TIES Peer Engagement Practice Guides
A Guide to Implementing Peer Partner Programs
Although the academic curriculum is certainly central to the elementary and middle school experience, the relationships students develop with their peers are also quite significant. Whether talking in the cafeteria, collaborating on a group project, catching up between classes, participating in extracurricular activities, completing a service project, performing together in band or chorus, playing at recess, or hanging out after school—the social aspects of school have a powerful influence on students. When peer relationships are plentiful, school is an exciting place to go. When they are absent, any enthusiasm can quickly evaporate.
Relationships are usually forged through shared activities over time. In other words, students with and without disabilities are more likely to choose each other as friends when they have regular opportunities to spend time together within and beyond the classroom. Yet, shared activities with peers can be quite rare for many students with significant cognitive disabilities. Students who have limited involvement in general education classes, eat lunch at different times or tables than their schoolmates, lack needed support on the playground, or are not involved in school programs or clubs have far fewer opportunities to meet and get to know same-age peers. Moreover, they miss out on important learning opportunities that take place in each of these various settings. What can schools do to expand opportunities for students with and without disabilities to participate in shared activities across the school day and experience true membership in their schools?
Peer partner programs are a formal way of creating additional avenues through which students with and without disabilities can spend time together across school settings. This research-based educational practice is designed to foster social relationships, promote school involvement, and create a greater sense of belonging for all participating students (Hughes & Carter, 2008). Many of the other peer-mediated approaches described in this series of guides (e.g., peer networks, peer support arrangements, Stay-Play-Talk) tend to be designed around a single student with significant cognitive disabilities. In contrast, peer partner programs are group-based approaches that focus on connecting multiple students as part of shared activities. They also tend to be implemented school-wide, allowing every student enrolled at the school to participate in some way.
Peer partner programs generally take one of two primary forms. The first is that they can be designed around more occasional activities, such as offering a school club that meets weekly or monthly for social, service, or project-based activities and incorporates the support needed for anyone to join (e.g., Carter et al., 2012). The second is that they can be established as a peer partner support program that enables peers without disabilities to spend at least one period each day providing peer support to fellow students with significant cognitive disabilities (e.g., Ziegler et al., 2020). In both cases, the common feature is the arrangement of consistent interaction opportunities through shared activities, under the guidance of educators or other school staff.
It is important to involve a variety of school staff in implementing peer partner programs. Many peer partner programs involve connecting students with and without disabilities during academic and related arts classes, in cafeterias during lunch, on the playground at recess, or through field trips or community service projects. Therefore, developing clear communication pathways with general educators, special educators, and school leaders will ensure the program stays strong throughout the school year. Most peer partner programs have a designated coordinator who has primary responsibility for its day-to-day operation. Typically, this is a special educator who has students with intellectual and developmental disabilities on their caseload. However, this coordinator should never navigate this work alone. Frequent conversations are needed with the teachers, paraprofessionals, related service providers, and others who will supervise the students as they spend time together in various settings. Peer partner programs provide rich contexts within which students with disabilities can learn and practice new skills. Because of this, the input of specialists such as speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and behavior specialists can be especially valuable. These experts can provide guidance on how to adapt activities, provide support, and maximize learning opportunities for students.
Strong support from colleagues throughout the school is key to the success of peer partner programs, especially when launching the planning process. Most schools form a core planning team of 3-5 members. This small group could include special educators, general educators, school counselors, a building administrator, and anyone else who is passionate about fostering inclusion and belonging at the school. Some schools also include parents or student representatives. The team meets to define the purpose of the peer partner program, delineate the core component or features of the program, determine any resource or staff requirements, and identify any potential challenges. For example, the team should select a name for the program (e.g., Peer to Peer, Peer Connections, Peer Buddy), decide which students and peers will be involved, specify the ways they will spend time together throughout the school year, and determine the support students will receive from school staff. Once these initial decisions are made, the team should present and discuss the plan with the entire school faculty. Ensuring a broad understanding of—and support for—the peer partner program will encourage greater buy-in from everyone at the school. After incorporating any suggestions, the team can finalize materials for recruitment (e.g., brochures, webpage) or prepare any required district approvals (e.g., program plans, courses).
