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(p. 5) Peers as Change Agents 

(p. 5) Peers as Change Agents
Chapter:
(p. 5) Peers as Change Agents
Author(s):

Renee O. Hawkins

, Mary Katherine Gerrard

, Christa L. Newman

, and Hannah McIntire

DOI:
10.1093/med-psych/9780190068714.003.0002
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date: 28 February 2021

Across theoretical perspectives, peers are recognized as having a significant role in child development (Gross-Manos, 2014). Peer interactions can support the development of a variety of cognitive skills, including language, problem-solving, and academic achievement (Parker, Rubin, Price, & DeRosier, 1995). Further, peers are critical for the social development of children, supporting the acquisition of social skills and facilitating overall socialization (Ladd, 2005). Research suggests that peer interaction can be important for learning and development at very young ages, as even infants can be influenced by peer models (Seehagen & Herbert, 2011). The imitation of peer models then continues throughout childhood and adulthood, with the influence of peers increasing with age (Gross-Manos, 2014). As children progress through adolescence, an increasing amount of time is spent with friends while less time is spent with family, providing more opportunity for peer influence (Brown, Bakken, Ameringer, & Mahon, 2008). There are strong correlations between a child’s behavior and that of their peers and these associations are well documented in the literature (Gross-Manos, 2014).

Although much of the research on peer influence has focused on the negative effects of this influence in the context of problematic health and mental health behavior (e.g., smoking, violence, delinquency), research indicates that peer influence also can have positive effects on behavior (Brown et al., 2008). For example, research suggests that children are more likely to engage in prosocial behavior if their friends engage in similar behavior (Choukas-Bradley, Giletta, Cohen, & Prinstein, 2015) and children’s views of their peers’ academic performance are positively associated with their own performance (Lynch, Lerner, & Leventhal, 2013). Several theories have been proposed to explain the mechanisms behind peer influence, including behavioral theory focusing on reinforcement from peers and group socialization theory focusing on the process of assimilation wherein children become increasingly focused on fitting in the behavioral systems outside (p. 6) the home (Gross-Manos, 2014). Regardless of the specific mechanisms, it is clear that peers play a critical role in the developmental pathways of children. As such, when developing strategies to promote positive behavior and academic achievement in schools, the role of peers should not be overlooked. The research on the role of peer influence in child development provides another layer of support for the use of peer-mediated interventions (PMIs) for instruction and intervention across academic and social-emotional domains. The remainder of this chapter further highlights the many advantages of using peers as change agents, providing specific recommendations for implementation success.

Advantages of Using Peers as Change Agents

Readily Available and Free Resource

The limited number of qualified educators working in schools can serve as a potential barrier to successful intervention implementation across general and special education settings. Although hiring additional teachers and intervention specialists would be ideal, this is often not feasible. Factors such as a lack of additional funding for, and/or scarcity of, potential qualified hires create a barrier for many school districts (Black, 2017). Issues with teacher staffing, such as lower rates of qualified teachers and higher rates of turnover, are even more prevalent within urban and rural areas (Ingersoll, 2001; Mason-Williams, 2015); however, the use of peers as interventionists is virtually free. Resources needed for PMI implementation are limited to the time and personnel required to train students in procedures and possible tangible/edible rewards that may be used to reinforce students’ behavior. Peers serve as an invaluable resource as they are readily available. With an estimated 16:1 pupil to teacher ratio (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019), there is an abundance of peers to choose from across classes and throughout the school day. By utilizing peers, teachers may maximize the number of students receiving an intervention and devote more time and resources to students who require additional, possibly more intense instructional and/or behavioral supports (Rohrbeck, Ginsburg-Block, Fantuzzo, & Miller, 2003). In addition, peers can be trained on a variety of academic or social skill interventions appropriate for small group or individualized implementation, depending on the needs of the teacher and classroom.

Increased Opportunities to Respond

Opportunities to respond (OTR) refer to the instructional technique in which an instructor enables the target student to actively participate by providing an instructional question, prompt, statement, etc. The target student emitting the correct response receives reinforcement whereas erroneous responses receive corrective feedback (Fitzgerald Leahy, Miller, & Schardt, 2019). OTRs are a critical (p. 7) component of effective instruction and intervention (Lentz, Allen, & Ehrhardt, 1996). OTRs provide the learning trials necessary for academic and behavioral skill development (Lentz et al., 1996). Increased OTRs are associated with higher levels of academic on-task behavior and lower levels of disruptive behavior (Simonsen, 2015). Increasing OTRs is exceptionally important to the academic and behavioral outcomes of students with disabilities. Students with emotional behavioral disorders (EBDs) often experience lower rates of OTRs to academic instruction (Sutherland, Wehby, & Yoder, 2002). When students with EBD have increased OTRs, they demonstrate higher rates of correct responses, increased task engagement, and decreases in disruptive behavior (Sutherland, Alder, & Gunter, 2003). Moreover, increased OTRs is associated with increases in positive academic outcomes for children with intellectual disabilities (IDs) in inclusive settings (Mortweet et al., 1999).

