Research News

Students helping students: a guide for developing social skills in students with disabilities

Click here to watch video of Craig Kennedy discussing Peer Support Strategies.

Students helping other students learn has been proven to boost academic achievement and social skills in students with and without disabilities. A new book by Vanderbilt University researchers, Peer Support Strategies for Improving All Students’ Social Lives and Learning, based on over 20 years of research in the field, offers teachers practical guidelines for implementing these peer support strategies in the classroom.

“We have found that the best programs emphasize similarities, not differences, between students with disabilities and those without,” Craig Kennedy, professor of special education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of education and human development and a co-author of the new book, said. “For the kids with disabilities, their non-disabled peer is a role model, academically, behaviorally and socially. And for the peer helper, they learn to see these students as individuals and friends, not just as ‘that disabled kid.'”

The purpose of the new book is to translate research Kennedy and his co-authors, Erik W. Carter and Lisa S. Cushing, have undertaken over the last 20 years in classrooms across the country into a step-by-step guide that teachers can use to structure and implement peer support programs.

The book provides detailed guidelines for identifying students most likely to benefit from having or being a peer support; recruiting participants; developing plans that promote access to the general curriculum for students with disabilities; aligning peer support goals and programs with state and federal standards; providing training for students, teachers and staff; extending peer support outside of the classroom to social and extracurricular events; and evaluating the effectiveness of the programs within a school.

“A research project we published in 1994 was the first to use other students, rather than a paraprofessional, to work with students with disabilities in a general education classroom,” Kennedy said. “We found that this peer support greatly facilitated the students with disabilities inclusion in the classroom. The students with disabilities met more people, made more friends and also benefited from peer instruction on classroom material.

“We also saw academic improvements in some of the peers,” Kennedy continued. “A students maintained their performance, but students who were previously earning Bs, Cs, Ds, and Fs improved academically. Because they were helping other students, they also seemed more engaged and more willing to ask for help than when working on their own.”

The book “convey(s) a hopeful perspective and genuine excitement about our opportunities to improve the quality of life for students with disabilities,” Michael F. Giangreco, professor in the Department of Education and Center on Disability and Community Inclusion at the University of Vermont, wrote in a review of the book.

It is “a tested road map for getting peer support in real schools,” Marti Snell, professor at the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia, also wrote.

Kennedy said peer support programs function best in schools that have formal structures, training and administrative support in place to implement them, and when a paraprofessional is in the classroom with the teacher to assist both the students with disabilities and their peer supports.

Kennedy is chair of the Vanderbilt Peabody Department of Special Education and an investigator at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development. Carter is an assistant professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and conducted research for the book while a post-doctoral student at Vanderbilt. Cushing is an assistant professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

For more information about Peabody College, ranked the No. 2 education school in the nation by U.S. News & World Report in 2008, visit

Media contact: Melanie Moran (615) 322-NEWS