TIES Peer Engagement Practice Guides
A Guide to Implementing Stay-Play-Talk
Elementary schools provide an array of developmentally appropriate learning opportunities for students. Although elementary teachers certainly address academic subjects like reading and math, these early grades are also a primary place in which students learn peer-related social skills. A typical school day offers numerous opportunities for social interactions, both fleeting (e.g., waving hello to a neighborhood friend in the hallway) and sustained (e.g., talking with a group of friends during lunch, playing a game during recess, organizing roles for a group project during science lessons, working through an assignment together).
Stay-Play-Talk is an educational intervention that is usually implemented during activities that have lots of opportunities for sustained social interactions, such as free play or recess activities. It can also be modified to be used during any other activities when peer interactions are expected or valued, such as group work in general education classrooms, during meal times, and as part of group games during physical education activities. Stay-Play-Talk is also a peer-mediated intervention, which means that peers, rather than adults, are providing instruction or assistance to one or more children. This practical approach offers social benefits for peers with and without disabilities, including those with significant cognitive disabilities.
Stay-Play-Talk is based on the idea that all students benefit when they are in close proximity to each other (stay), when they engage in shared activities (play), and when they have frequent social interactions (talk). Stay-Play-Talk was devised by Howard Goldstein and colleagues (1997) as an approach that was simple enough to be implemented by students as young as preschool-aged. Stay-Play-Talk has now been used for both preschool and elementary-aged students. Stay-Play-Talk is intended to improve social interactions among students with and without disabilities.
As with other inclusive strategies, the use of Stay-Play-Talk is likely to work best when adults collaborate to develop a plan, identify peers, design support, and evaluate its impact. Specifically, it may be helpful to include adults with expertise in communication (e.g., speech-language pathologists), social-emotional learning (e.g., school psychologists), specialized instruction (e.g., special educators), or classroom routines and expectations (e.g., general educators, special educators, paraprofessionals). This list is not exhaustive and who is involved is shaped by the settings in which Stay-Play-Talk is implemented. In some cases, additional team members could include parents, school volunteers, school administrators, or other school staff likely to interact with the students during Stay-Play-Talk. Collaboration ensures all important people contribute to and are aware of the goals. Furthermore, collaborating within an interdisciplinary team increases the likelihood that all relevant expertise is considered, which is especially important for students with significant cognitive disabilities. For example, a speech-language pathologist can help ensure that support is provided at an appropriate language level for the student with a disability, the special educator can ensure the instruction is sufficiently individualized, and the general educator and paraprofessional can engage peers who tend to interact well with the student during various activities.
The first step of Stay-Play-Talk planning is to identify the people who will play a part in the Stay-Play-Talk process. Stay-Play-Talk generally includes people with three roles:
- Focus students: Students who need additional support for peer interactions.
- Peer buddies: Other students who will serve as peer mediators.
- Supporting adults: Teachers, paraprofessionals, or other school staff who will provide support to both the focus student and peer buddies.
Figure 1 outlines potential characteristics and roles of each participant.
Figure 1. Characteristics and Roles of Each Stay-Play-Talk Participant
After identifying participants, all relevant stakeholders should plan specific supports, determine when they should be implemented (e.g., homeroom arrival, recess, large- or small-group activities), and identify which adults will provide the initial training and ongoing support. Although this person is referred to as the teacher, it could be a general educator, special educator, paraprofessional, therapist, counselor, or any other adult who regularly interacts with the students.
There are two main components of Stay-Play-Talk—an initial training and ongoing practice. The training usually includes only the focus student and peers and is often conducted in an area where the students can focus on what is being taught (e.g., counselor’s office, in the classroom when classmates are elsewhere, in a quiet corner in the classroom, in the cafeteria during non-lunch times, in the library or media center). Ongoing practice occurs during typical activities, and can occur for as long as needed (e.g., a semester) after training is complete. All of the participating students (the peers plus the focus student) are usually called “buddies,” but teachers can use any term that is appropriate for their settings or age (e.g., “partners”).