Because peer partner programs can be implemented in a variety of ways (see Case Applications), this section focuses on core features common to the approaches of most schools.
Generating enthusiasm and participation begins with a strong recruitment strategy. The core planning team should decide who in the school will be invited to participate and how peers will be selected from among all those who volunteer. Peer partner programs are usually open to anyone who is interested in getting to know their schoolmates with significant cognitive disabilities and who are available to participate in designated activities. In other words, peers must want to be involved and have the availability to do so. However, it is still important to have a good sense of the qualities and experiences you want these peers to possess. For example, teachers often look for peers who have consistent attendance, are excited about learning new skills, demonstrate appropriate interpersonal skills, have had other similar experiences, or share interests in common with participating students with disabilities. In addition, teachers sometimes seek out peers who would themselves be likely to benefit from the experience. This could include peers who would benefit from having greater engagement in school activities or developing new friendships.
Spreading the word about a peer partner program can happen in a variety of ways. Some schools promote the opportunity through multiple means, including distributing flyers, creating posters, developing a web page, making morning announcements, and giving presentations in classes. Others focus on personal invitations by asking teachers to nominate or approach peers who they think would be excellent in this role. The first approach is most often used when the peer partner program involves the development of a school club. The approach helps identify interested students who teachers may have otherwise overlooked. The second approach is when the peer partner program is focused upon targeted support during the school day. This approach is useful for identifying peers with specific characteristics. More personal invitations can also help teachers address the questions of peers who are initially hesitant. Whenever possible, the preferences of students with significant cognitive disabilities should be sought when seeking out peers. This is particularly important in middle school when peer dynamics take on heightened importance. Teachers can find out whether there are individuals or peer groups that a student would like to get to know (or avoid) and ask for their input on any approach to recruitment. When students have complex communication needs, teachers will need to be more creative about how these views will be sought.
Peers will usually appreciate receiving clear guidance and training related to their involvement in a peer partner program. Some peers—such as those who have prior experiences with, or are family members of, people with disabilities—may already feel quite confident in assuming the roles of friend and support. Other peers, however, may feel uncertain about what to do and say, or enter with some reservations. Holding one or more orientation meetings can provide an avenue for equipping peers and addressing any concerns. Of course, the nature of a school’s peer partner program will also drive many decisions regarding the scope and depth of this training. For example, peers who will attend monthly, inclusive social events may need much less guidance than peers who will be supporting students each week within an inclusive service-learning project. Orientation activities should always be individually tailored to address the anticipated needs and experiences of participating students and peers.
A number of topics are commonly addressed within orientation meetings for peers. Always begin by clarifying the purpose of the peer partner program (e.g., creating a more inclusive school, fostering new friendships, supporting involvement in everyday activities, helping students learn new skills). Next, peers should learn more about each other and any school staff who are coordinating the program. Peers who are new to these types of experiences may benefit from learning about disability etiquette and using respectful language. Ziegler et al. (2020) suggested that the following topics be addressed when providing training to peers:
- General information about the students they will be getting to know and supporting, such as their interests, hobbies, and school involvement;
- An overview of the support needs they might encounter and common misconceptions;
- Approaches for supporting their schoolmates in respectful and effective ways;
- Practical ways of promoting social, communication, and other skills;
- Ideas for supporting students’ active participation in all activities;
- Ways of providing encouragement and constructive feedback as a peer;
- Specific expectations related to being part of the peer partner program;
- Guidance on when to seek assistance from school staff;
Whenever possible, the information and strategies that are shared with peers should be tailored to address the experiences they are expected to have and the students they are likely to support. If peers will be spending time with students who have complex communication needs, they may need guidance on how to ask questions, use wait time, or provide choices. If peers will be spending time with students who engage in unusual or difficult behaviors, they may need guidance on what students are trying to communicate and how best to respond. Likewise, the ages of participating peers will impact the ways in which each of these topics is addressed.
The initial orientation meeting can be scheduled before or after school, or it can take place over multiple lunch periods in an available classroom or meeting space. When numerous peers are involved in a school’s program, it may be more practical to bring them all together at once for this program overview. Likewise, there are often times when it is helpful to bring peers back together later in the school year to share additional information. A second meeting can also be used to discuss emerging issues and brainstorm ways to enhance the program. In some schools, students with significant cognitive disabilities also participate in the orientation meeting alongside their peers. When a peer partner program is focused on hosting periodic social events or service projects that are inclusive, students with disabilities will also benefit from learning about the activities they will be part of and the support they will receive.