Through the use of PMIs, the instructor-to-student ratio essentially decreases. When this ratio decreases, target students may experience more OTRs to enhance learning. For example, in classwide peer tutoring (CWPT), the teacher–student ratio is reduced from 1:20 (or more) to 1:1. As a result of this reduced ratio, students can be afforded increased OTRs. Peer-mediated academic interventions (PMAIs), such as CWPT, enhance instruction for the target student and peer as both experience frequent OTRs; receive immediate, corrective feedback; and possibly benefit from increased time spent on the academic task (Bowman-Perrott et al., 2013). In addition to increasing academic OTRs, PMIs can increase OTRs for developing social skills through meaningful interaction during social skill intervention. PMIs can be socially significant for children who struggle with creating relationships with other peers by creating opportunities to engage and get feedback from their peers.

Promote Generalization

The goal of instruction is that a socially meaningful skill is acquired, generalized across settings and situations, and maintained over time; however, skill generalization cannot simply be assumed to occur.—It must be actively and extensively programmed. During the skill acquisition phase, generalization is programmed through the variation of stimulus and response targets, including instructors, materials, locations, times of the day, and stimulus cues (Smith & Gilles, 2003). Having peers serve as change agents allows for the target student to practice skills across settings, times, and people, especially in the context of meaningful social skill development (Watkins et al., 2015). Peers are typically present across instructional periods of the day and often are more available than teachers, who may be present for only certain times of the day and more limited in number.

When focusing on social skills, the use of peers is critical for the generalization of meaningful skills, such as initiation, turn-taking, or reciprocal conversation. Moreover, peers as change agents allow target students to practice skills with same-age peers. In a study conducted by Bambara and colleagues (2018), adolescents (p. 8) with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) practiced conversational skills with typically developing peers during lunch using cue cards. The conversational skills then generalized to novel peers. Another appropriate context for teaching social skills includes the playground. Instead of solely practicing social skills during a pull-out instructional session with an adult interventionist, target students learn in vivo during peer-mediated play at recess (Mason et al., 2014). Furthermore, the use of peers as change agents enables the target student to access natural reinforcement contingencies through interactions with peers. In a recent meta-analysis of peer-mediated social skills, eight out of nine studies reported positive generalization and maintenance effects (Watkins et al., 2015). Interestingly, all studies that reported generalization reported similar peer interventionist selection criteria: typically developing peers with language and social skills, regular attendance, high rates of compliance, and an interest in working with target peers.

While a large breadth of research focuses on the generalization of social skills, PMI and instruction have been demonstrated to increase academic skill generalization. A study conducted by Campbell and colleagues (1991) targeted written language skills, including capitalization, using PMI within a special education classroom. The targeted students and peer instructors demonstrated increases in capitalization within their writing logs as well as response generalization after the intervention ended.

Socially Valid and Culturally Relevant

When choosing to implement an intervention, educators gauge the potential for positive outcomes and the extent to which adoption of a procedure is feasible and aligns with current professional practice (Carter & Kennedy, 2006). PMIs are viewed as practical and feasible by educators within alternative settings and general education settings (Carter & Kennedy, 2006). PMIs are considered socially valid for the peers implementing the intervention. According to a meta-analysis of PMIs for students with intellectual disabilities (IDs), peers across studies reported high levels of satisfaction with the intervention and interest in continuing the procedures. Additionally, peer implementers viewed individuals with ID positively at the end of the intervention, reporting that they perceived the individual with ID as a friend and that they had much in common (Schaefer, Cannella-Malone, & Carter, 2016). PMIs also yield social validity evidence for use with individuals with ASD, as teachers view procedures to be manageable, beneficial to the student, and appropriate for the peer (Chan et al., 2009).

