Peer to Peer and Unified Champion Schools Collaboration
This article originally appeared in START Connecting in May 2022.
How do you create a culture in your school that promotes friendships and inclusiveness for all students 365 days a year? A collaboration between START’s Peer to Peer and Special Olympics’ Unified Champion Schools (UCS) is a powerful resource that accomplishes all of those goals. While the strategy of the two evidence-based programs varies, the outcomes of the programs are the same. Peer to Peer and UCS both result in inclusivity, friendships through a participation model, and acceptance for all students in the school community.
What is Peer to Peer?
Peer to Peer is a school-wide program designed to increase academic, independence, and social engagement opportunities for students with autism and other disabilities. This is achieved by inviting multiple peers without disabilities to learn about their schoolmates with developmental or intellectual disabilities. Peer education gives students knowledge and skills that demystify disabilities and increase understanding and acceptance. Students learn to advocate with, and for students with disabilities.
Set up in pairs or a small group during a variety of school and extracurricular activities, peers model typical academic and social behavior while students with disabilities can practice and use skills in natural contexts by learning from peers in a positive and dignified manner. Authentic relationships form as students actively participate in activities together. In other words, Peer to Peer is a formal pathway for ensuring students with and without disabilities can meet, learn about, and develop friendships while receiving guidance and support from educators (Ziegler et al., 2020). Although each Peer to Peer program is different, the results are the same: improved outcomes for students with ASD as well as a more positive, accepting school culture for all.
What is Unified Champion Schools (UCS)?
The Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program is aimed at promoting social inclusion through intentionally planned and implemented activities affecting systems-wide change. With sports as the foundation, the three-component model offers a unique combination of effective activities that equip young people to participate in sports, leadership opportunities, and classrooms together. This creates a school climate of acceptance, where students with disabilities feel welcome and are routinely included in and feel a part of, all activities, opportunities, and functions.
This is accomplished by implementing inclusive sports, inclusive youth leadership opportunities, and whole-school engagement. The program is designed to be woven into the fabric of the school, enhancing current efforts and providing rich opportunities that lead to meaningful change in creating a socially inclusive school that supports and engages all learners. Similar to Peer to Peer, UCS programs vary greatly from school to school, based on the needs, goals, schedules, and other factors unique to each school; but the basic building blocks remain the same.
(Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools®, 2022)
Collaboration of Peer to Peer and UCS:
UCS and Peer to Peer programs are mutually inclusive! It’s not one program or the other, it can be both! They complement and strengthen each other and lead to powerful outcomes. Nate Vande Guchte, Special Education Teacher for Zeeland Schools, notes, “Peer to Peer and UCS are two evidence-based programs with the same, simple goals: inclusion, participation, and friendships.” With both programs, students with and without disabilities interact within typical settings, which leads to authentic relationships where all students benefit.
There are endless opportunities through a Peer to Peer and UCS collaboration! Whether students are in the classroom or playing sports, both Peer to Peer and UCS creates authentic engagement from all students. Participation in the two programs ensures that all students develop knowledge. Subsequently, knowledge sparks acceptance. Acceptance ignites opportunities. Opportunities lead to inclusion. Expectations are raised. The end result is powerful: improved outcomes for all.
Written by: Lindsey Harr-Smith, M.A., CCC-SLP
- Collaboration between Peer to Peer and UCS
- Zeeland Public Schools: LINKs and UCS Program (video)
- zLinks: Zeeland Public Schools Peer to Peer Program
- Peer to Peer:
- Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools®. (2022). Special Olympics. Retrieved May 19, 2022, from https://www.specialolympics.org/what-we-do/unified-champion-schools.
- Ziegler, M., Matthews, A., Mayberry, M., Owen-DeSchryver, J., & Carter, E. W. (2020). From Barriers to Belonging: Promoting Inclusion and Relationships Through the Peer to Peer Program. Teaching Exceptional Children, 20(10), 1-9.