Supporting Shared Activities
Peer partner programs provide formal avenues through which numerous peers without disabilities in a school can participate in inclusive activities alongside fellow students with significant cognitive disabilities. However, the approaches used within elementary and middle school vary widely. Consider these various ways schools are adopting peer partner programs.
Inclusive classes. Some schools use peer partner programs as an avenue for arranging additional peer support for students with significant cognitive disabilities across classroom settings. Peers who attend the same core academic or related arts class are asked and equipped to provide occasional assistance to the student with a disability. For example, the two students might share materials, assist each other with their classwork, collaborate on a group project, encourage each other’s contributions during class discussion, or talk about their assignments. This approach closely resembles peer support arrangements, except that it is adopted schoolwide for a large number of students with disabilities. The support peers provide may also be more intermittent or less structured than in individualized peer support arrangements.
Inclusive events. Other schools focus on creating inclusive events that take place more occasionally throughout the school year. Examples include field trips, volunteer projects, field days, schoolwide celebrations, recreational activities, assemblies, or disability awareness events (e.g., Inclusive Schools Week activities, film screenings, Spread the Word to End the Word campaigns). Students with and without disabilities are usually involved in planning these events to ensure they are fun and will draw lots of students. During each event, peers help support the participation of students with significant cognitive disabilities and socialize together. Similarly, peer partner programs can be used to support students with disabilities to participate in extracurricular clubs or activities with peers, typically that meet periodically (e.g., once a month).
Community experiences. Inclusive service-learning experiences give students unique opportunities to meet local needs, assume valued roles, meet new peers, and increase their skills and knowledge (Carter et al., 2012). Some schools embed service-learning activities into the curriculum. Others create stand-alone volunteer opportunities. Each approach offers students with and without significant cognitive disabilities opportunities to serve alongside one another over time. For example, students might clean up a local stream or forest, create an information campaign on an important health topic, address the needs of senior citizens, design a mural for a community building, launch a fundraising effort to support a local need, or support a community non-profit. As students cooperate with and support one another, they also come to see the strengths and contributions each brings to this collaborative effort.
Special education classrooms. Across the country, students with significant disabilities still have very limited involvement in general education classes. Therefore, some middle schools have created peer partner programs (e.g., Peer Buddy Programs, Peer to Peer Programs) in which peers spend one period each day with students in special education classrooms. For example, peers complete group activities with the students, assist with assignments, practice new skills with a student, or support students’ social interactions. Peers are sometimes given assignments (e.g., weekly journals, papers) as a way of promoting their own reflection and knowledge about disability. Special educators can also use this approach as a springboard to work with other team members, including families, general educators, and administrators to move toward an inclusive school community that provides flexible learning spaces that can be used by all students. As students with and without disabilities develop new relationships, and educators gain skill in collaborating to support all students in inclusive classrooms, there will be no need for special education only spaces.
Facilitating Social Connections
As students with and without disabilities participate together in inclusive activities, the roles of school staff are still important. Educators should actively look for ways to encourage interactions and joint activities, but do so carefully so that they do not inadvertently stifle social interactions and relationships from developing. There are many facilitation strategies adults can use that can be instrumental in promoting social connections among students with and without significant cognitive disabilities. Figure 1 displays a list of practical facilitation strategies that can be used within peer partner programs across settings. Each of these strategies can act as a catalyst or guide to spark new conversations among students or promote greater collaboration and connections. As students become more comfortable and confident in their interactions, educators and paraprofessionals can fade back their presence and involvement.
Few rigorous evaluations of peer partner programs have been conducted. Instead, most studies have explored the views of peers and staff about their experiences and the outcomes they have observed. In every case, however, the portraits that emerge of these programs are overwhelmingly positive (Travers & Carter, 2021; Kamps et al., 1998).