After ensuring the focus student and peers want to participate in Stay-Play-Talk, the teacher can introduce them to the Stay-Play-Talk approach during the training sessions. Training sessions are usually brief (10-15 minutes) and occur only a few times (e.g., during the first week of school, at the start of a new semester, when returning from a school break). Training sessions can include a variety of materials, such as the use of visuals, stories, and videos. No matter the materials, the basic components are: (1) explain the importance of friendships, the value of social interactions, and how to engage in Stay-Play-Talk; (2) model what it looks like to stay, play, and talk to a friend; (3) practice staying, playing, and talking in contrived situations; and (4) plan to use Stay-Play-Talk strategies during typical activities.
Explain. To begin training sessions, the teacher should discuss with the students the importance of friendships and social interactions. The teacher should then explain the specific behaviors that are expected of the student and peers. This usually involves giving a definition of each behavior (stay, play, and talk) and providing several examples and non-examples of each. Providing opportunities for engagement might include asking students to come up with their own examples and/or giving students scenarios and asking them to tell you whether your example is a good example or non-example of each behavior. The explain portion of training is successfully concluded when students demonstrate that they understand how to engage in each of the behaviors. A sample plan for training sessions can be found in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Training Session Plan
Completed Training Session Plan
Day 1: 15 minutes
Day 2: 10 minutes
Day 3: 10 minutes
Model. The next step of training is to show students how to engage in each of the steps of stay, play, and talk. This can include the teacher personally modeling the behavior or showing video models recorded with other students or adults. The teacher can encourage participation from students by modeling good examples and bad examples of Stay-Play-Talk behaviors and having students identify (yes/no) whether the adult is using Stay-Play-Talk strategies. Teachers can begin with simple and easy-to-identify models, but later models should include some likely scenarios that are individualized to the group. For example, if a student uses augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), such as a speech-generating device, some talk examples should include using the device to communicate and responding when someone else uses the device. Examples should also include situations that might be challenging—like talking with a friend who does not initially respond. These scenarios should be based on the teacher’s knowledge of the student and peers. Models can also be silly to help keep students engaged! The model portion of the training is successfully concluded when students can identify correct and incorrect models of Stay-Play-Talk behaviors.
Practice. After the teacher models different scenarios, students should have opportunities to practice the behaviors themselves. This usually begins with the teacher acting as one buddy and asking one student at a time to demonstrate stay, play, and talk behaviors. Again, as students get proficient, the teacher may want to practice individualized situations, like how to persist or provide help if you ask a question and your buddy does not respond. These practice opportunities provide a chance for the teacher to give students feedback about their behaviors until they are fluent. The practice portion of training is successfully concluded when students can show the teacher accurate implementation of Stay-Play-Talk behaviors.
Plan. The first three parts of training (explain, model, practice) can occur during every training session. The plan portion happens at the end of training during the final session. The teacher reviews all of the information that has been covered thus far and shares practical guidance about using Stay-Play-Talk during the selected activities. For example, the teacher might provide information about when Stay-Play-Talk will occur, which school staff will be present to provide support, and how the students can get their questions answered. Sometimes the same peers engage in Stay-Play-Talk during all sessions, but often teachers rotate peer buddies to expand the experiences of the focus students. For example, students may occasionally become bored with interacting with each other regularly or may express the desire to have different buddies. This can be mitigated by adding new peer buddies or by rotating peer buddies (as shown in the schedule for Trevon and his peers in the concluding Case Example). Sometimes peers turn out not to be a good fit, or the focus student exhibits behaviors suggesting they do not enjoy interacting with a certain peer. In these situations, peers can be replaced with other students, remembering to teach the new students the process or share information about the focus student. Questions that might help to guide the practical planning behind Stay-Play-Talk are available in Figure 3.
During practice sessions, teachers remind students to engage in Stay-Play-Talk behaviors, give prompts as needed, and provide feedback and reinforcement. Typically, the teacher is available to assist the students, although the need for continuous adult support should lessen as students become proficient and develop friendships. Each component is discussed separately, below.
