“Hey Johnny, can you help me figure out number four?” It’s a simple question. One student turns to the student next to him, his classmate, his friend, his peer, and asks for a bit of help. It's a natural instinct to ask for assistance from, or bounce ideas off of our peers. Yet, in some classrooms this action is frowned upon and labeled as cheating or talking out of turn unless it is specifically asked for by the adult in charge. This positions the teacher as the sole source of support and knowledge. The pressure is on the teacher to control the flow of knowledge in the classroom and student capacity often goes unrecognized. Students in need of quick support suffer. It’s a lose-lose-lose situation: the student loses out on getting help, the peer supporter loses out on an opportunity to be positioned as knowledgeable and capable and able to help a friend, and the teacher loses time he might have invested in some other way.
Years of research on inclusive practices indicate the strong positive impact of peer supports. To begin with, there is a clear social emotional benefit of positive peer interactions. Additionally, students are often more willing to accept help from a peer than from a teacher. By creating classrooms that encourage and peer supports, we capitalize on the knowledge and abilities of our students and their relationships, and we take the pressure off of ourselves to have to do and know everything all of the time.
Unfortunately, peer supports are frequently conceptualized as a “typical” student helping a student with a disability; or a “more able peer” helping a “less able peer.” This is one way in which peer supports can be implemented in the classroom, but peer supports can be so much more than that. By understanding that human difference is a normal aspect of life, and breaking down our own assumptions about which differences are privileged, we can begin to see the multitude of ways in which peers can support and teach each other. What is more, we begin to see that peer supports are not just uni-directional (“typical”--> special needs) and that each member of a supportive community benefits when we all help each other out. As classroom teachers striving for inclusivity it is our responsibility to provide the structures that create community and support our students in supporting each other.
What does this mean for practice? It means recognizing the needs of individual students to be supportive and supported. It means recognizing the needs of the whole group for community and trust. It means disrupting some of our own markers of a functional classroom and allowing for open conversation and messiness. It means holding ourselves back from having to act as the person in the room with the most control and the most knowledge.
Why is this an inclusive practice? Successful peer supports rely on a capacity orientation towards the students we teach and an expectation and privileging of difference as useful rather than difference as to be overcome.
Peer support interventions are not sufficient by themselves. Peer support interventions do not eliminate the need for adult support. Peer support interventions are not automatic. So what should we think about to implement positive and effective peer supports? Consider the following:
Identify individual student learning strengths and needs.
Develop and explain roles and expectations in peer partnerships.
Teach basic strategies for supproting support the academic and/or social participation of peer partners.
Provid means for ongoing feedback and assistance to peer partnerships.
Shift paraprofessionals to broader support role in which they assist all students in the classroom.