"Caring communities in which all participants share common purposes and ideals are advocated as a means of character and citizenship development and fostering a sense of tolerance, acceptance, and belonging among increasingly culturally, economically, and academically diverse school populations" (Hughes & Carter, 2008, p. 8-9).
Peer to peer support is an evidence-based approach that supports students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that can be expanded to help integrate students at risk for suspension and expulsion into the school community. Peer to peer support programs can proactively improve student engagement in the school community and teach social and problem solving skills that result in behavior and academic success.
The state of Michigan is fortunate to have a comprehensive, well-formulated peer to peer support model, called LINKS, which has been implemented, promoted, and supported by educators, parents, and students for many years. The purpose of peer to peer support programs is to provide increased opportunities for students with ASD to access general education students and the general education curriculum. Peers model typical academic and social behavior in educational environments throughout the school day and provide support for students with ASD to promote independence and socialization. Peer to peer support programs and inclusion of students with ASD not only affects outcomes for the students with ASD, but can also impact a number of outcomes for typical peers and at risk students. Several studies have described benefits for peers such as improvements in academic competence, increased awareness and greater understanding of disabilities and the development of new skills. At-risk students and students with other academic and behavioral issues serving as LINKS have experienced additional benefits including decreased behavior referrals, increased grades, and increased attendance. For more information about peer to peer support programs, read the Focus on Results article.
In the past several years, staff and administrators from schools across Michigan have received training from staff at the Statewide Autism Resources and Training Project (START) to replicate the LINKS model. At this time, there are over 200 peer to peer support programs supporting students with ASD across the state, operating at both a small and large scale for students from elementary to high school.
When students at risk for suspension and expulsion and academic failure become part of a peer to peer support program in a building, they are participating with school staff and peers to help students with ASD to be successful in the school community. It provides them with purpose, goals, and activities that are positively focused. At risk students who serve as a peer to a student with ASD alongside another peer learn to model appropriate behavior and use problem solving skills, and peers learn to work together on common goals and become part of a program that is valued by their school community. This participation and engagement has led to positive changes in attitude about school and also changes in staff attitude about students. A visual depiction of this model is shown below.
Pilot Sites with Disproportionate Suspension and Expulsion of African-American Students
In partnership with the Office of Special Education, START will work with a small number of pilot districts identified with disproportionate suspension and expulsion of African American students with IEPs to evaluate whether peer to peer support can reduce behavior referrals and increase school engagement for these students. If the approach shows evidence of effectiveness, the work can be expanded to other school buildings and districts.
Support to Pilot Sites
Sites that are implementing peer to peer support programs to address both their population of students with ASD and students at risk for suspension and expulsion will receive training opportunities, technical assistance, and funding to offset costs associated with attending trainings and meetings. Funding to cover costs for each building to set up a program will range from $2,000-3,500 based on a budget proposal by the school system.
Expectations from Sites
Sites will be expected to work in collaboration with the START Project to set up a peer to peer program for students with ASD in high school buildings in the district that have African-American students at risk for suspension and expulsion. Program development will include:
Pilot sites participating in the project will be asked to work with the START Project to collect the following data:
For more information, contact the START office at 616-331-6480.
Peer to Peer Support has the potential to establish a platform where all students and faculty come together to provide alternative solutions and approaches in education, that can genuinely address the diversity in our schools and a sense of belonging for all learners.