TIES Peer Engagement Practice Guides
A Guide to Implementing Peer Support Arrangements
Every school offers an exciting array of rigorous and relevant classes. Each academic year, students can learn about the history of their world, examine its physical features, discover interesting people and places, expand their literacy and mathematical skills, explore the arts, and so much more. As they learn alongside fellow classmates, they also forge valued relationships and encounter diverse perspectives. Indeed, the classes students take throughout elementary and middle school can open up new windows into the wider world and to themselves.
Students with significant cognitive disabilities also need access to rigorous, relevant instruction and ongoing opportunities to develop meaningful relationships with peers. Although taking general education classes can increase available social and academic learning opportunities, the support educators provide to students with disabilities in these classrooms also matter immensely. When schools rely too heavily (or exclusively) on assistance from one-to-one paraprofessionals, they can inadvertently limit the extent to which students access the general curriculum and interact with their classmates. In other words, schools should focus on both how they support inclusion and where students spend their school day.
Peer support arrangements are a practical way of supporting students with significant cognitive disabilities to participate fully in inclusive classes. This evidence-based intervention involves equipping and supporting peers to provide individualized academic and social support to their classmate with disabilities throughout the semester (Brock & Huber, 2017; Carter et al., 2009). Educators begin by crafting a written plan that (a) addresses how the focus student with disabilities will participate in the full breadth of typical class activities and (b) identifies the support that a student could receive from both peers and professionals. Next, one or more similar-age peers (called “peer partners”) are recruited from within the same classroom and participate in an orientation session. As they begin working alongside the focus student, peer partners provide a variety of individualized support. The students all receive ongoing guidance and encouragement from the paraprofessional or classroom teacher. Over time, the paraprofessional shifts to a broader classroom-based support role and students work more independently.
Peer support arrangements are designed to enhance both the academic and social participation of students with significant disabilities within inclusive classes. By collaborating with their peers, students become more engaged in the general curriculum and participate more actively in typical class activities. Likewise, interacting more with peers provides a rich context for social skill development and friendship formation. Moreover, these strategies can also shape the attitudes and future actions of peer partners.
Inclusive education must always be built upon a foundation of ongoing collaboration. Likewise, peer support arrangements work best when multiple people contribute to their design and delivery. The expertise of classroom teachers, special educators, paraprofessionals, specialized instructional support personnel (e.g., physical therapists, speech-language pathologists), and family members can be invaluable when developing the initial peer support plan (see next section). They can also share their insights on how best to navigate emerging challenges, adapt peer support arrangements, document its impact, and expand the number of participating students and staff.
Ongoing collaboration is especially prominent within the classroom. A successful peer support arrangement always involves someone in the role of a facilitator. Most often, this is a paraprofessional who was already providing support to one or more students with disabilities in the classroom. The roles of a facilitator include actively encouraging social connections and shared work among participating students, monitoring implementation, ensuring students are participating actively in class activities, collecting data on student progress, implementing strategies planned by educators, and strategically fading back their direct assistance when it is no longer needed. The roles of classroom teachers include helping identify peer partners, contributing to the orientation session, providing instruction to all students, embedding collaborative learning activities into their class, and ensuring paraprofessionals are promoting—rather than hindering—social participation and learning. The roles of special educators include developing and updating the peer support plan, training paraprofessionals to facilitate the peer support arrangement, orienting peer partners, identifying needed modifications and accommodations, coordinating data collection, and maintaining regular communication with other staff. Of course, participating students and their peers are also key collaborators. Their perspectives on what is going well and what could be improved should be sought throughout the semester and addressed.
A written peer support plan outlines how students will work with and support one another during various classroom activities throughout the semester. Although plans usually evolve over time, this initial “roadmap” delineates how each student’s full participation will be supported. A variety of planning tools have been described in the literature (Carter, 2017). However, a commonly used approach involves identifying:
- the main instructional approaches that will be used during the semester (e.g., whole-group, lecture, small-group, labs, independent work, guest speakers);
- the ways in which the student with a significant cognitive disability will participate in each of these anticipated class activities;
- the specific supports peer partners could provide during each of these activities, and;
- the ways in which the paraprofessional and classroom teacher will assist all of the students to work together effectively.
