Mrs. Garcia after the network meeting.
Over time, Mrs. Garcia realized that she didn’t have to provide as much to support the boys. She still checked-in with them regularly to make sure they weren’t bored with drawing (they weren’t), ask them how things were going, and offer some encouragement. She noticed that as the weeks went on, the peers seemed a lot more comfortable around Zahid. Zahid seemed to feel a lot more comfortable too. They complemented one another’s drawings, laughed together, and even started bringing in their own photos to draw. Matt even said that drawing time was his favorite time of the day, and Mrs. Garcia noticed that Dante and Zahid now tended to spend time on the playground together. The team sent notes, photos, and short video clips home periodically (with parent permission) to Zahid’s father, along with Matt and Dante’s parents. Everyone seemed excited to hear how things were going. At Zahid’s IEP meeting, Ms. Reece commented that she felt like the peer network seemed to really help Zahid fit in more in the class, and helped her think differently about including students with significant cognitive disabilities in her classroom. Reflecting on all of the changes, Mr. Holcomb began wondering if there were other students who could also benefit from being part of a peer network.
- Biggs, E. E., Carter, E. W., Bumble, J. L., Barnes, K., & Mazur, E. L. (2018). Enhancing peer network interventions for students with complex communication needs. Exceptional Children, 85(1), 65–85. https://doi.org/10.1177/0014402918792899
- 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
Carter, E. W., Asmus, J., Moss, C. K., Cooney, M., Weir, K., Vincent, L., Born, T., Hochman, J. M., Bottema-Beutel, K., & Fesperman, E. (2013). Peer network strategies to foster social connections among adolescents with and without severe disabilities. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 46(2), 51–59. https://doi.org/10.1177/004005991304600206
Chung, Y. C., Carter, E. W., & Sisco, L. G. (2012). Social interactions of students with disabilities who use augmentative and alternative communication in inclusive classrooms. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 117(5), 349–367. https://doi.org/10.1352/1944-7558-117.5.349
Kamps, D., Thiemann-Bourque, K., Heitzman-Powell, L., Schwartz, I., Rosenberg, N., Mason, R., & Cox, S. (2015). A comprehensive peer network intervention to improve social communication of children with autism spectrum disorders: A randomized trial in kindergarten and first grade. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(6), 1809–1824. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-014-2340-2
Peer Network Manual from The Center on Secondary Education for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (CSESA): https://csesa.fpg.unc.edu/sites/csesa.fpg.unc.edu/files/Peer%20Network%20Manual.pdf
Webinar on Peer Networks and other Peer-Mediated Interventions from the Kansas Technical Assistance System Network: https://www.ksdetasn.org/resources/2124
Kentucky Peer Support Network: https://www.kypeersupport.org
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Biggs, E. E. (2022). A guide to implementing peer network 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-networks
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