TIES Peer Engagement Practice Guides
A Guide to Implementing Recess-Based Peer-Mediated Intervention
If you ask an elementary or middle school student to identify their favorite time of the school day, chances are their answer will be recess. Not only is recess a popular period, it also represents a natural opportunity to develop social competence and build social connections. In this unstructured environment, students can learn how to negotiate conflict, cooperate, share, and solve problems. Yet, for many students with significant cognitive disabilities, recess represents a missed social opportunity. Although these students often attend recess alongside their peers without disabilities, this shared experience often does not lead to meaningful social interaction.
Students with significant cognitive disabilities face a number of challenges to successfully interacting and playing with their peers at recess. First, too many students still spend most or all of their day outside of the general education classroom. As a result, they may not know—or be well known by—many of their peers without disabilities. Second, students with significant cognitive disabilities communicate in a variety of ways and have a variety of needs for communication support. Some students may have speech that is difficult for peers to understand. Other students may use aided augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) such as a communication device, or unaided AAC such as signs, gestures, facial expressions, or nonword vocalizations. Interacting with a student who communicates differently can be confusing or intimidating for some peers. Likewise, students with disabilities can be easily misunderstood. Third, peers learn social skills naturally at recess through observational learning and trial-and-error. However, students with disabilities may struggle with observational learning and have fewer opportunities to learn through trial-and-error due to their infrequent interactions.
Peer-mediated intervention is a practical way to overcome these challenges and improve social and play outcomes at recess (Brock et al., 2018). Recess-based peer-mediated intervention involves recruiting and coaching peers to support and play with their schoolmate with significant cognitive disabilities. First, a special educator teams with another teacher or paraprofessional who is responsible for supervising students at recess. They work together to identify 3-4 peers who would be willing to support and play with the student at recess. They teach the peers simple strategies designed to promote socialization and play, such as offering the student choices of play activities, narrating their play so that the student can understand the rules, and providing reinforcement when the student tries something new. These strategies are aligned with Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT), an evidence-based practice for students with autism (Hume et al., 2021). The school staff member who supervises recess then provides coaching to peers on the playground. Less coaching is needed over time as the peers grow more comfortable and the student becomes more integrated into a social group.
Many teachers may not have considered recess as a context for actively addressing the social needs of their students. Recess often coincides with a teacher’s lunch or prep time, and a teacher may anticipate that implementing a recess-based intervention would mean giving up one of their few breaks in the day. Fortunately, this does not have to be the case. Any school staff members who are already responsible for supervising recess—often paraprofessionals or general educators—can serve as “peer coaches” (Brock et al., 2018). The special educator takes primary responsibility for initial planning and training. The peer coach is responsible for supporting the peers on a day-to-day basis at recess. An effective peer coach can be anyone who is already supervising at recess, is motivated to improve support for students with significant cognitive disabilities, and has a good rapport with the students they supervise. Adults who supervise recess are often aware of students who are struggling to interact and play with peers. They are usually eager to be a part of a solution. In prior studies, peer coaches have said that adding this responsibility is not burdensome and it does not detract from their ability to supervise all students at recess (Brock et al., 2018).
Collaborations with specialized instructional support personnel can also contribute to the success of this practical intervention. For example, a speech-language pathologist can help program a speech-generating device with messages that the student can use when communicating with peers at recess, or help design strategies that peers can use to effectively communicate with the student. Physical therapists and occupational therapists can offer suggestions for how recess activities or equipment could be adapted to allow for full participation of students with physical disabilities. A behavior specialist can help design positive behavior supports at recess that decrease the likelihood that the student will engage in challenging behavior. When deciding who to invite to the planning process, special educators should consider the unique support needs of the student.
Special educators should develop a written plan that serves as a guide for coaching peers to support the student with a significant cognitive disability at recess. See Figure 1 for a blank planning sheet. Developing a plan involves thinking about how this approach should be tailored to the strengths, needs, and preferences of each student. The plan should first describe what the student is currently doing on the playground, including how they are playing and the degree to which they are interacting with peers. It may be helpful to have a conversation with the peer coach who is at recess every day. Next, the special educator should brainstorm play activities which the student would enjoy, but that they are not currently participating in at recess. It may be helpful to talk with parents and siblings who are familiar with how the student plays outside of school. In addition, the special educator or peer coach should ask the student to identify play activities they would enjoy. If the student has a physical disability, the teacher and coach should consult with physical and occupational therapists to discuss how recess activities and equipment could be adapted to facilitate full participation. When brainstorming activities, it can be important to identify both outdoor and indoor activities in case of inclement weather. This list of play activities can be used by the peer coach who is guiding the peers to support the student in play. Examples of outdoor play activities might include:
- playing a group game like tag, hide and seek, or hopscotch;
- playing a sport such as basketball, soccer, or Gaga Ball;
- playing on recess equipment such as swings, slides, or climbers;
- drawing with chalk on the blacktop or sidewalk, and;
- interactive pretend play based on characters from a mutually preferred book, movie or television show.