An example plan and blank version can be viewed in Figure 1. Additions can be made to the format for the plan if there are other goals or considerations the team wants to address.
Figure 1. Example Peer Support Arrangement Plan
Peer Support Plan
Stephen is a fun and imaginative young man. Earth Science is a great class for him to work on some of his goals such as choice making, initiating and responding to peers, and improving his writing skills. Stephen loves to write with markers, use the computer, spell, and talk about food processing.
At the beginning of class….
The facilitator could…
When there are lectures or whole-group instruction…
The facilitator could…
When there are small-group or lab activities…
The facilitator could…
When there is independent seatwork …
The facilitator could…
At the end of class…
The facilitator could…
Adapted with permission from Carter, E. W., Moss, C. K., Asmus, J., Fesperman, E., Cooney, M., Brock, M. E., Lyons, G., Huber, H. E., & Vincent, L. (2015). Promoting inclusion, social connections, and learning through peer support arrangements. Teaching Exceptional Children. 48(1), 9-18.
When developing this plan, the input of other team members should be invited. For example, a speech-language pathologist can help identify social and communication skills that could be modeled and reinforced by peers (Kearns & Kleinert, 2019). A physical or occupational therapist could design supports to ensure students can access class materials, activities, and technologies. Behavior specialists could suggest positive support strategies. Parents could suggest conversation topics and support strategies that engage their child with a disability. Collectively, the team ensures the strategies detailed in the written plan will benefit the student, can be readily implemented by peer partners who must also complete their own work, and fit well within the culture and structure of the class. Although written plans are often brief and illustrative, rather than detailed and prescriptive, they provide much-needed guidance to paraprofessionals and peers.
With a strong plan and collaborative partners in place, peer support arrangements can begin. This section outlines five key considerations for implementing this educational practice.
Equipping Paraprofessionals for Their Roles
Although peer support arrangements can be facilitated by classroom teachers or special educators, paraprofessionals may be the preferred choice in many classrooms. However, paraprofessionals will usually need guidance on shifting to a more facilitative role within the inclusive classroom. Educators should provide paraprofessionals with appropriate training to ensure they are confident and effective in these new responsibilities. This training should cover: (a) the rationale for peer support arrangements, (b) the implementation steps, (c) the written peer support plan, and (d) examples of strategies for facilitating academic engagement and peer interactions. Effective training should include discussion, role play, and follow-up coaching.
Selecting and Inviting Peer Partners
Finding strong peer partners is key to the success of any peer-mediated intervention. Several decisions will need to be made concerning the number of peer partners, the ways they are selected, and how they are invited. Of course, the answers to these questions will vary based on the students, staff, and setting. Educators usually involve two or three peer partners. This ensures peers are not overwhelmed by their additional responsibilities and the group does not distract the rest of the class. When deciding who to invite, educators often consider peers who:
- tend to work well with others
- would model positive behaviors
- exhibit appropriate social skills
- would benefit personally from serving in this role
- have good attendance
- have expressed some interest in getting to know their classmate
Classmates who are themselves struggling academically can still make great peer partners and may benefit educationally from their involvement. When friendships are a desired outcome, peers who have common interests or are suggested by the focus student could be approached.
Educators can use a variety of approaches to invite peer partners. Most opt to speak personally with classmates of the student who they anticipate would be interested and effective in these roles. This reliance on targeted invitations, however, may lead to over-representation of girls and/or high-achieving students as peer partners. One alternative is to ask the student with disabilities who they would like to get to know. Another approach is to announce more generally the availability of this opportunity to everyone in the classroom. However, this must be done in respectful ways that do not stigmatize. Encouraging interested students to volunteer or self-nominate could help identify peer partners who may otherwise be overlooked. Some educators have adopted this approach (i.e., for all students) or they periodically rotate peer partners. Participation in peer support arrangements should always be enjoyable and mutually beneficial. Although schools differ in whether or not they require formal permission for these interventions, it is always good practice to keep in close communication with parents of all participating students.