For Students with Disabilities
Peer partner programs substantially increase the amount of time each day that students are participating in inclusive learning and social activities. As a result, students gain more opportunities to learn and practice new skills in the company of their peers. Educators can use rating scales to capture changes in the social, communication, behavioral, and other skills of students with significant cognitive disabilities over time. They can also observe students as they participate in program activities to document improvements in the quantity and quality of their peer interactions. New friendships are also likely to form when students spend time together throughout the school year. Talk with students, peers, parents, and other school staff about the relationships that are developing through these programs. Finally, teachers can document any changes in students’ participation in general education classes and other inclusive school activities.
Although peer partner programs tend to draw students who already have fairly positive attitudes toward people with disabilities, the experiences of peers can still be quite impactful for their own development. Peers are quick to speak about the myriad benefits they receive from their involvement, such as new knowledge, skills, perspectives, and relationships. Peer partner programs, when implemented well, should be marked by mutuality. Teachers can learn how peers are being impacted by asking them about their experiences (see Figure 2), surveying them at the end of the semester, and reviewing any of their reflections or assignments. Observe the ways in which they interact with students with disabilities, noticing any changes in their approach or attitude. Likewise, teachers or parents can share their insights into any areas of impact they have observed.
Peer partner programs are usually implemented on a broader scale than the more individualized approaches to peer engagement described elsewhere in this series. As a result, their impact can often be schoolwide. Educators can look for examples of how the school culture may be changing as students with significant cognitive disabilities have a greater presence in everyday school activities. Fellow school staff can also share about the ways the attitudes and actions of peers without disabilities are becoming more welcoming and affirming. General educators may also become more receptive to including students with disabilities in their classes and programs.
Sustaining and Expanding
Three factors are key to the sustainability of peer partner programs. First, maintaining an active core planning team can help with navigating any challenges that arise as the program is first established, and then as it later expands. Members of this team should be involved in evaluating the program, soliciting feedback from participating students and staff, and deciding what refinements are needed. Working together, they can suggest strategies for strengthening recruitment efforts, improving orientation meetings, expanding inclusive opportunities at the school, and finding any needed funding. Second, the ongoing support of a school leader is also essential. Principals can be instrumental in ensuring that enough resources and staff time are allocated to a school’s peer partner program. For example, some activities may have costs (e.g., field trips, service-learning projects) or have scheduling implications (e.g., assemblies, orientation meetings for peers). Moreover, principals can be instrumental in encouraging teachers and other school staff to get involved, and casting a strong vision for inclusion at the school. Third, the voices of students should be prominent within the program. Unless students with and without disabilities are excited about the activities they will do together, they are unlikely to participate. Look for ways to invite their input before, throughout, and after each event.
Peer partner programs often start small so that any initial procedures or problems can be worked out early on. In some schools, this means focusing first on the needs of a small number of students with significant disabilities. In others, it involves beginning one grade level at a time. As a peer partner program demonstrates success, it can be expanded to other students or grade levels. Expansion across an entire school district should also be strategic. Once a particular elementary or middle school has established a compelling program, it can serve as a model for other schools in the district. Interested schools could visit the school, observe inclusive activities, and talk with members of the core planning team.
Across Ages and Grades
Peer partner programs take on different forms depending on the school level at which they are implemented. For example, high schools and colleges often implement variations of peer partner programs such as peer mentoring, peer buddy programs, Best Buddies, and Unified Champion Schools (Carter & Hughes, 2013). Within such programs, students and their peers have somewhat more independence from school staff and can support one another in more advanced ways. In elementary and middle school, however, participating students and peers usually need much more active guidance and encouragement from adults. This is especially true early on in their experiences. Likewise, the roles of adults and the ways they offer assistance will look somewhat different depending on the ages of the participants. Whereas early elementary students are usually excited about the involvement of adults in their activities, upper elementary and middle school students tend to prefer having less direct oversight. In fact, the ongoing presence and close involvement of paraprofessionals or special educators can often feel intrusive or stigmatizing to students as they get older. In short, educators should reflect on what types and intensity of support are most appropriate and preferred by students.
Although peer partner programs are group-based interventions, the ways in which students with significant cognitive disabilities participate and are supported should always be individualized. Each student’s IEP team should identify those goals and objectives that could best be met through shared activities with peers. For example, a student might have goals related to increasing the use of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), improving the quality of their interactions, or learning important academic content. The contexts and ways in which peers provide support can be aligned toward these personalized goals. For example, peers could encourage the student’s use of her AAC device during a community service project, demonstrate appropriate turn-taking during conversations at lunch, or explain how to complete certain math problems in class. Teachers might arrange support from peers only in particular settings or throughout the entire school day.