The special educator and peer coach should partner with a speech-language pathologist to consider how the student communicates and plan how they will guide peers to interact with the student. For example, if a student uses gestures or sign language, teach peers some of the student’s most frequently used gestures or signs. If a student communicates primarily with facial expressions, explain this to the peers. It may be helpful for a speech-language pathologist to provide input about how to describe the student’s communication to peers, and how to prepare peers to communicate with the student. Next, special educators should consider what additional information peers might find helpful. For example, the student might engage in behavior that could be confusing for peers, such as body rocking, hand flapping, spinning, squealing, or picking at their skin. Together, the special educator and peer coach should decide how they will explain what the behavior might be communicating and how peers can respond. For example, they might plan to tell peers that body rocking is how the student communicates that they are overwhelmed by the noise around them, and that a helpful response would be to help the student take a break in a quiet area.
Identifying and Inviting Peers
The special educator and the peer coach can work together to identify and recruit 3-4 peers interested in talking and playing with the student at recess. This number of peers is large enough that they can maintain support even if a peer is absent or does not feel like playing with the student, but small enough that it is feasible to prepare the peers together and for the peers to work well as a team. Consider peers who have good attendance, are willing to take direction from adults, are interested in participating, have appropriate social skills, and/or who have interacted positively with the student in the past. It is not necessary to invite the most "well-behaved" or most "high-performing" peers. A wide variety of peers can be effective and benefit from involvement. A first step in identifying peers is for the special educator or peer coach to talk with the student who will be receiving support and ask if they would prefer to play with certain peers at recess. Next, the peer coach can consider if they have observed any peers making positive attempts in the past to play and talk with the student at recess. In addition, the special educator or peer coach can ask other general educators to suggest any peers who have a history of positive interactions with the student in the classroom.
The special educator or the peer coach can approach any of the peers who were identified. When inviting peers, the special educator or peer coach should explain that peers will have an opportunity to get to know and play with a student who goes to recess with them. Explain that they would not do this alone; other peers will also be invited to participate. Let peers know that they came to mind as someone who could excel in this role. The adult inviting peers should also explain that the peer coach will support them by sharing information about the student, teaching peers some strategies to help them play and interact with the student, and being present on the playground if the peers need help. Emphasize that this will be fun for them, the other peers, and for the student with a disability. Emphasize that participation is voluntary; no one will be upset if they choose to say no.
Orientation Meeting with Peers
The special educator and the peer coach should meet with all of the peers to orient them to their new roles. This takes place at a convenient time when the student with a disability is not present. This meeting typically takes about 45 minutes, although it can be broken into small chunks for younger students (e.g., kindergartners, first graders). A good time to do this might be during lunch, before school, or after school.
First, if the peers, the peer coach, and the special educator do not already know each other well, the orientation should start with introductions. Second, the special educator or peer coach provides a description of the student with a disability they will be supporting. Explain that this student would love to get to know them, talk with them, and play with them at recess. In addition, let them know that the student could use their help getting to know other kids on the playground. Emphasize that playing together should be fun for both the student and the peers. Third, share information about the focus student from the written plan. This includes describing how the student is playing right now at recess, fun activities the student might enjoy with the help of peers, how peers can successfully communicate with the student, and other characteristics or behaviors of the student that would be helpful to peers. Fourth, ask the peers if there are things that they already know about the student.