Peer partners attend an orientation meeting focused on their new roles and responsibilities. These initial sessions last about an hour and typically are led by a special educator along with the paraprofessional. A successful orientation should address the goals of peer support arrangements, provide peer partners with relevant information about their classmate (e.g., interests, strengths, communication needs), clarify expectations related to this role, and explain the types of support peers should (and should not) provide. Example orientation topics are listed below:
- Introduce the student and adult facilitator;
- Discuss the goals of the peer support arrangement;
- Share the reasons for involving them in supporting the student;
- Ask what motivated peers to become involved in this way;
- Explain the importance of respectful language and confidentiality;
- Provide background on the student’s interests, strengths, preferences, and communication styles;
- Highlight interests, experiences, or other commonalities the peers share with the student;
- Address specific expectations for peers as they support the student;
- Describe, model, and practice communication, social, and other support strategies;
- Explain and demonstrate the student’s AAC system, if applicable;
- Share ideas for conversation topics and alternate modes of communication;
- Provide examples of how to provide encouragement and feedback appropriately;
- Teach basic support strategies (e.g., modeling, praising, reminding, and providing feedback);
- Share ideas for motivating and encouraging their partner;
- Give guidance on when peers should seek assistance from the adult facilitator;
- Solicit ideas from peers for involving the student well in class or other school activities, and;
- Address any questions or concerns the peers have about their involvement.
Educators usually introduce basic strategies for supporting their classmate. For example, peer partners may learn strategies for promoting academic engagement through reminding their classmate what needs to be done and how through verbal explanations, pointing, or modeling, providing feedback, highlighting key concepts, reviewing class content, or modeling self-management strategies. Likewise, they may be shown how to model use of a AAC device, redirect inappropriate conversations, reinforce conversation attempts, extend conversational turns, or demonstrate relevant social skills. All of these support roles should be developmentally appropriate for the peer partners and fit well within the classroom. This training should always be individualized to address the unique needs of the focus student. Therefore, a student-friendly version of the written peer support plan could be created for the peer partners.
The students begin working together in the classroom shortly after completing the orientation session. This often requires adjusting the seating arrangement. Working collaboratively with others each day expands the focus student’s opportunities to converse with others and engage with the general education curriculum. Indeed, peer support arrangements create shared activities in which interactions are both allowed and encouraged. In some classrooms, peer support arrangements continue throughout the entirety of each class period or across multiple subjects. In other classrooms, they are established only for certain instructional activities (e.g., reading blocks, center activities, group projects).
The support peer partners provide is fluid and flexible; it depends on the needs of the focus student during different types of class activities. For example, peer partners might encourage a student to contribute to group discussions, promote more frequent use of a communication device, model how to respond to a question, or converse about shared interests before class begins. Academically, peer partners might share class materials, collaborate on specific assignments, demonstrate how to complete a task, or explain a key idea. Examples of the various ways students might support one another are found in Figure 2. The support peer partners provide should resemble those that they might extend to any classmate. In other words, peer partners should look like helpful classmates rather than mini-teachers.
Facilitating Engagement and Interactions/Providing Feedback and Facilitation
When students first begin working together, the paraprofessional remains close by in order to model the range of support strategies addressed during the orientation session and outlined on the written plan. Early on, peer partners are likely to have questions about their specific roles and will benefit from frequent feedback and encouragement. During this time, the paraprofessional should observe whether peer partners are using the strategies correctly and consistently, as well as check in to ensure students have needed information and directions. As the students accrue experience and confidence working together, the paraprofessional strategically reduces close proximity. This shift to a more facilitative posture promotes greater independence and encourages the student to turn first to fellow classmates for assistance.