Reminders. Generally, the teacher providing support should remind the students at the beginning of each session to engage in Stay-Play-Talk behaviors. Visual supports may be helpful, especially for younger students (such as kindergarten-aged students). For example, the teacher providing support can laminate a reminder that includes three icons—one each representing stay, play, and talk. Older students in upper elementary grades might use a laminated list with written suggestions for staying, playing, and talking. Specific suggestions can be especially helpful for talk in case students have trouble generating their own comments and questions. These examples can be individualized based on the focus student’s interests and needs. Visual supports can serve as helpful reminders to students, particularly if they are stored in one location and then brought to the table or place where students are playing during Stay-Play-Talk sessions. As students become proficient at Stay-Play-Talk, they can even retrieve and place the visuals themselves, independently starting the Stay-Play-Talk session and reducing the need for adult support. However, even students who are fluent with these strategies may need occasional reminders.
Prompts. Especially at the beginning, focus students and peer buddies will likely need frequent prompts to engage in Stay-Play-Talk behaviors. To avoid prompting too often or too intrusively, it is helpful to have a plan for timing and to use a systematic prompting system. Prior to implementation, the teacher providing support should decide the prompting schedule and the prompting system. For example, during play time, the teacher might initially check-in once per minute and provide prompting if students are not staying, playing, and talking. As students gain skills over time, the teacher might increase the interval after a month to checking-in every 2 minutes, then every 3 minutes after 2 months, and finally every 5 minutes for the remainder of the school year. These interval suggestions should be individualized based on the performance of students and the setting. Teachers can use an inexpensive interval timer (like those used for exercise) or a free interval timer application on a smartphone or tablet. Providing additional training or more frequent check-ins and prompts might be occasionally necessary, especially after long breaks from school.
In addition to having a set plan for the timing of prompts, the teacher should also have a systematic plan for the type of prompt provided. The teacher should provide a prompt for staying if students are not in proximity to each other, provide a prompt for playing if students are near each other but not engaging in a shared activity, and provide a prompt for talking if students are engaged in the same activity but not interacting with each other. This scaffolded support helps students engage in increasingly sophisticated behaviors. If the supporting teacher has not provided this type of support in the past, they might benefit from practice opportunities, coaching, and feedback from a team member with expertise in this areas (e.g., school psychologist, speech-language pathologist, special educator, or another person with related knowledge and skills).
The system of least prompts (sometimes called least-to-most prompting) is a helpful system for providing support during Stay-Play-Talk practice sessions. It involves first giving students a chance to engage in the behaviors independently, providing non-intrusive help if they do not engage in the behaviors independently, and providing a more intensive prompt if they still do not engage in the behavior. For example, the teacher might prompt a peer buddy to be in closer proximity to the focus student by showing a visual depicting stay. If the peer does not respond, the teacher might then say verbally, “You can stay with [student] by telling her ‘come play with me’ and pointing to the puzzle table.” The final prompt should be specific so that students know exactly what they can do to be successful. Figure 4 shows examples of the use of the system of least prompts for stay, play, and talk behaviors. Note that it includes prompts for Kenton, a peer in the Case Example at the end of this guide. However, prompts can be provided to both peers and the focus student (in Figure 4, Trevon).
Figure 4. Examples of Using the System of Least Prompts for Stay, Play, and Talk Behaviors
Kenton is playing on a large piece of playground equipment, while Trevon wanders around the playground.
Tell Kenton “Trevon is way over there” while pointing to Trevon.
Tell Kenton ,“Let’s go ask him to play” and walk with Kenton to Trevon.
Trevon is playing with puzzles, while Kenton is at the table. Kenton is watching another student across the room and not playing with the puzzles.
Subtly point at Trevon playing with a puzzle.
Tell Kenton, “Remember to play with Trevon. If you’re tired of puzzles, you could ask him to play blocks with you.”
Kenton and Trevon are seated across from each other at lunch, but they are not interacting.
Point to the talk visual that is on the table.
Point to a written question on a list of potential topics that is updated regularly (e.g., a list of questions like “What did you do this weekend?” or “Would you rather be a cow or a bird?”).