The culture of a school—as well as the cultures and background of each student and peer—can influence when, where, and how they spend time together. Therefore, it is valuable to seek out the preferences and priorities of students with disabilities when connecting them with peers. Ask students about who they would like to get to know, what activities they would like to participate in, and how they would (and would not) like to be supported in those activities. It is also important to understand the current peer culture at a school, particularly among early adolescents. The more educators know about the ways students typically spend time together, the things they talk about, and the “social rules” that prevail within school, the easier it is to design inclusive activities that will be appealing and enjoyable for all.
The peer partner program at Putnam Middle School was thriving. Only in its second year, the students with and without disabilities who began this inclusive club had hit upon a golden idea. The students brainstormed ways of creating a monthly event that would be exciting for students with and without disabilities, and accessible for several schoolmates with physical disabilities, Yvonne suggested hosting a wheelchair soccer competition. They borrowed a number of donated wheelchairs from the local Arc and reserved the gym one afternoon after school. Students who regularly used wheelchairs demonstrated to the dozen or so other students how to play. The activity was a hit and quickly became a monthly event. In fact, the final competition of the year drew nearly 50 Putnam students with and without disabilities, comprising eight teams.
Ms. Jonas loved leading the “Peer to Peer” program at East Elementary. She started the program as a way of supporting three students with autism to attend general education classes. The students benefited from having additional help from their peers throughout each class period. Likewise, the peers enjoyed their new friendships and quickly became vocal advocates for inclusion at their school. Over time, and based upon both the peer advocacy and the social and academic gains of the three initial students, Ms. Jonas collaborated with school administration, grade-level general education teams, families, other special educators, and specialized instructional support personnel to plan for a more inclusive model of service delivery for all students at East Elementary.
A spirit of volunteerism was ingrained in the culture of Beaman Intermediate School. Mr. Copeland, a veteran special educator, was looking for new ways of involving his students in meeting local needs in the community. He approached Ms. Schles, a science teacher, and Ms. Tuttle, a woodshop teacher, about collaborating on a service-learning project. With input from their students, they settled on renovating a languishing community garden that was just a block away from the school. Students with and without disabilities worked together to plan and plant the garden, design terraces and trellises, and build benches and signage. Not only did the students come to see one another differently, but members of the community got to see the strengths and valued contributions of students with significant cognitive disabilities.
Carter, E. W., Swedeen, B., & Moss, C. K. (2012). Engaging youth with and without significant disabilities in inclusive service experiences. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 44(5), 46–54. https://doi.org/10.1177/004005991204400505
Hughes, C., & Carter, E. W. (2008). Peer buddy programs for successful secondary school inclusion. Brookes.
Kamps, D. M., Kravits, T., Lopez, A. G., Kemmerer, K., Potucek, J., Harrell, L. G., & Garrison, L. (1998). What do the peers think? Social validity of peer-mediated programs. Education and Treatment of Children, 21(2), 107–134.
Travers, H. E., & Carter, E. W. (2021). A systematic review of how peer-mediated interventions impact students without disabilities. Remedial and Special Education. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741932521989414
Ziegler, M., Matthews, A., Mayberry, M., Owen-De Schryver, J., & Carter, E. W. (2020). From barriers to belonging: Promoting inclusion and relationships through Peer to Peer programs. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 52(6), 426–434. https://doi.org/10.1177/0040059920906519
Kentucky Peer Buddies Education Center: http://www.kypeertutoring.org
Peer Mentoring to Support Students with Disabilities: http://www.engagingalllearners.ca/sal/peer-mentoring
Peer to Peer Program Resources: https://www.gvsu.edu/autismcenter/peer-to-peer-general-resources-239.htm
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Carter, E. E. (2022). A guide to implementing peer partner programs. In E. E. Biggs & E. Carter (Eds.), The Power of Peers. TIES Center. https://publications.ici.umn.edu/ties/peer-engagement/practice-guides/peer-partner-programs
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