A variety of active facilitation strategies can be especially impactful (Carter et al., 2015). For example, the paraprofessional could:
- model for peer partners how to initiate and extend conversations
- demonstrate how to converse with someone who has complex communication needs
- call attention to the interests, strengths, or experiences students all share in common
- redirect a students’ questions and comments away from the adults and to one another
- help peer partners interpret any challenging or unusual behaviors
- assign responsibilities that require frequent interaction or interdependence
- ask additional classmates to provide specific or time-limited supports as needed
- encourage students to connect with one another beyond the classroom
General educators can also adopt these same facilitation strategies whenever possible. Of course, the type and intensity of support educators provide will depend on the characteristics of the focus student, the capabilities of the peer partners, and the context of the class. Educators should always strive to strike the right balance between fostering student independence and providing just enough support to promote meaningful class participation. Even as they transition to a classroom-based support role, the paraprofessional continues to keep an eye on the social and academic participation of all participating students
Nearly two dozen studies address the impact peer support arrangements can have on students with significant cognitive disabilities, their peer partners, or the professionals involved in the implementation (see Brock & Huber 2017; Carter, 2021). However, educators should always examine whether similar outcomes accrue to students and staff in their own local schools.
For Students with Disabilities
Direct observations are a primary way of documenting changes in the academic, social, and behavioral outcomes for participating students. As paraprofessionals fade their direct support, they are freed up to collect data on students’ academic engagement, class contributions, peer interactions (e.g., frequency, appropriateness, quality), communication device use, social skills (e.g., initiations, turn taking, reciprocity), and progress on any individualized goals. Students with disabilities should also be asked about their experience receiving support from their classmates, whether they enjoy spending time with their peer partners, and who else they would like to work with in the future. When verbal responses are difficult to obtain, look for other behavioral indicators that might indicate a student’s views about working with peers, such as affect and attendance. Finally, it is common for new friendships to emerge from these ongoing interactions. Ask parents, staff, and students themselves about any new peer relationships that have developed.
The reciprocity of peer support arrangements is also important to capture. Studies suggest the academic engagement and overall grades of peer partners tend to improve or remain high as a result of serving in these roles. Therefore, educators should track assignment completion and attendance of peer partners. In addition, peers can be impacted in more subjective—but equally important—ways. For example, peers often talk about experiencing personal growth (e.g., becoming more caring, confident, or self-aware), deepening their commitment to diversity, improving their attitudes toward individuals with a disability, developing their advocacy skills, and forging lasting friendships as a result of their involvement. Ask peer partners about: (a) the relationships they are developing with the focus student and each other, (b) the ways they feel they are being impacted by their involvement, and (c) their recommendations for enhancing the overall quality of the experience. This information can be gathered through interviews or surveys.
Paraprofessionals, classroom teachers, and other school staff who are involved in the interventions can provide additional insight into its overall impact. Ask these individuals to share what they have noticed about how watching peer support arrangements may be shaping the attitudes and actions of other classmates. For example, some classmates may feel more comfortable or confident interacting with students with significant cognitive disabilities after observing their fellow peers do the same. Likewise, the culture of the classroom or the nature of instruction may shift in noticeable ways. At the same time, it is important to hear how staff feel about this approach and to solicit their recommendations for how it might be further enhanced.
Sustaining and Expanding
Schools often introduce peer support arrangements one student at a time, or in one class at a time. Such a measured approach to roll out is wise when students and staff are still learning about this approach. Begin by first involving a small number of general education teachers who are already very supportive of inclusion. After piloting the approach in 3-4 classrooms and demonstrating some initial successes, these teachers can share about their own experiences and the outcomes for students at school wide staff meetings. Fellow educators are likely to have questions about the feasibility and fit of these evidence-based practices within their own classrooms. The first-hand testimony of experienced colleagues may help quell any of their hesitations or concerns. Indeed, most studies find that peer support arrangements are considered to be practical and flexible practice.
As peer support arrangements are adopted by more teachers, in more classes, and with more students, the scale of this implementation may require some changes to a school’s overall approach. For example, the training of peer partners takes time to plan and coordinate. When a fairly large number of students are all serving as peer partners, there may be value in bringing them together in larger groups for the initial orientation session or any follow-up training. Likewise, paraprofessionals, educators, and other school staff may benefit from joint professional development focused on peer support arrangements. Finally, a staff member could be designated as the primary point person for questions and assistance on these peer support arrangements.