The special educator and peer coach can then work together to teach the peers five simple strategies that are grounded in Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT; Koegel & Koegel, 2012). These strategies include:
- getting your buddy (i.e., the student with a disability) to look at you
- asking your buddy to play something with you
- showing and talking about how to play
- complimenting your buddy
- taking turns if you can’t play at the same time
The special educator and peer coach can use the strategy sheet in Figure 2 to introduce and explain each of these ideas. For each individual strategy, give enough support so peers will be confident using the strategies. This might begin by showing peers the strategy sheet and reading about each strategy. The special educator can then model what the strategy looks like with the peer coach (i.e., one of them pretends to be the peer and the other the student). Model each strategy with the specific student in mind. For example, when modeling how to “ask your buddy to play something with you,” show how peers could offer two choices that would both be appealing to the student with a disability. Next, the special educator or peer coach can ask the peers if they have any questions before they practice. Finally, peers can practice using each strategy while the special educator or peer coach takes the role of the student with a disability who will receive support. Praise their effort and point out what they are doing well. If peers are struggling with a strategy, the special educator or peer coach can help them fix it using additional modeling and practice opportunities.
The peer coach should remind the peers that they will always have support on the playground, explaining that they want to be a resource whenever peers have questions or feel unsure about anything. The coach will check in with peers three times each day: once to help them think about how they will play with the student, during recess to see how things are going, and again after recess to talk about how it went. Remind peers that the goal is for everyone to have fun. They should talk with the peer coach if they are not having fun or feel uncomfortable. The special educator or peer coach can close the orientation by asking peers to share what most excites them and answering any questions.
Coaching Peers at Recess
Peers will need coaching to be successful, especially when they are just getting started. On the first day peers provide support at recess, the special educator should attend recess to model coaching strategies for the peer coach. The coaching strategies include:
- briefly reviewing the five strategies at the beginning of recess and asking the peers to set a goal about how they will play with the student that day (e.g., “asking my buddy to choose between playing soccer and basketball,” “introducing my buddy to a new friend,” and “watching my buddy’s body language to understand when they want to change how we are playing.”);
- praising the peers and student when they interact and play together;
- providing help and suggestions when the peers are struggling or when the student seems bored or unengaged;
- checking-in regularly with the peers to see how things are going and offer help, and;
- asking the peers how things went after recess and if they met their goals.
After this first day, the special educator will no longer need to attend recess. However, they should regularly check in with the peer coach to see how things are going and troubleshoot if needed. It may be helpful to provide the peer coach with a checklist of the five coaching strategies that they can take with them to the playground. See an example checklist in Figure 3.
Other students on the playground may express interest in joining the peers and the student with a disability in play activities. This should be welcomed and encouraged. The peer coach can ask these other students to look to their peers for examples of how to communicate and play with the student with a disability. There will be times that a peer coach will need to step away from the student and peers to attend to other issues on the playground. This is fine. It can give peers and the student natural opportunities to interact independently between check-ins. Over time, peer coaches should gradually lessen the intensity of their support as the peers become more comfortable and confident playing with their new friend.
Several published studies demonstrate that recess-based peer-mediated intervention can improve social or play outcomes for students with significant cognitive disabilities (for a review see Brock et al., 2021). Because research for this approach is still new and growing, teachers should always evaluate how this approach is working with their own students.
For Students with Disabilities
The primary goal of this approach is to improve social, communication, and play outcomes for the student with disabilities. One way to determine the impact is by observing the student and collecting data that aligns to their Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals. For example, data collection could address the frequency of a student’s initiations or responses to peers, the duration of the student’s participation in peer play, the number of times the student asks appropriate social questions to peers, or the number of times the student offers a peer a turn with a shared piece of recess equipment. Another approach could involve interviewing students about their experience at recess. For example, a teacher could ask them if they enjoy recess, if they enjoy playing with their peers, and what their favorite thing is to do at recess. For students with complex communication needs, alternate approaches might include asking the student to point out their friends from a school yearbook, gauging the student’s facial expressions as they are transitioning to the playground, or asking the student to select their favorite part of the school day from a picture schedule.
Peers can also benefit from their participation (Brock et al., 2020). For example, peers have said that they learned new ways to play at recess, built friendships with both the student and with other peers who they might not otherwise have played with, gained a greater appreciation for diversity, and grown more confident when advocating for themselves and others. Teachers can learn about these benefits by interviewing peers or using simple questionnaires.
Supporting this recess-based approach may be one of the peer coach’s first experiences teaming with a special educator or supporting a student with significant cognitive disabilities. Peer coaches often say that their participation shifted how they viewed their responsibility to supervise recess. Instead of merely being an enforcer of recess rules, they realize they can also be a positive influence on how children interact and play. In addition, establishing a line of communication between staff who supervise recess and special educators can have long-term benefits. It is very helpful when recess staff are attuned to whether students with disabilities are struggling at recess, and when they communicate with special educators about what is happening on the playground.