Feedback. All of the participating students should receive specific feedback from adults. The teacher providing support can usually provide feedback during their timed check-ins. If students are staying, playing, and talking, the adult can provide positive feedback instead of prompts. If the students need prompts to stay, play, or talk during the check-in, positive feedback should be provided once the student engages in the prompted action. Verbal praise can be provided during Stay-Play-Talk. However, teachers should take care not to interrupt students’ play or conversations with praise. Teachers might also consider an alternative non-verbal feedback mechanism, such as giving a thumbs up, or putting a laminated star on a nearby chart. When students earn a sufficient number of stars, they might earn a special treat, like lunch in a special place or choosing a small trinket from a treasure box. The stars themselves can also be a reward and show their cumulative acts over time. As students develop friendships and require less adult support, praise and other rewards can be decreased. However, it will remain important to tell students you value their interactions with each other.
Stay-Play-Talk can improve outcomes for both students with significant cognitive disabilities and their peers. Usually, desired outcomes are increased proximity, engagement, and social interactions between participating students.
For Students with Disabilities and Peers
Stay-Play-Talk is designed to increase opportunities for engagement and interaction for students who might otherwise have insufficient opportunities and support. Students with significant cognitive disabilities have benefited from Stay-Play-Talk indirectly (e.g., their peers are in proximity, engaging with them, and talking to them) and directly (e.g., they learn and have the opportunity to practice engaging and interacting with peers, and get assistance and feedback when doing so). Direct observation is a great way to evaluate Stay-Play-Talk outcomes. Teachers or other school staff can tally the number of social interactions between the student and peers before and after training to determine how interactions improve. Because this requires observing students for the entire session, it might not be feasible. But if it is possible to occasionally observe entire sessions, this is a good way to evaluate outcomes.
As an alternative, supporting teachers might be able to document whether students were staying, playing, and talking when they do their planned check-ins. For example, if students are staying but not playing or talking at the 4-minute mark, the teacher might provide a prompt for playing and indicate on a data sheet (see Figure 5) that students were independently staying, playing with a prompt, and not talking.
This particular scenario is shown in Figure 6 (at the 4-minute mark). For the three check-ins that occurred, the students were independently staying 100% of the time, playing independently 67% of the time, and independently talking 33% of the time. It is important to note that students do not need to stay, play, and talk 100% of the time for Stay-Play-Talk to be beneficial. For example, during lunch, students spend most of their time eating. During recess, they may be engaging in games that make talking less frequently applicable, like “chase.” In this case, modified data collection might include only staying and playing.
Figure 6. Example Completed Data Collection Forms
I = independent, P = prompted, N = not engaging in the behavior
In addition to observable outcomes, teachers should also consider more subjective outcomes, like whether the students report enjoying their time together, whether non-implementing teachers or other stakeholders report seeing benefits like increased interactions, and whether the students engage in more friendship behaviors outside of Stay-Play-Talk sessions. For example, peers might include the focus student in social plans during other classes or outside of schools, and the focus student might request peers as partners during other activities. These can be anecdotal (e.g., student exhibits excitement) or formal (e.g., interviews).
For the Broader School and Professionals
Educators should also measure the impact of Stay-Play-Talk on broader outcomes. These impacts could include the attitudes and behaviors of non-participating classmates, the ability of adults to better support social interactions, and the attitudes and behaviors of other stakeholders. For example, teachers might ask the opinions of parents regarding the approach and its effects. Or they might request feedback from administrators about any changes they see among students. These broader impacts can be measured through anecdotal reports, formal or informal interviews, or questionnaires.
Sustaining and Expanding
Sustained use of Stay-Play-Talk should require fewer resources over time if students receive sufficient assistance and feedback during initial implementation. One way to expand use of Stay-Play-Talk is to add more peers over time, especially those who exhibit interest in the approach and/or in the focus student. Stay-Play-Talk can also be expanded to include all students in a classroom. This variation of Stay-Play-Talk is sometimes implemented from the beginning. When whole-class Stay-Play-Talk is used, all students learn the approach at one specific time of day. Students are then assigned buddies with whom they should stay, play, and talk. Prompts and feedback are generally provided on a class-wide level, although individualized prompting and feedback may be required. Peers who are paired with students with significant cognitive disabilities might require additional training or support beyond the class-wide supports. For example, they may need to be given information about how an AAC device works, how to respond to communication attempts that might be difficult to understand (e.g., modified sign language use), or how to provide help if their partner seems to be unable to answer a question they ask. Benefits of class-wide Stay-Play-Talk include improved classroom culture, more opportunities for increased interactions for all students, and the potential for decreased isolation.
