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Academic effects of providing peer support in general education classrooms on

students without disabilities

Article  in  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis · February 1997

DOI: 10.1901/jaba.1997.30-139 · Source: PubMed


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2 authors, including:

Lisa A Cushing
University of Illinois at Chicago


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We studied the academic effects on peers without disabilities of serving as peer supports
for students with disabilities in general education classrooms. Three peers were studied
using a range of indicators, including academic engagement, coursework performance,
and social validity assessments. Peers assisting a student with disabilities via curricular
adaptation, assignment completion, and social facilitation constituted the multicompo-
nent independent variable. We used withdrawal or multiple baseline designs to demon-
strate positive benefits for peers for all measures used. In addition, follow-up data for 2
peers indicated that the positive changes associated with serving as a peer support were
maintained for up to 2 months. Our results are discussed in relation to the possible
academic and social effects of providing peer supports in general education classrooms
for students with and without disabilities.
DESCRIPTORS: peer supports, peer-mediated instruction, general education partic-
ipation, inclusive education, students with severe disabilities, academic engagement

Attempts are being made to develop a disabilities in general education classrooms,

more comprehensive system for supporting researchers have begun to develop and study
a diverse range of students within general peer-mediation strategies (Dugan et al.,
education settings (Gartner & Lipsky, 1987; 1995; Franca, Kerr, Reitz, & Lambert, 1990;
Sailor, 1991; Skrtic, 1991; Wang, 1989). To Greenwood et al., 1984; Hunt, Staub, Al-
accomplish the inclusion of students with well, & Goetz, 1994; Kennedy & Itkonen,
1994; Lloyd, Crowley, Kohler, & Strain,
This report is based on a thesis submitted by the 1988; Werts, Caldwell, & Wolery, 1996). A
first author to the University of Hawaii in partial ful- hallmark of these approaches is the use of
fillment of the requirements of the MEd degree. The
research was supported by a grant from the U.S. De- peers without disabilities to provide academ-
partment of Education, Office of Special Education ic support to students with disabilities.
and Rehabilitative Services (Contract H086D40009). These strategies require peers without dis-
The opinions presented in this article do not neces-
sarily reflect the positions or policies of the U.S. De- abilities to actively promote the participation
partment of Education, and no official endorsement of students with disabilities.
is implied. To date, clear benefits have been demon-
The authors express their appreciation to Lorraine
Dale Henderson (principal) and the teachers and staff strated for students with disabilities who
of Kailua Intermediate School for their support and participate in peer-mediated programs in
participation in the study. We are particularly appre- general education classrooms (e.g., Kennedy
ciative of the competent assistance of Faye Irvine. Ap-
preciation is also extended to Jun Feng, Moira Fin- & Itkonen, 1994; Werts et al., 1996). What
nefrock, Dale Fryxell, Kristin Hasselbacher, Julia remains unclear are the potential outcomes
Kiehl, and Tae-Hoon Oh for their assistance with data for peers without disabilities who participate
collection. We also thank Mary Jo Noonan and Smita
Shukla who served on the thesis committee. as educational supports. Because peer-me-
Address correspondence and reprint requests to diated instruction requires peers to engage in
Craig H. Kennedy, Department of Psychiatry, Medical additional classroom activities above and be-
College of Pennsylvania and Hahnemann Medical
School, One Allegheny Center 510, Pittsburgh, Penn- yond what is required of most students, con-
sylvania 15212-4772 (E-mail: cerns have been raised regarding possible


