Learning for All

Peer supports

Creating social connections and friendships contributes to quality learning experiences. Relationships matter and creating a sense of belonging at school is dependent on authentic friendship and social connections.




Nowhere else are there so many kids together in the same place, at the same time, and doing the same activities. Repeatedly, educational research identifies the importance of relationships and social connectedness as a key factor, whether the focus is on school completion, student engagement or reducing problem behaviour.

If this is true for all students, then the question we need to ask is: what do we need to do to ensure that every student has the opportunity and support they need to form social relationships.


There are many positive outcomes associated with connecting students with significant disabilities with their peers. These interactions help students with disabilities learn and practice a wide range of social and academic skills and contribute to overall social and emotional development. They access important social skills like companionship, advice from peers and help with decision-making.

Relationships give students a reason to communicate, and authentic opportunities to develop literacy skills. Having friends and being liked by others is an important protective factor against loneliness and isolation.

Although the research confirms all of these benefits, it is really everyday experience that provides the most convincing evidence. When you ask students about the best part of the school day they most often talk about their friendships, the fun things they did with other students.


But all too often, students with disabilities, do not have access to social connections. In this longitudinal study researchers identified how, as they get older, social opportunities tend to diminish for students with disabilities. Consider the middle column:
By high school students with multiple disabilities rarely see friends outside of school or receive phone calls from friends.




In his research, Carter makes a strong case that for most students with significant disabilities, social connectedness will not happen without the intentional and active support of adults and peers in the immediate school environment.


Again, the research identified relationships as a core quality of life issue.


Much of school improvement research is based on the three principles of rigor, relevance and relationships. Erik Carter, and many others, argue that these 3Rs are just as essential for students with significant disabilities.

These powerful principles can complement one another. For example, relationships create natural supports, and these natural supports enable students to participate in more rigorous learning. And participating in these relationships makes learning experiences more motivating and relevant for students.


Please take a few minutes to view Erik Carter, in conversation about the importance of natural supports.


Basically there are two approaches to the intentional fostering of relationships between peers with and without disabilities. The first is a universal approach that focuses on whole school initiatives to promote inclusion of all students.

The universal approach might go beyond students with disabilities, and consider other groups of students who may be at risk of marginalization. This approach tends to focus on social times and activities, and can also include awareness campaigns.


The second approach is more targeted and considers the specific needs and preferences of an individual student.

This approach is about creating a personal network of support around one student. For example, two peers could join the student at lunch on a regular basis or a peer could be the student’s partner in an extra curricular activity. These tend to be formal arrangements and peers receive some orientation and coaching, and ideally, have access to ongoing adult support.


There are many reasons why peers are natural supports. The one big advantage they have is that they tend to be experts in the social environment in ways that an adult cannot be.


A really important part of the story about peer mentoring is that students without disabilities benefit just as much from having opportunities to meet and develop friendships with their classmates who have a disabilities.

In over a decade of research, Carter and his colleagues have identified tangible benefits for peers, especially for students who may be experiencing some academic difficulties themselves. Carter also speaks eloquently about how peers are the future employers, future neighbours, future civic leaders and future community members.

Peers who have friendships with students with significant disabilities now, are likely to develop long-term positive attitudes and expectations related to disabilities. Carter absolutely believes the positive experiences and attitudes of these students will have a long-term impact on their communities.




Above is an example of a brainstorming activity that can be done as an inventory of the school environment. Ideally it should be done with a group of students and a teacher-facilitator.

Click here for a PDF of the above document


To get the data needed at the school level, there has to be a willingness to ask difficult questions and look beyond simple “yes” and “no” answers.


The importance of helping students find common ground cannot be overestimated. Too often it is the differences that are most obvious and get the most attention.

When you look at student reflections about their experience of being a peer mentor, the one thing you hear the students say over and over is, “What I really learned is that kids may have disabilities, but they really are just like any other kid. We both want to have fun, We both want to have friends.”

Getting to know individual students, and what their interests and experiences are, is a powerful for tool making authentic and lasting social connections.


Participants in the community of practice suggested the following in response to the above question:
YouTube videos, technology, anime, scrap booking, photography, sports, singing, music, pets, favourite animals.


In the peer mentoring video series, Erik Carter talks about the importance of valued roles and offers four questions to help evaluate the value of a specific role.


Participants in the community of practice suggested the following in response to the above question:
artist, presenter, friend, technology expert, announcer, host or greeter, organizer, leader, music DJ.


Looking at valued roles is really about the importance of reciprocity and interdependence and asking the important question, “Does every student have the opportunity to both give and receive support?”


