What is a Peer Partner?
A peer partner is a student who can effectively assist a special-needs or challenged student without pushing, controlling, or dominating them. It is an interpersonal way to encourage classroom community and friendship by creating a symbiotic peer relationship. I am not suggesting in any way that one must seek out peer partners for special-needs students, only that one be aware of and encourage these relationships when they occur organically. When you notice a peer relationship forming, or have an exceptionally nurturing student, it may be beneficial to occasionally partner that student up with your special-needs student.
Special-needs students can feel lost or overwhelmed by the rigors of a mainstream classroom. They may find comfort in the fact that the person next to them can point out where the class is while reading, help them find their eraser, or gently remind them what question they should be focused on during math. These little supports will help your students feel more secure in their surroundings and less out of the loop.
If it seems appropriate, consider having your peer partners sit at the same table group. Quietly ask the partner to help your special-needs student follow along or keep on track. Prompt other students in that group to work together, encouraging all students to participate and help each other if necessary. If your special-needs student seems more focused with or engages well with their peer partner, have them line up together for class outings or while walking through campus. When it comes to pair-share activities or group work, have your special-needs student in a group of three, where they can observe how the other two students engage socially and academically. Try to be aware of how often you pair a particular child with your special-needs student. Don’t pair them up too obviously or too often. Also, try to establish support for your special student with as many peers as possible.
Costs and Benefits
There are costs and benefits to peer partnerships that need to be considered prior to encouraging them. Because special-needs students are all so different in their diagnosis and behavioral needs, a peer partner may not be appropriate, and may actually make the special-needs student uncomfortable or frustrated. The peer partner may feel expected to assist and also become frustrated or harbor animosity towards this special student. Other students may tease the peer partner unnecessarily, causing stress and social anxiety. Bleak as that all seems, under the right circumstances, peer partnerships can be greatly beneficial to all involved. The special-needs student may feel more comfortable in the classroom and more integrated socially. The peer partner may appreciate the extra attention and responsibility. Other students may see this and come to accept your special-needs student as a real part of the classroom and be less likely to engage in teasing or social neglect.
The Bottom Line
Educate your class on the types of behaviors and needs of your special student. Encourage them to ask honest questions, and let them know they may be asked to help out once in a while. Peer partnerships are not about two students working together; they’re about all students working together. When you notice a relationship forming, encourage it to grow, fostering a caring classroom community through exposure, honesty, and friendship.
Here are some other books or online articles you may find helpful:
This is a link to the Instructional Strategies web site.
Partner with Special-Needs Classmates
This article focuses on the success one school has had with peer partners.
Best Books for Special-Needs Kids
A site containing several titles of wonderfully written children’s books that are all focused on characters that have developmental or physical disabilities.