Carter, Cushing, and Kennedy's new book entitled Peer Support Strategies for Improving All Students' Social Lives and Learning is the book I wished I owned several years ago when I was teaching public school. In this well-researched book, the authors undertake the important work of improving the social lives of middle and high school students with and without disabilities. More specifically, the book focuses on providing natural peer supports to students with disabilities, instead of relying on the more commonly used paid adult supports (i.e., paraprofessionals and one-on-one supports). Situated within the context of general education, the authors' goal is to share the necessary evidence-based research on the topics of inclusion and peer supports.
Carter et al. offer several chapters on how to create the context for and the practice of peer support. These items include chapters on creating effective support plans and identifying potential peer support partners. Most groundbreaking are the two chapters on how to equip general education students to provide thoughtful and respectful academic and social supports to their peers with disabilities and how to implement these peer supports in the classroom. Last, the authors provide a well-articulated chapter about how to assess or evaluate student progress.
This book contributes a great deal to the literature because it offers a counter-narrative to both the traditional forms of support so deeply woven into schools across the country as well as to the commonly held constructions of “special education.” Carter et al. see the inclusive classroom as the necessary context for both peer support and social relationships. Because 54% of the 6 million students with disabilities are included in general education classrooms for over 80% of their day (U.S. Department of Education, 2006), a common strategy is to provide one-on-one support. Currently, there is a ratio of one special education paraprofessional for every 17 students with disabilities (Giangreco, Hurley, & Suter, 2009). However, as more services are being integrated into the classroom, adult support is not always the most natural or preferred support.
I often witness adults providing support to students with disabilities that unnecessarily draws attention to that support or to the student's perceived need for support. Their actions are often too intensive and invasive. I see students with disabilities clustered together at one table, awkwardly flanked by a paraprofessional and seated by the door, or being physically manipulated by an adult to correct behavior. I see adults sitting unnecessarily close to students during lectures or providing too many verbal prompts. Many times, this invasive support interferes with the natural flow of the classroom, student interaction, and community membership. When support becomes invasive, it undermines the purpose of inclusion.
The research in this area is clear. Invasive adult support has various inadvertent, detrimental effects on students with disabilities. Twelve years ago, Giangreco, Edelman, Luiselli, and MacFarland (1997) listed the following negative effects of paraprofessional proximity: (a) separation from classmates, (b) unnecessary dependence on adults, (c) interference with peer interactions, (c) insular relationships between the paraprofessional and the student, (d) feelings of stigmatization, (e) limited access to competent instruction, (f) interference with teacher engagement, (g) loss of personal control, (h) loss of gender identity, and (i) provocation of behavior problems. Subsequent research has also found that another key detrimental impact of adult support is interference with creativity (Causton-Theoharis & Burdick, 2008).
This book offers a clear alternative to this invasive adult “assistance”—peer support, defined by these authors as “arranging for one or more peers without disabilities to provide ongoing social and academic support to their classmates with severe disabilities while receiving guidance and support from paraprofessionals, special educators, and or general educators” (p. 10). The authors identify the individuals who can best support students and provide “how-to” specifics on teaching general education students how to best support their peers. A full orientation and training effort is outlined, with clear roles and responsibilities for all of the adults present in the classroom. What Carter et al. suggest is a rich and sophisticated form of peer support. This work moves beyond peer partnering—in that students without disabilities are oriented to their new roles, taught basic support strategies, and given ongoing feedback.
This book would have been strengthened if the authors had addressed some of the direct barriers to using peer supports so common in schools today, with specific strategies to address these obstacles. These barriers include the lack of understanding and knowledge necessary to create these supportive peer partnerships and the reality that many students do not receive inclusive services. In addition, negative assumptions are often made about students with significant disabilities, and, for peer support to become a reality, teachers need to assume social relationships are needed, wanted, and possible for all students. Another issue that needs to be addressed is friendship and the fact that students with disabilities can potentially be friends with students in the general education setting. Last, the book would have benefited from addressing the problems with helping relationships. Vander Klift and Kunc's (1994) book chapter, “Hell Bent on Helping,” offers some suggestions to overcome the potential stigma of the helping relationship.
Overall, Carter, Cushing, and Kennedy offer a carefully constructed argument for peer supports and the tools to implement and evaluate the use of these strategies. The authors effectively articulate that peer supports relate directly to a student's quality of life. If used well, this work has the potential to change the face adult support in inclusive education today. Peer Support Strategies for Improving All Students' Social Lives and Learning is certainly a needed guide for any educator.