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Special Education

Why your school should have a Peer-To-Peer Program

This past week, I presented at the Michigan Council for Exception Children conference in Grand Rapids. Two other colleagues and myself presented on peer-to-peer support and how we run the program at our elementary school in Mt. Pleasant. I thought I would share the highlights of our presentation as a blog post to help other schools jumpstart this program or to bring awareness to parents whose children may benefit from being a part of peer-to-peer.

What is Peer-to-Peer?

Peer-to-peer is a volunteer program linking general education peers with students who have disabilities in order to support these students throughout the school day. At the school I work for, we refer to the program as LINKS. The LINK program is a research-based support model.

Who can it help?

Students with Special Needs

Peer-to-peer programs have widely been implemented for students with autism but may also be beneficial for students with other disabilities ranging from mild to severe. At my school, we have 17 students with special needs involved in the program. Their disabilities include severe speech and language impairments, autism, down syndrome, and mild or moderate cognitive impairments.

General Education Students

We have found the successes of peer-to-peer to extend way beyond that of students with special needs. We have witnessed countless examples in which our general education students benefit as well. As one parent explained to us, her son had taken a special interest in one of our LINKS students and this was his only motivation to come to school everyday. She saw the positive influence this program had on her son and his character. Daily, we observe students who are caring, compassionate, and genuine. The students involved in our program learn from an early age what it means to be a generous, helpful, patient friend.


Both special education and general education teachers have reported on the positive impacts of a peer-to-peer support model in schools. General education teachers appreciated how students can become the “teacher” by modeling appropriate behavior, interactions, expectations, and perceptions. They found it helpful that LINK students could help assist special education students with routine tasks, something that was their primary responsibility in the past. Similarly, special education teachers reported that peer support programs allow them to use their time more effectively and it is spent on planning, consulting, and co-teaching (Barnitt, 2005).

What is the goal?

Links program Socialization and Independence. We began our presentation by asking those in attendance to write a list of ten things they did before arriving at the conference. We then asked them to label if the task involved a social, independent, or academic skill. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of everyones list included social and independent skills while very little, if any at all, involved academics. It is so important for children to learn appropriate social skills and daily living skills to be valuable members of a community.

What about other support models?

Research indicates that other support models for students with special needs are not as effective as the peer-to-peer support model. Many social skills groups have been determined ineffective or unsuccessful because social skills need to be taught in natural contexts, such as the classroom itself. Another model that has frequently been used in the past is the “adult-reliant model” in which students rely heavily on the assistance of paraprofessionals or special education teachers in the classroom. These types of supports have actually been shown to hinder independence and increase isolation because students become dependent on their teachers and have very little opportunity to manage on their own and engage with their peers (Barnitt, 2005).

How to get started?

Links ProgramFor this program to be successful, it is imperative to have the support of all staff members involved. This includes your building administrator, general education teachers, and paraprofessionals. Create a team to lead the program and then have a meeting to discuss what your program will look like. We met with other districts who had a peer-to-peer support model already started to help us out. A lot of our ideas and inspiration came from START (statewide autism training and resources) and Clarkston Highschool. We also created a brochure to give to parents explaining what Peer-to-Peer is and how it would involve their child. Furthermore, we discussed the program at our school’s open house and went to each classroom to talk with the students.


Barnitt, Vicki. (2005). The Power of Peers: A Guide to Developing a Peer Support Program for Students with Disabilities (pp. 1-84). Florida Department of Education. Carter, E. W., Cushing, L. S., Clark, N. M., & Kennedy, C. H. (2005). Effects of peer support interventions on students? access to the general curriculum and social interactions. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 30, 15-25. National Research Council (2001). Educating children with autism. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Snell, M. E., & Janney, R. (2000). Social Relationships and peer support (pp. 36-77). Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Ziegler, M., & Schoemer, D. (1999). The LINK Program: An integrated formula for autistic impaired programs.

Learn More

Are you interested in starting a peer-to-peer model? Would you like more information? I would be happy to help out! Please email me at [email protected] for more information or any questions.

WRITTEN ON November 19, 2013 BY:


Melissa Ferry is a special education teacher for Mt. Pleasant Public Schools. She earned her bachelor's degree from Michigan State University with an endorsement in learning disabilities. Melissa is continuing her education at Central Michigan University in pursuit of a Master's Degree. Prior to her career as a teacher Melissa volunteered at Friendship Circle for seven years.