Across Ages and Grades
Stay-Play-Talk can be modified to include language more appropriate for older elementary-aged students and/or non-play contexts. For example, if Stay-Play-Talk is occurring during daily small-group work the term “engage” could be used to let students know that you want them to be working on the same activity together and “discuss” could be used to let students know they should be discussing the activity at hand, rather than just talking in general. The same basic principles apply (i.e., students should be together and interacting), but different terminology may be more developmentally and contextually appropriate.
To decrease demands on teacher resources, students can learn to self-monitor their own stay, play, and talk behaviors. For example, teachers can give students a chart and an interval timer. Each time the alarm sounds, they can evaluate whether they were staying, playing, and talking and indicate via smiley faces if they were engaging in Stay-Play-Talk behaviors. Self-monitoring is viable for older elementary-aged students, especially if a teacher is intermittently available to reinforce self-monitoring accuracy.
Peers of students who use AAC such as a speech-generating device or picture exchange may require individualized support. For example, peers may need specific training regarding different modalities of communication, how to respond to communication attempts, and how to help their partner access their device (e.g., remembering to bring it to new activities). Students who use AAC may also need to be taught specific strategies to support peer communication, such as getting a peer’s attention before activating a communication device, or telling peers when and if they can access the device.
Peers of students who do not or cannot manipulate items in a way similar to their peers may also require additional support. For example, a student with a motor impairment may be unable to work with art materials in a way similar to his or her peers. Several different modifications could be made in this case. For example, peers could be taught to help the student access materials (e.g., put the student’s marker in a special device that helps him hold it), or an adult could support material engagement. Some students without motor difficulties, including those with autism, may interact with typical materials repetitively. During activities that are truly play or choice-based, peers could be supported to understand the student’s way of playing. They could be encouraged to sometimes play in the way they preferred and sometimes play in the way the focus student preferred. If the task is more goal-oriented (e.g., completing a project), peers may need to be supported to provide reminders to the student to engage with materials in specific ways (e.g., “Remember that we’re supposed to be coloring these boxes.”).
Stay-Play-Talk should always be conducted with the needs and wishes of students and their families in mind. If possible, parents should be a part of the team that plans and evaluates Stay-Play-Talk, and they should specifically be asked about the types of interactions that are valuable to them, the types of support that is acceptable to them, and the long-term outcomes their family is working towards. When providing explicit examples or prompts to students, the person providing these examples should consider whether they match the classroom and community culture. One way to ensure this responsiveness is to observe other students in the classroom, school, and community.
Trevon is a first-grade student who has autism and an intellectual disability. He is interested in interacting with his peers, but he does not have ongoing social engagement with them. In fact, he often plays alone on the playground. At lunch, he most often chooses to sit near a friendly adult lunch monitor rather than near other schoolmates. Several students in his classroom have shown interest in a friendship with Trevon, but neither he nor his classmates seem to have the skills needed to sustain meaningful social interactions. Their general education teacher (Ms. Ahmadi), special education teacher (Ms. Jackson), and paraprofessional (Mr. Martin) are supportive of interactions when they do occur, but they feel they need a more systematic approach for improving social interactions between Trevon and his classmates. They would especially like to focus on the times during the school day when other students are naturally interacting with each other, like lunch and recess.
Ms. Ahmadi and Ms. Jackson bring up the need for specific support for Travon’s peer interactions during their next team meeting, which includes the speech-language pathologist (Ms. Martinez). She suggests that Stay-Play-Talk might be a good fit for their goals. She provides some reading materials to Ms. Ahmadi and Mr. Martin. She also says she could provide the initial training, if Ms. Ahmadi and Mr. Martin could provide ongoing support during playground and lunch time.