negative effects on students without disabil- mental question focused on whether serving
ities (Kauffman & Hallahan, 1994). Al- as a peer support would have positive or neg-
though empirical studies of these concerns ative effects on academic engagement and
are sparse, recent studies by Dugan et al. associated measures for the peers without
(1995) and Hunt et al. (1994) lend credence disabilities.
to the use of peer-mediated strategies. These
authors found that working in classroom-
wide cooperative learning arrangements pro-
vided positive academic and social benefits Students and Classes
for those involved. What Dugan et al.’s and The study took place at a suburban inter-
Hunt et al.’s analyses point to are some pos- mediate school that served approximately
sible benefits for peers without disabilities 1,100 students from culturally, economical-
from participating in heterogeneous class ar- ly, and ethnically diverse backgrounds. The
rangements. school adopted an inclusive approach to ed-
Although group learning arrangements ucation for the entire student population
appear to provide many potential benefits (Sailor, 1991). That is, all students who were
for students (Slavin, 1990), not all teacher eligible for special education were provided
and classroom approaches lend themselves to those services while participating full-time in
classroom-wide group approaches (Cosden general education settings. The students se-
& Haring, 1992). In acknowledgment of lected for participation in the study formed
this observation, additional peer-based strat- three dyads, each comprised of 1 peer with-
egies are being developed. One approach is out disabilities and 1 student with moderate
to have a smaller number of peers serve as to severe disabilities.
supports during lectures and other classroom The focus for selecting peers was to iden-
activities. This peer support approach in- tify individuals who were infrequently aca-
cludes one or more peers without disabilities demically engaged. Peers without disabilities
working with a student with disabilities to were selected using the following criteria: (a)
adapt course curricula and assignments and They were in the same class as a student
to serve as a social facilitator (Gaylord-Ross with moderate to severe disabilities, (b) they
& Pitts-Conway, 1984; Haring & Breen, expressed interest in working with a student
1992; Jorgensen, 1992; Kennedy & Itkonen, with disabilities, and (c) their academic en-
1994). Because peer supports are emerging gagement with class activities was identified
as one of several options for educating stu- by the general education teacher as being be-
dents with disabilities in general education low that of other students. These criteria
classrooms, additional analyses of this ap- were used to identify peers in classrooms
proach are needed. where a student with moderate to severe dis-
The current study was undertaken to bet- abilities also participated. If a peer was iden-
ter understand the effects of peer support tified in a classroom and both peer and stu-
strategies on participating students. In par- dent agreed to work together, they formed a
ticular, we were interested in the effects on peer support dyad.
adolescents without disabilities who served Cindy and Cathy. Cindy and Cathy were
as peer supports for students with disabili- paired in an English class composed of 32
ties. We used single-case tactics to study the students. The physical arrangement of the
possible effects on individual student dyads classroom was a right-angle, column-by-row
comprised of a student with disabilities and arrangement of chairs. Course content was
a student without disabilities. Our experi- presented to students primarily through

stand-up lecture, with occasional group classroom, and making extemporaneous

learning projects. Cindy was a 13-year-old comments during lectures. His records in-
girl without disabilities. Her English teacher dicated that he was not turning in his as-
stated that Cindy was a very quiet student signments and was receiving very low grades.
who drew little attention to herself, but had Leila was an 11-year-old girl with moderate
difficulty following directions, attending to intellectual disabilities. Leila was sociable,
classroom activities, and completing assign- but had difficulty expressing herself due to
ments. Cathy was a 13-year-old girl with se- poor articulation and a limited vocabulary.
vere multiple disabilities. Cathy communi- She needed assistance following directions,
cated with others by blinking her eyes when staying on task, and completing in-class as-
presented with yes-no questions. She had signments.
Rett syndrome and tracked objects or people
by gazing. She also expressed herself through Dependent Measures and Recording
smiling and laughing or shaking and crying. Because the study focused on the academ-
She required assistance with all activities. ic engagement of peers without disabilities,
Kealoha and Karl. A health class attended time on task was recorded for Cindy, Kea-
by Kealoha and Karl was selected for anal- loha, and Louie. Academic engagement was
ysis. The class had an enrollment of 35 stu- defined as a student attending to ongoing
dents and a physical arrangement and teach- classroom activities or engaging in work-re-
ing approach similar to the class previously lated assignments. A 1-min time-sampling
described. Kealoha was a 12-year-old boy strategy, in which observers recorded the
without disabilities. His health teacher iden- peer for 1 s at the end of each 1-min interval
tified Kealoha as having problems attending and noted the presence or absence of aca-
to class lectures and completing and return- demic engagement, was conducted through-
ing homework assignments. Karl was a out each classroom period (i.e., 55 min).
12-year-old boy with severe intellectual dis- Observers were special education personnel
abilities. Karl communicated using one- to who had been trained in the use of the mea-
three-word utterances, as well as gestures, surement system. In addition, for Kealoha,
pointing, and touching. Karl occasionally homework assignment completion and
engaged in pushing and kicking others and homework assignment scores were collected.
biting himself. If left unattended, he typi- Homework was typically assigned every oth-
cally roamed throughout the classroom. er school day, and in-class tests were admin-
Louie and Leila. Louie and Leila attended istered every 2 to 3 weeks. Homework as-
three general education classes with each signment completion was defined as Kealoha
other (English, social studies, and science). turning in his homework as required.
Each class had an enrollment of approxi- Homework assignment scores were derived
mately 30 students. The physical arrange- as percentages of the scores provided by the
ment and teaching approaches were similar general education teacher. The type of
to classes previously described. However, on course and the teacher’s approaches to test-
a weekly basis, the science teacher used a ing and recording test information precluded
variety of small-group learning strategies. the gathering of this information for Cindy
Louie was an 11-year-old boy without dis- and Louie.
abilities whose teachers indicated that he had
difficulty paying attention during class activ- Experimental Design and Procedure
ities. Louie occasionally disrupted class by Withdrawal (Cindy and Kealoha) and
talking to other students, roaming about the multiple baseline designs (Louie) were used

