In recent years, peer-mediated instruction and intervention (PMII) has emerged as a fruitful evidence-based practice in special education. In this approach, general education peers are trained by a social worker, teacher or other adult facilitator to provide mediation in social interactions and group learning, and tutoring in mild behavioral concerns. PMII may appear in a variety of forms, such as peer tutoring, peer modeling, a “lunch club” or even person-centered planning, according to the needs of individuals and school populations. But there are commonalities among the most effective PMII programs, which have proven benefits for both the focus person and his or her peers.
The focus person’s informed consent is the cornerstone of peer-to-peer support. The process begins with the facilitator explaining PMII privately to the focus person. If the focus person chooses to move forward, then he or she can recommend friendly peers to the facilitator or suggest situations in which peer-to-peer support would be welcomed. Some individuals with disabilities want nothing to do with PMII, perceiving it as an artificial construct for friendship. And, some may be uncomfortable with another aspect: for example, my son felt that it was interfering with his valuable recess time, and he chose to find a way to balance peer-to-peer support in his schedule. The dignity of the focus person is always the primary consideration in PMII.
The facilitator is responsible for the ongoing training of volunteers. Usually, this training starts with a presentation of basic information about disabilities, or a short video followed by discussion. My son’s classmates were hungry for this information, and there was a waiting list of volunteers who wanted to learn how to interact with him. They were full of questions and ideas to encourage and engage him. As the training progressed, it involved less lecturing and more role-playing and creative problem-solving sessions.
The purpose of PMII is not only to provide support for the focus person; it is at its heart an opportunity for every person to make a valuable contribution and to feel supported. Teamwork is the best way to combat the patronizing attitudes (“we” are here to help “them”) that can undermine an entire PMII program. Team-building exercises help to emphasize the reciprocal nature of relationships, and these activities turned out to be my son’s favorite part of his peer-to-peer support group. Here are some examples of exercises that can be done during a lunch or recess period:
- Obstacle course in which some team members are blindfolded and must be led to the goal.
- Alphabet game in which each team member must take a turn spelling one letter of a word to build a silly sentence.
- Scavenger hunt for components to build a structure.
- Bingo game using interesting facts about participants, who have to check off each fact as they interview each other.
- Build a stack of paper cups without using hands (provide strings attached to a rubber band to use as a tool).
- Old-fashioned three-legged relay race.
Students need less-structured time to build relationships with each other and develop emerging social skills. In addition, PMII is more likely to have a successful outcome for all participants when fun is involved. A 15-minute recess or dance party just for the peer group can be very attractive to students. Open-ended activities such as a group craft or a recipe in the kitchen are rewarding and supportive of the group’s goals. My son was having difficulty remembering the names of all of the students in his group, so he took photos and will work with his group to make a scrapbook.
The Lunch Club
Even with these basic elements, the structure of PMII varies widely from one program to the next. One of the most frequently adopted programs is a relatively casual Lunch Club that meets once a week with a facilitator. The peer group spends the lunch hour socializing and playing games. On other days of the week, the group may choose to sit together in the cafeteria, play together during recess, assist each other with transitions and identify opportunities to work together in class.
Circle of Friends
The Circle of Friends is a type of person-centered planning, a process of self-determination that has been successful for children, adolescents and adults. The focus person first names the individuals who offer support in various areas of life: at home, at school, in a house of worship, in a medical setting and so on. The facilitator then gives a presentation on disability awareness to the focus person’s peers; the focus person may choose to be present or absent from the presentation, depending on his or her comfort level. Volunteers are selected from the peers for further training. The group has regular meetings, discussions and play time to build relationship skills that continue to grow outside the meetings. The intent is to provide a proactive group that moves with the focus person through the school years into adulthood.
LINK is a combination of inclusion and PMII developed by Statewide Autism Resources and Training (START) at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. A large group of peers is trained to support and interact with fellow students with disabilities, and small groups of those peers are strategically placed in classes, the lunchroom and recreational activities with students with disabilities. Using “reverse mainstream classrooms” with 10 to 16 students, evenly split between students with disabilities and LINK peers, classes follow a grade-level curriculum with students working together in pods. According to the LINK training manual, the purpose of the program is not “a quick fix,” but rather “to involve special education teachers, general education teachers, paraprofessionals, administrators, and general education students, all in an informed process to enhance opportunities for the students with autism.”
One reason that students with and without disabilities benefit from PMII is that they all learn the value of social interdependence. Interdependence is necessary for everyone as we gather information and move forward in life, and it is learned through practice–it isn’t necessarily intuitive. Networking, assisting and receiving assistance are significant life skills that improve the quality of life for all participants in PMII.