After reading and discussing further, Mr. Martin thinks he can provide support for Stay-Play-Talk on the playground. He suggests that the lunch monitor, who plans to seek certification in special education, might be willing to provide support during lunch time. After they confirm this is true, Ms. Ahmadi, Mr. Martin, Ms. Martinez, Ms. Jackson, and the lunch monitor, Ms. Kearns, schedule a planning meeting. They discuss specific supports that might be helpful and identify three potential peer buddies. All of these peers express their willingness to be a part of Stay-Play-Talk a few times per week during lunch and recess. Everyone agrees that positive adult attention is an appropriate reward for Trevon and his peer buddies. They plan for Ms. Kearns and Mr. Martin to set an interval timer on their phones to remind them to provide positive attention to the students and to collect data every few minutes.
For the first week, Ms. Martinez conducts daily training sessions for the group of four students: Trevon and his three peer buddies, Kenton, Kaedrianna, and Charlotte). During these 10-minute sessions, she discusses the importance of staying, playing, and talking with friends and how students can support each other, including helping each other respond by providing help (e.g., reminders, demonstrations). They set up a “buddy schedule” so that each day, certain students are paired with each student. On days when buddy pairs are set, Ms. Martinez encourages them to try to stay, play, and talk with their buddies for at least the first 10-15 minutes of lunch or recess. Their schedule is as follows:
Ms. Martinez meets with Ms. Kearns to discuss feasible data collection opportunities. The team decided that play was less relevant during lunch, so she didn’t collect data on that behavior. Ms. Kearns collects data before training starts on three different days. Trevon stays alone nearly the whole time, has only one interaction on the third day, and no peer interactions at all on the first two days. This convinces her that Stay-Play-Talk is really needed.
On the first day after training, Trevon, Kaedrianna, Kenton, and Charlotte are excited to tell Ms. Kearns who their buddies are for the day. Ms. Kearns is happy that Trevon’s previously quiet lunch now includes three peers who are excited to talk with him. She has her laminated “cheat sheet” with reminders about how to support the students on her usual clipboard. Although she cannot stay with the students for the entire lunch because she has other supervision duties, she checks in frequently while providing prompts and positive attention. As the school year progresses, she checks-in often but finds that students need fewer prompts. She continues to check-in with students but often just listens to their conversations, provides subtle reinforcement like a thumbs-up, and collects data. Although she misses some intervals because of her other duties, she is able to check in, provide prompts, and collect data at least half the time each day. During the first week, Trevon’s buddy stays with him independently 100% of the time, but nearly all of the talking is prompted by Ms. Kearns. However, by the third week, talk is independent 25% of the time. Ms. Kearns is excited to see continued progress for the remainder of the semester.
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Goldstein, H., English, K., Shafer, K., & Kaczmarek, L. (1997). Interaction among preschoolers with and without disabilities: Effects of across-the-day intervention. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 40(1), 33–48. https://doi.org/10.1044/jslhr.4001.33
Ledford, J. R., & Pustejovsky, J. E. (2021). Systematic review and meta-analysis of stay-play-talk interventions for improving social behaviors of young children. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions. https://doi.org/10.1177/1098300720983521
Severini, K. E., Ledford, J. R., Barton, E. E., & Osborne, K. C. (2019). Implementing stay-play-talk with children who use AAC. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 38(4), 220–233. https://doi.org/10.1177/0271121418776091
Stay-Play-Talk Overview And Printable Visuals: https://challengingbehavior.cbcs.usf.edu/docs/Stay-Play-Talk.pdf
Stay-Play-Talk Overview: https://ebip.vkcsites.org/stay-play-talk-procedures
Stay-Play-Talk Planning Worksheet: https://ebip.vkcsites.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Stay-Play-Talk_Instruction-Worksheet.pdf
Unpacking Stay-Play-Talk: Training Lesson Plans and Videos: https://militaryfamilieslearningnetwork.org/2020/12/16/challengingbehavior7/
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Ledford, J. R. (2022). A guide to implementing stay-play-talk. In E. E. Biggs & E. Carter (Eds.), The Power of Peers. TIES Center. https://publications.ici.umn.edu/ties/peer-engagement/practice-guides/stay-play-talk
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