Across Ages and Grades
Although peer support arrangements can be adopted across all school levels, several issues should be considered. First, the presence of a paraprofessional may be viewed differently as students get older. Whereas early elementary students tend to be drawn to adults and often enjoy working amidst their ongoing presence, middle school students tend to prefer working more independently and conversing with peers apart from the watchful eyes of adults. In other words, the stifling effect adult proximity can have on socialization may increase as students age. Second, older peers may be able to provide more sophisticated or varied academic support. As the curriculum becomes more challenging in the upper grades, peers may be more adept at providing a greater proportion of the academic assistance needed by their classmates with disabilities. Younger peer partners may need more targeted guidance from educators on how best to assist their classmates. Third, peer culture differs in elementary and middle school. The nature of students’ interactions, the types of relationships they form, and the shaping influence of other peers all change over time. Understanding these prevailing norms can help inform decisions about how peer partners are selected and invited, as well as which types of interactions and relationships are encouraged.
When students also have complex communication needs, peer support arrangements can be further tailored to help address their social and communication needs. For example, aspects of the initial orientation session may focus more heavily on teaching peer partners to use effective communication strategies. Peers may benefit from learning about the focus student’s AAC device, strategies for modeling aided language using the AAC device, and ways of reinforcing communication attempts. The written plan should also be explicit about how peers and paraprofessionals can each embed additional communication opportunities throughout class. Finally, the student’s AAC device should be programmed with robust vocabulary, including words that are relevant to class activities, useful, and age-appropriate for collaborating with peers.
Students with behavioral challenges are often excluded from inclusive classes. However, peer support arrangements may provide a way of supporting greater access for these students. Although peers should never be placed in situations where there is a real risk of personal harm, supporting students to work alongside their classmates as an alternative to working exclusively with a one-to-one paraprofessional may actually diminish the occurrence of behavioral issues. The planning team should consider carefully how and when peer partners can play a role in supporting the focus student. For example, peer partners could help the student learn effective self-management strategies, anticipate upcoming changes in activities, navigate challenging work, and access a richer schedule of feedback from peers. Likewise, the paraprofessionals can help interpret the meaning of some unconventional behaviors.
Peer support arrangements should always be individualized to address the needs and culture of participating students with and without disabilities. As much as possible, students with significant cognitive disabilities and their families should be part of the planning process and provide input on this approach. This might involve asking students to suggest peers whom they would like to get to know, to share their personal preferences for support, or to participate in the initial orientation session. As students work together, educators should also watch carefully to gauge whether the interactions and support exchanged among students are respectful and culturally appropriate.
Analia loved being a fourth grader at Bedford Elementary. From the moment she left her parent’s accessible van each morning, a contagious smile lit up her face and remained there all day long. She loved school and looked forward to seeing her growing network of friends. She always greeted the paraprofessional with a wink and a tap on her communication device (“Good morning, Ms. Fabel!”). But then she sped straight on to her first and favorite class, science, with her teacher, Ms. Chang.
At the start of the year, Analia felt somewhat isolated in her science class. She would arrive to class each day accompanied by Ms. Fabel and she had few opportunities to get to know any of her classmates. Analia sat next to Ms. Fabel off toward the side of the classroom, where a large table could accommodate both her wheelchair and her AAC device. Ms. Fabel helped with nearly all of Analia’s assignments and class activities. During labs and small-group work, Analia usually worked more closely with Ms. Fabel than with her fellow classmates. Her communication device was fairly new and, unfortunately, it included few options for talking about science or conversing with fellow fourth graders. Although Analia was present in the classroom every day, she did not have much of a presence among her classmates.
Analia had IEP goals focused on using her AAC device with more fluency, increasing the frequency and appropriateness of her conversational initiations, and improving the quality of her social interactions. Just as importantly, she had an IEP goal related to accessing and progressing within the general science curriculum. However, observations by Ms. Salem, the special educator, revealed that Analia rarely used her communication device, never interacted with her classmates, received most of her instruction from Ms. Fabel, and often worked on different activities than her classmates. Informal conversations with several classmates revealed that they were uncertain about how to converse with someone who used an AAC device and they wondered why Analia engaged in behaviors like hand flapping and body rocking.