to compare baseline and intervention con- disabilities, including communication and

ditions (Barlow & Hersen, 1984; Leiten- relevant behavior management strategies,
berg, 1973). For Louie, baseline and inter- and how to adapt assignments to meet the
vention conditions across three classrooms students’ individualized education program
were the only procedures he was exposed to goals.
(the order of intervention was determined by Assignment adaptations for both in-class
data patterns in the various classes). For Cin- work and homework included taking notes
dy and Kealoha, additional conditions were for students with disabilities, revising those
necessary because of the withdrawal designs notes to accommodate the student’s learning
(see below). For each student, academic en- needs, and providing in-class instruction on
gagement data were collected each school assignment content. For example, Louie and
day over the course of the analysis. Home- Leila were asked to write a report on a for-
work and grading data for Kealoha were col- eign country in their social studies class and
lected as assigned by the teacher. to include a map of the country with various
Baseline. During baseline, Cindy, Kealo- cities labeled. For the map component of the
ha, and Louie participated in class activities assignment, Louie did the following: (a)
within the same teacher-specified structure identified specific cities and their correct
as other students in the class. No interac- spelling, (b) matched each city with a spe-
tions occurred between Cindy, Kealoha, or cific color, (c) had Leila select the appropri-
Louie and special education personnel or ate color for each section of the map and
students. During baseline, students with dis- color the area where the name was to be
abilities were given support by either a spe- written, (d) had Leila match the spelled
cial education teacher or an educational as- names with the colors, and (e) supervised
sistant. The goal of baseline was to assess the Leila while she wrote the correct name on
typical class performance of Cindy, Kealoha, the map. Similar adaptations occurred for
and Louie under routine classroom condi- other assignments for Louie and Leila as well
tions. The teacher provided primarily lec- as for the other two dyads.
ture-based information regarding curriculum Special education personnel taught Cindy,
content, with students expected to use texts Kealoha, and Louie to adapt assignments via
and take notes as assigned. verbal description, modeling, and praise for
Intervention. The intervention was based correct performances. This training occurred
on Cindy, Kealoha, and Louie serving as for several days, with special education per-
peer supports for students with severe dis- sonnel working directly with the students
abilities. Peer support was a multicomponent with and without disabilities for the length
intervention based on three primary ele- of the class period. Following this initial
ments: (a) the peer’s participation with a stu- training, peers without disabilities were told
dent with disabilities, (b) training and su- by special education personnel that it was
pervision by the special education teacher, their task to adapt assignments, provide in-
and (c) supervision by the general education struction, and facilitate the participation of
teacher. At the beginning of intervention, the student with disabilities in classroom ac-
student dyads were moved so that they sat tivities. When Cindy, Kealoha, and Louie
next to each other. Intervention began the had learned these tasks, special education
1st day by having special education person- personnel were continuously present in the
nel work with the student dyad. Initially, classroom (engaged in a variety of other
these personnel taught Cindy, Kealoha, and tasks) and commented on peer and student
Louie how to interact with the student with performance once approximately every 10

min. If Cindy, Kealoha, or Louie had diffi- sures were collected for Louie during 33%
culty with course content or how to adapt of observations in English class and 41% of
content, special education personnel provid- observations in social studies and science
ed assistance. Also, peers were given brief classes. Mean agreement for Cindy and Kea-
daily feedback regarding their performance loha was 88% (range, 70% to 100%) and
from special education personnel. In addi- 93% (range, 80% to 98%), respectively.
tion, the general education teachers were Measures for Louie yielded a mean agree-
asked to praise Cindy, Kealoha, and Louie ment of 89% in English class (range, 82%
at least once per class period when they were to 100%), 82% in social studies class (range,
serving as peer supports. 58% to 100%), and 88% in science class
Return to baseline. During the return to (range, 78% to 97%).
baseline, the original baseline conditions
were reinstated. As with the original baseline Social Validity Assessment
conditions, Cindy and Kealoha worked In addition to direct observation and per-
alone. To accomplish this, Cindy and Kea- manent product recording, we assessed
loha were told that the student with disabil- adults’ perceptions of the classroom perfor-
ities needed to work for ‘‘a few days’’ with mances of Cindy and Louie. Approximately
special education personnel. once per week, an observer watched Cindy
Reinstating intervention. A reintroduction or Louie throughout a class period and com-
of the peer support intervention began by pleted the Classroom Participation Checklist
telling Cindy and Kealoha at the end of class (CPC; Karoda, 1994). The CPC was a pa-
that the next day he or she could work with per-and-pencil checklist that contained a set
the student with disabilities. All other pro- of six questions relating to engagement in
cedures were consistent with the original in- classroom activities that were rated using a
tervention. 5-point Likert-type scale (see Table 1). Spe-
Follow-up. The peer support interventions cial education personnel or university grad-
continued following the termination of data uate students naive to the experimental
collection. At 1 month (Kealoha) and 2 question observed a student during the class
months (Cindy) after the analysis, follow-up and rated his or her performance at the end
observations were conducted to collect aca- of the class period.
demic engagement information (Louie was
not available for observation). RESULTS
Interobserver Agreement Cindy and Cathy
Interobserver agreement was obtained Figure 1 shows the percentage of intervals
through a second individual (a university of academic engagement during English
graduate student) who simultaneously but class for Cindy. These data demonstrate
independently observed and recorded aca- higher levels of academic engagement when
demic engagement for Cindy, Louie, and she served as a peer support for Cathy rela-
Kealoha. A frequency-ratio formula was used tive to when she worked alone. During the
to calculate interobserver agreement (Kaz- baseline observations when Cindy worked
din, 1982): The smaller total was divided by alone, she had a mean percentage engage-
the larger total and multiplied by 100%. ment of 38% (range, 0% to 76%), com-
Agreement measures were collected during pared with 86% (range, 47% to 97%) when
43% and 26% of observations for Cindy she was working with Cathy. At a 2-month
and Kealoha, respectively. Agreement mea- follow-up, her average percentage engage-

