Peer Supports and Networks for Adolescents with Severe Disabilities: Lessons Learned

We present final findings from a multi-state, randomized study evaluating the efficacy and social validity of peer support strategies and peer networks on the social and learning outcomes of 150 high school students with severe disabilities. Participants will gain practical strategies and resources for implementing these evidence-based alternatives to one-to-one paraprofessional support models in inclusive settings. Attendees will be able to (a) describe steps for implementing peer support and peer network strategies in inclusive secondary classrooms, clubs, and cafeterias; (b) explain the social and academic benefits for students with and without severe disabilities who participate in these arrangements; and (c) articulate a strong rationale for adopting peer-mediated interventions in schools and classrooms. In secondary schools, supporting meaningful inclusion remains a challenging task. One-to-one paraprofessional support has become a common way to support these students. Yet, research suggests an overreliance on paraprofessionals may have unintended consequences. We completed an IES-funded study examining the efficacy and social validity of peer support and peer network strategies as alternatives to exclusive paraprofessional supports. We coached teachers and paraprofessionals to implement peer support or peer network strategies with 150 students randomly assigned to three conditions. Peer support strategies involve one or more peers providing social and academic support after receiving initial training and ongoing guidance from an adult. Peer network strategies involve forming a cohesive group of peers who meet regularly to create a social network. We collected extensive qualitative and quantitative data from students, parents, and educators as well as conducted extensive full-length classroom observations, to examine the efficacy and social validity of the strategies. A large proportion of students are from racially and economically diverse backgrounds and the study was implemented in rural, suburban, and urban communities. Our analyses confirm distinct social and learning advantages of peer-mediated interventions. Moreover, significant gains in social contacts, friendships, and skill acquisition were found. We will share support for peer-mediated interventions as an EBP, discuss practical considerations, and share resources attendees can use to implement these approaches. Additionally, we will highlight ways to tailor the strategies to the needs of diverse groups of students with severe disabilities.

Erik Carter, Heartley Huber, Matthew Brock, Ethan Fesperman, Colleen Moss, Jenny Asmus