Peer Buddies in the Special Education Classroom
In years past, we would have a General Education teacher and his/her students, usually one grade level up, join us for reading time, or a fun activity. Sometimes it went well, and other times not so much. The intentions were good, but while some of my kids really bought into it, others didn’t, or really just couldn’t. So I thought, how can I have my students benefit from this experience? Then, it hit me. Like so many Sped classrooms, we may have a mixed bag of tricks, depending on the year. This year my roster consists of behaviors, varying cognitive and academic abilities, as well as a great big heap of social skills needs.
The first thing I did was to rearrange my classroom to encourage peer buddy interaction amongst my own students. At first I thought this setup may not work well because a few may have “desk spread” and avoid the personal space rule. Much to my surprise, after just a few reminders, hands and feet were well within boundaries (papers not so much, but that’s another topic).
By setting our classroom up this way, it encourages the children to “watch” one another, especially during a whole group activity, such as during morning calendar activities, science, a game, really anything. My students also liked sitting this way, so we were off to a great start. Now remember, my students range in abilities, and initially some of my students weren’t especially excited about helping a peer that didn’t really acknowledge what they had done. One student even pushed the child away. But, we kept trying and eventually it worked. Of course, that’s where my role came in by thanking and providing praise for my special helpers.
How can I use peer buddies in my classroom?
Answer: If your students are on the similar learning level, you can pair them up in “teams”. The one that needs more help will never realize this. Students can be very successful working together. For students who have significant cognitive impairments, the buddy system can still be used as a learning tool. You will obviously need an adult to monitor the interactions, even hand-over-hand if necessary. Children will copy one another and this can lead to both academic, communication, and social gains.
There are too many behaviors in my class to try this. Can it actually make things better?
Answer: I know that it may seem impossible when you first try it, but children will have opportunities to interact with others, and that may be a very favorable lure. Have patience, as it depends upon how severe the behaviors are. If this is viewed as a positive activity and can be earned as a reward, then you’ve already begun to mold a turn in behavior. With children who need lots of reinforcement, don’t give up. Try, try, again is the motto here.
What about social skills? I have a student who just wanders around the playground reciting movie lines.
Answer: The response here is, ME, TOO! (See picture below!) They are playing a “pile up” hand game together and you would never be able to guess which child used to walk around the playground by himself!
Both you and your assistant will be part of the play group as you initiate the interaction. This is a huge IEP goal for many students, and once you begin to see any play interaction at all, it’s time for you to step back and watch. If the student interacts briefly, keep modeling. Then, form “play groups” and if your student plays, runs, or interacts in any way, you’ve made progress!
Teacher Reminders for Peer Buddy Success:
- Kids are kids and may not always express themselves the way we expect them to. If a child refuses to participate as a peer buddy, allow him/her to watch other “groups” work/play/teach together.
- Give it time. The gains can be tremendous as I have witnessed in my own classroom.
- Provide incentives. When you notice a child really giving it their all, acknowledge it. A little reward’s effects can be long lasting.
- Never call the “higher” student, the teacher. Neither student show be totally aware of who is being helped more.
- Take pictures, please! As you try this in your classrooms, please send us pictures of your work in progress (due to privacy concerns, no faces in pictures, please). We will not post them, but would love to see how you implemented peer buddies in your classroom!
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