Ms. Salem met with Ms. Chang to discuss how to more effectively access and make progress on the science curriculum and set up a peer support arrangement for Analia. They both sought input from Analia’s parents, speech-language pathologist, and physical therapist—all of whom were active on the IEP team. The team crafted an initial plan for how peers could work alongside Analia to help her meet individualized goals and learn important science content. Of course, this required equipping Ms. Fabel to shift to the role of peer support facilitator. The teachers asked Analia about her interest in working alongside other classmates and asked for suggestions about which peers to involve. Two girls in the class who shared Analia’s musical tastes and love of soccer enthusiastically accepted the subsequent invitation. After securing parent permission, Ms. Salem, Ms. Chang, and Ms. Fabel met with the girls before school to discuss the peer support arrangement. The orientation emphasized the importance of friendships; provided general information about Analia’s strengths, interests, and support needs; presented strategies for encouraging Analia to use her AAC device; and reviewed how the two peer partners, Ms. Chang, and Ms. Fabel could help Analia participate more actively during different parts of the class (e.g., whole-group, small-group, science labs). The two peer partners also shared their own creative suggestions for how Analia might be more fully included and get to know fellow classmates.
After shifting the seating arrangement, the students began working together on a daily basis. Ms. Fabel modeled different ways of communicating with Analia and involving her in ongoing class activities. The peer partners asked questions and tried their best to engage Analia while also ensuring they completed their own work. As the students all got to know one another and felt more comfortable working together, Ms. Fabel strategically reduced her direct involvement and began working with a wider range of students within the classroom who also needed additional assistance. However, she continued to check-in on the students and collect data on their academic progress and social outcomes. Very quickly, Analia was interacting more with her peer partners and conversing with other classmates with whom she was not formally paired. She also began using her communication device and participating more actively in class activities. When asked, the peers often talked about the ways in which they were personally impacted by getting to know Analia and by the way providing support kept them more engaged in the instruction.
Brock, M. E., & Huber, H. B. (2017). Are peer support arrangements an evidence-based practice? A systematic review. The Journal of Special Education, 51(3), 150–163. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022466917708184
Carter, E. W. (2017). The promise and practice of peer support arrangements for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. International Review of Research in Developmental Disabilities, 52, 141–174. https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.irrdd.2017.04.001
Carter, E. W. (2021). Peer-mediated support interventions for students with autism spectrum disorders. In P. A. Prelock & R. McCauley (Eds.), Treatment of autism spectrum disorders: Evidence-based intervention strategies for communication and social interactions (2nd ed.). Brookes Publishing.
Carter, E. W., Cushing, L. S., & Kennedy, C. H. (2009). Peer support strategies for improving all students’ social lives and learning. Paul H. Brookes.
Carter, E. W., Moss, C. K., Asmus, J., Fesperman, E., Cooney, M., Brock, M. E., Lyons, G., Huber, H. E., & Vincent, L. (2015). Promoting inclusion, social connections, and learning through peer support arrangements. Teaching Exceptional Children, 48(1), 9–18. https://doi.org/10.1177/0040059915594784
Kearns, J., & Kleinert, J. (2019). How peers can support AAC use by students with significant communication needs. In TIPS Series (No. 1). University of Minnesota, TIES Center. https://publications.ici.umn.edu/ties/communicative-competence-tips/how-peers-can-support-aac-use-by-students-with-significant-communication-needs
Kentucky Peer Support Project: https://www.kypeersupport.org
Peer Mentoring to Support Students with Disabilities: http://www.engagingalllearners.ca/sal/peer-mentoring/
Supporting Communication and Social Skills: https://csesa.fpg.unc.edu/professionals/supporting-communication
Natural Peer Supports: https://www.pattan.net/Supports/Inclusive-Practices/Other-Projects-and-Trainings
All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:
Carter, E. E. (2022). A guide to implementing peer support arrangements. In E. E. Biggs & E. Carter (Eds.), The Power of Peers. TIES Center. https://publications.ici.umn.edu/ties/peer-engagement/practice-guides/peer-support-arrangements
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
The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) leads the TIES Center partnership. There are six additional collaborating partners: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North-Carolina–Charlotte, and University of North Carolina–Greensboro.
TIES Center, University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration, 2025 East River Parkway, Minneapolis, MN 55414
This document is available in alternate formats upon request.
The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity employer and educator.