Sustaining and Expanding
When trying any approach for the first time, it may be prudent for teachers to begin with a small number of students before applying it to an entire grade level or school. Starting small is more feasible in light of the initial time investment that is required to get peer-mediated interventions up and running for each student. It also gives teachers time to reflect on what went well and what they might do differently before involving a larger number of students.
When teachers are ready to expand to an entire grade level or school, there are strategies that can make this task less daunting. First, teachers can leverage the expertise of specialized instructional support personnel or peer coaches who have already successfully implemented a recess-based peer-mediated intervention. For example, a speech-language pathologist who collaborated on the initial planning for a student with complex communication needs would be well prepared to take the lead on similar planning for other students. An experienced peer coach could take the lead on modeling coaching strategies to a new coach who is supervising the same recess period. Second, teachers can enlist the help of experienced peers when conducting new peer orientations. Having peers share their perspectives or lead role play activities can increase the excitement and buy-in from new peers. Third, schools can integrate training on this approach (and other peer-mediated interventions) into the onboarding process for new staff. New staff should know that supervising recess comes with the expectation of supporting all students, including those with disabilities. This can contribute to a culture where peer-mediated interventions are not viewed as an extra responsibility, but just part of the job.
Across Ages and Grades
Although the strategies described in this guide can work for all elementary or middle school students, peer coaches may tailor their support based on the ages of peers. For example, kindergarten or first-grade peers would benefit from breaking up the 45-minute orientation meeting into three 15-minute meetings. It may also be helpful for the peer coach to actually join the students in their play at first to model particular strategies. In addition, younger peers may enjoy more frequent acknowledgement and praise. In contrast, older peers might appreciate the opportunity to contribute more to the initial planning. For example, a peer in 5th or 6th grade might enjoy talking with the student’s parent or sibling to learn what the student might enjoy playing or talking about at recess. Older peers might also enjoy learning how to add additional vocabulary to a student’s communication device, or how to teach the student sign language related to a specific game or activity. Finally, they might prefer being pulled aside for a quick one-on-one conversation instead of having the peer coach jump in and model strategies.
These recess-based approaches can be further tailored to address the needs of students with various disabilities. For students with physical disabilities, the special educator and peer coach may need to think creatively about what kinds of equipment and activities can promote full participation at recess. It may be helpful to consult with a physical therapist who can recommend adaptive equipment, or a physical education teacher who can share ideas for how to adapt games or activities. The peer coach may need to show the student and peers how to use adaptive equipment or play adapted games. For students with complex communication needs, the peer coach and the peers may need additional training from the special educator or a speech-language pathologist. They can also ensure an AAC device is equipped with vocabulary that includes preferred play activities, names of peers, and game-specific vocabulary (e.g., “Goal!”; “You’re it!”). When students have a bulky AAC device that is not feasible for use during active play, it may be helpful to provide a supplemental low-tech system. This could be laminated cards on a binder ring that show some of the same icons and messages as the AAC device. For some students, sign language might be a better option. For students with challenging behavior, peers should be taught how to avoid situations that might trigger a behavior and learn what to do after a behavior occurs. A behavior specialist can help pinpoint the purpose of each behavior. For example, if a student yells inappropriate language because it always gets everyone to look at them, teaching peers to ignore this behavior and look away may reduce or eliminate the behavior.
Recess-based peer-mediated interventions should be culturally responsive for the student with disabilities and their peers. Educators should get input from the student and their family on how to select peers, on topics the student would enjoy talking about with peers, and ways in which the student would enjoy playing with peers. If the family speaks a language other than English at home, then it may be appropriate to invite one or more peers who also speak the same language. As peers and the student play together, the peer coach should observe their interactions to ensure they are respectful and culturally appropriate.
Miguel is a third grader with autism and intellectual disability. His older brother is a fifth grader at the same school and his family speaks Spanish at home. Miguel loves to play video games with his brother. He also enjoys watching professional soccer games on television, but he dislikes playing by himself because the coordination of running and kicking the ball is difficult for him. Miguel communicates through a combination of short phrases, gestures, and a communication device. He rarely makes eye contact or smiles, but his family can tell when he is happy—he makes a humming sound that they call his “happy noise.”