The success of an intentional approach to building positive social interactions is depending on equipping student information, strategies and the space and support they need to develop these positive interactions.


There are a number of well-intentioned kind of activities that are intended to either inform people about disabilities, or sensitize people to the implications of disabilities.

Consider this young man— is it more important for peers to know about number of chromosomes or will getting to know this student as an individual be more helpful for relationship building?

Knowing that this fellow really likes to play the drums, is pretty easy going but can get overexcited in large groups, that he responds quickly to friendly prompts such as “Let’s chill a little!” and that even though his speech can be challenging to interpret at times, it’s worth investing the time and attention to hear him out. This kind of information can provide peers with the information they need to make stronger connections and be supportive friends.


When asked to identify what can get in the way of forming social relationships, peer mentors clearly understood that lack of information, and fear and discomfort were the biggest barriers. They also acknowledged that, for some students, there simply is a lack of interest or empathy and they prefer to avoid or ignore individuals whom they perceive as different from themselves.


Participants in the community of practice suggested the following in response to the above question:

  • sense of humour (e.g., what kind of things makes peer laugh, how they show their interest in things)
  • what they might have in common
  • how to communicate (and how peer communicates)
  • why peer might act the way they do sometimes and what you can do to support them
  • favourite foods (including snacks)
  • what interests they might share
  • understanding unique behaviours of peer
  • what to do when peer appears upset
  • how to read facial cues, body language, tone of voice, etc. of peer to help understand their feelings
  • how to tell if peer needs a break
  • peer’s favourite ways to chill out
  • what kind of help is helpful


These social connections rely on teachers and other adults in the schools explicitly modelling ways to interact with one another. And they happen because school staff demonstrate high expectations, for both the students with, and without disabilities.


The above sociogram is an example of one strategy teachers can use to help students think about expanding their network.

Asking students to record the name of six students (without discussing this with others) who would make good partners for them provides a starting point for pairing students, perhaps in ways the teacher would not have thought of. It also flags if an individual student is not identified by any peers, so teachers can put some supportive strategies in place.

This can be repeated several times throughout the year, to see how students’ social circles are widening.


One of the key roles for the adult facilitator is help students communicate effectively with one another. Initially this might involve interpreting communication attempts and helping peers recognize all the ways a student communicates.


Peers, just like school staff, need to know that even if a student does not have conventional language, they still have things they need and want to say.


Teachers need to look for ways to increase options for how students respond and participate in learning activities.


When peer buddies are asked to identify what kind of things adults might do that get in the way of relationships, they typically summarize it as “adults are too involved” or “adults aren’t involved enough.”


That brings us to the fifth, and maybe the most important element for supporting social relationships, ‘just enough’ support.


We are all pretty familiar with some of the signs that supports might be getting in the way for a student with disabilities.
For example:

  • when an educational assistant is a permanent fixture at their side
  • when people ignore their presence, and talk about them, instead of to them
  • when peers are functioning more like mini-teachers than peers.


Participants in the community of practice suggested the following in response to the above question:

  • the student wants to hang around with educational assistant during all breaks
  • educational assistant answers every question others ask directly of the student
  • child only works with educational assistant (and never with other students)
  • the students are unable to continue outside of the classroom setting
  • everything the student does is hand-over-hand
  • educational assistant is sitting in an island of inclusion with one or more students
  • educational assistant is doing things for students that they can do for themselves
  • the student is relying on educational assistant to complete their work
  • educational assistant doesn’t give students time to respond and keep asking more questions or giving more prompts
  • students are always looking to educational assistant for reassurance, guidance, and/or approval
  • educational assistant is doing for them rather than setting them up so that they can make choices and be active participants.
  • educational assistant doesn’t allow time for student to reflect
  • peers report back to educational assistant (rather than including student with disability in conversation)
  • the other students ask educational assistant if she is the student’s mom…
  • student don’t have opportunity to fail


The above simple checklist is based on the work of Michael Giangreco. It looks at what would it take for a student to be more self-sufficient, and how can we help them get there.

Giangreco is not suggesting a rigid hierarchy. On the contrary, sometimes, particularly when a new skill or environment is been introduced, more intensive adult support would be the most helpful and effective.

Sometimes total independence is not the goal. For some tasks, and for some students, it may be more meaningful (and fun) to do that task collaboratively or interdependently with another peer or adult.


Questions for reflection:

  • What is your understanding of the term ‘natural supports’?
  • Why are the potential benefits of peer buddies or mentors?
  • What does the concept of ‘reciprocity’ mean to you?
  • When you hear the phrase ‘just enough support’, what image or scenario comes to mind for you?
  • How do schools in your district intentionally facilitate social connections and friendships for students with significant disabilities?