Table 1
Mean (Range) Across Conditions for the Classroom Participation Assessment for Cindy and Louiea

Cindy Louie
English English Social studies Science
Working Supporting Working Supporting Working Supporting Working Supporting
Variable alone Cathy alone Leila alone Leila alone Leila

Listens to
instructions 2.3 (1–4) 3.6 (3–4) 4.2 (1–5) 4.7 (4–5) 3.5 (1–5) 3.8 (2–5) 3.8 (1–5) 4.4 (4–5)
directions 2.2 (1–4) 3.6 (2–4) 4.3 (3–5) 4.7 (4–5) 3.3 (1–5) 3.6 (2–5) 3.6 (2–5) 4.4 (4–5)
Participates in
class activities 2.3 (1–5) 3.9 (2–5) 4.7 (3–5) 4.8 (4–5) 4.6 (2–5) 4.2 (3–5) 4.3 (1–5) 4.9 (4–5)
assignment 2.7 (1–5) 4.7 (4–5) 4.8 (4–5) 4.3 (1–5) 3.5 (1–5) 3.7 (3–5) 3.9 (2–5) 4.8 (2–5)
supplies 3.6 (2–5) 4.8 (4–5) 4.2 (1–5) 4.3 (1–5) 4.2 (1–5) 4.4 (3–5) 4.3 (2–5) 4.8 (4–5)
rules 2.9 (2–4) 3.6 (3–5) 4.2 (3–5) 4.6 (3–5) 3.7 (1–5) 3.8 (1–5) 3.6 (1–5) 4.6 (4–5)
Based on a 5-point Likert-type scale (1 5 never; 2 5 seldom; 3 5 often; 4 5 most often; 5 5 always).

ment when working with Cathy was 84%. observed when Kealoha supported Karl: (a)
In addition, the social validity assessment of The percentage of homework assignments
Cindy’s classroom participation indicated returned on time was 88%, compared with
that she was perceived by others as being 53% when working alone, and (b) the per-
more active in classroom activities (see Table centage of correct answers on homework as-
1). These data indicate that Cindy was more signments was 95% (range, 50% to 100%),
involved in academic activities when she compared with 80% when working alone
served as a peer support for a student with (range, 50% to 100%).
disabilities than when she worked by herself.
Louie and Leila
Kealoha and Karl Figure 3 presents the percentage of aca-
The outcomes regarding Kealoha’s aca- demic engagement per class for Louie. Levels
demic engagement are shown in Figure 2. of academic engagement were variable, but
The data for Kealoha demonstrate a clearly typically were moderate to high when he
differentiated pattern of responding between worked alone in English (M 5 66%; range,
conditions, with his supporting Karl associ- 25% to 83%), science (M 5 72%; range,
ated with higher levels of academic engage- 29% to 89%), and social studies classes (M
ment. Specifically, Kealoha’s average percent- 5 63%; range, 35% to 100%). However,
age of time engaged in health class was 51% when Louie served as a peer support for Lei-
when he worked alone (range, 25% to 76%) la, his levels of academic engagement in-
and 88% when he supported Karl (range, creased in English (M 5 90%; range, 84%
73% to 98%). When 1-month follow-up to 97%), science (M 5 92%; range, 84% to
probes were conducted, Kealoha had an av- 98%), and social studies classes (M 5 96%;
erage percentage of time engaged when sup- range, 93% to 98%). In support of these
porting Karl of 95%. In regard to homework direct observations, information gathered via
assignments, the following outcomes were the CPC assessment indicated small but
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