Ms. Abrams has been Miguel’s special educator for the last year and a half. She has been at a loss for how to effectively target some of Miguel’s IEP goals that focus on social skills and social interactions. At recess, Miguel usually sits underneath the jungle gym and watches the feet of children moving above him, or paces back and forth on the periphery of the playground. No one is unkind to him, but his peers rarely seem to notice him. Ms. Abrams decides to try using a peer-mediated intervention to boost Miguel’s social interactions. She enlists the help of Mr. Charles, a recess aide who has a great rapport with the children.
Ms. Abrams first talks with Miguel and his family about activities that he might enjoy at recess. His brother shares that Miguel loves to watch soccer, but does not like to play himself because of all the running. Ms. Abrams suggests that maybe Miguel could play goalie and help with kickoffs, and Miguel’s brother agrees that this might work. His mother shares that Miguel loves to draw with chalk, and that he might enjoy drawing on the blacktop with other children. This had not occurred to Ms. Abrams. She had no idea that Miguel liked to draw, and their school had never offered sidewalk chalk as an option at recess.
Ms. Abrams and Mr. Charles work together to identify peers. Based on suggestions from Miguel’s family, they identify two peers who speak Spanish. They also recruit a third peer who really enjoys drawing, and a fourth peer whom they have seen trying to wave to Miguel on the playground. Together, they lead an orientation meeting in which they excitedly share background information about Miguel and teach the peers the five strategies. Since Miguel does not want to carry around his AAC device on the playground, Ms. Abrams works with the speech-language pathologist to identify messages that Miguel might want to say, laminate them on cardstock, and put them on a binder ring. Ms. Abrams shows the messages to the peers and explains what each of them means. She also shares that Miguel rarely smiles, but that they will know when he is having a good time when he makes his “happy noise.”
At the first recess after the orientation, Ms. Abrams takes responsibility for coaching peers while Mr. Charles observes. She helps peers set goals at the end of lunch just before they go out to recess, helps them get started playing soccer with Miguel in the goalie box, and coaches them to stop and give Miguel plenty of time to respond with his message cards after they ask him a question. The peers are also learning how to get Miguel’s attention, and how to offer him choices when they are ready to move onto playing something new. As they line up for recess, Ms. Abrams checks in to see if the peers had fun and met their goals. After observing Ms. Abrams, Mr. Charles is confident he can be successful in his new role as a peer coach.
Several weeks later, Mr. Charles is amazed at how much fun the peers are having with Miguel. They have settled into a routine of hanging out and talking under the playground, playing a little soccer with Miguel as goalie, and then drawing together with chalk on the blacktop. Miguel occasionally goes off by himself to pace, but the peers have learned to give him some space and that he will come right back after a few minutes. Mr. Charles tells Ms. Abrams that he has already begun to fade his support as the peers have become more comfortable. Ms. Abrams and Mr. Charles celebrate this success and begin to discuss other students who might also benefit from a recess-based peer-mediated intervention.
Brock, M. E., Dueker, S., & Barczak, M. (2018). Improving social outcomes for students with autism at recess through peer-mediated pivotal response training. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 48(6), 2224–2230. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-017-3435-3
Brock, M. E., Shawbitz, K. N., Anderson, E. J., Criss, C. J., Sun, X., & Alasmari, A. (2021). Recess should include everyone: A scoping review of interventions designed to improve social and play outcomes for students with developmental disabilities at recess. Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40489-020-00233-8
Hume, K., Steinbrenner, J. R., Odom, S. L., Morin, K. L., Nowell, S. W., Tomaszewski, B., Szendrey, S., McIntyre, N. S., Yücesoy-Özkan, S., & Savage, M. N. (2021). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with autism: Third generation review. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-020-04844-2
Koegel, R. L., & Koegel, L. K. (2012). The PRT pocket guide: Pivotal response treatment for autism spectrum disorders. Brookes.
OCALI Module on Peer-Mediated Intervention: https://autisminternetmodules.org/
AFIRM Module on Peer-Mediated Intervention: https://afirm.fpg.unc.edu/peer-mediated-instruction-and-intervention
The PRT Pocket Guide: https://archive.brookespublishing.com/documents/Koegel-PRT-pocket-guide-intro.pdf
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Brock, M. E. (2022). A Guide to Implementing Recess-Based Peer-Mediated Intervention. In E. E. Biggs & E. Carter (Eds.), The Power of Peers. TIES Center. https://publications.ici.umn.edu/ties/peer-engagement/practice-guides/recess
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