PMIs hold potential to have cultural relevance as well. Peer interventionists can be matched based upon gender, racial/ethnic background, or ability status (see Chapter 3 of this volume for a more complete discussion). However, the majority of current research on PMI focuses on matching peers and target students with varying ability statuses, such as ASD, ID, and EBD. More research is needed to examine the effects of gender, race/ethnicity, or communication skills on academic outcomes for peer management interventions (Dart, Collins, Klingbeil, & McKinley, 2014). (p. 9) Relying solely on a classroom teacher for instruction and intervention limits the demographic variables of the implementer (e.g., race/ethnicity, age, gender) to those of the teacher, whereas using peers as change agents expands these demographics to all represented by the pool of possible peer implementers, increasing the possibility that a student may work with an intervention agent more similar to themselves. This match may be particularly useful when supporting English Language Learner. Increasingly, teachers are providing instruction to students whose primary language is different than their own. Peers who speak the same language can help support instruction in the classroom throughout the day through PMI.

Increased Student Engagement with Intervention

At the core of all PMIs is that students are working together to promote positive academic and behavioral outcomes. Simply by the nature of the strategies relying on students working together, the procedures may be more engaging. As described earlier, peers play a critical role in child development and as children grow they generally show increased preference for peer interaction over adult interaction. By having students work with peers, instructional and intervention sessions may become more enjoyable than when they are led by an adult. Typically, peers have more shared interests and may feel more comfortable working with someone similar to themselves. As a result, students may be more engaged in sessions, increasing overall intervention effects. Greenwood and colleagues (1987) found higher rates of academic engagement and responding through PMI compared to teacher-mediated interventions. Similarly, Mortweet and colleagues (1999) found larger academic gains and higher rates of engagement during a CWPT program targeting spelling compared to teacher-led instruction.

Access Natural Reinforcement

Within PMIs, students can access several forms of natural reinforcement (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2020). First, students’ behaviors are reinforced through the positive peer interactions that are core to PMI procedures. Peer interventionists not only provide praise for accurate responding but also provide supportive encouragement throughout implementation. Peers also encourage appropriate behavior from the target student and contribute to social reinforcement through positive interactions that occur during sessions. Second, generalization of the student’s positive peer interactions during intervention sessions to other students within the classroom can aid in the formation of new friendships. Next, students may also access social reinforcement from teachers both within and outside intervention sessions. With improved academic performance or classroom behavior, students may experience more positive interactions with teachers as well. Finally, with improvements in academic skills and peer relations, students may find school to be a more positive and reinforcing experience overall.

(p. 10) Promote Social Skill Development

Regardless as to whether a PMI is designed to improve an academic skill or a specific social skill, PMIs have positive effects on students’ social behavior (Dart et al., 2014). By their nature, PMIs set the stage for ongoing peer interactions, irrespective of the focus of the intervention. Through reciprocal interactions, peers shape each other’s behavior by verbally or nonverbally reinforcing appropriate and acceptable social behavior and ignoring or punishing inappropriate behavior. For students who have social skills deficits, peer change agents can serve as models of appropriate behavior. In cases where students demonstrate appropriate social skills, PMIs provide continued opportunity to practice and further develop these skills through meaningful interactions with peers. Within the literature, Goldstein (1992) discusses the use of PMIs as one of the many strategies used to successfully increase appropriate social interactions between typically developing peers and peers with disabilities. Additionally, incorporating peers in the intervention has been shown to effectively increase social interactions (e.g., helping, sharing, cooperative play, empathy) with the target peers outside of the intervention setting (Goldstein et al., 1992). By using peers as change agents, there is an increase in social skills regardless of the targeted intervention because of the increased peer-to-peer interaction.

Support the Development of Peer Social Relationships

Beyond the targeted gains resulting from PMI implementation, an important secondary gain may be the development of friendships among students involved. PMIs involve ongoing interactions among peers that may evolve into positive social relationships outside the intervention sessions. This possibility may be especially important for students who do not have existing positive peer relationships, including students with disabilities. Fostering friendships that may not have naturally been formed can contribute to the target student making additional friends. Research suggests that school achievement and friendship quality affect each other (Zucchetti, Candela, Sacconi, & Rabaglietti, 2015). PMIs offer a method for potentially positively affecting both through one intervention plan.

Recommendations for Implementation

Selecting Appropriate Target Behaviors for PMI

Utilizing peers as interventionists can be an effective and efficient approach to addressing a variety of academic and behavioral concerns (Collins, Gresham, & Dart, 2016). Researchers have implemented PMIs to improve academic skills in reading, spelling, math, and social studies (Bowman-Perrott et al., 2013) as well as social skills including conversation skills, sharing, following directions, and (p. 11) engagement (Dart, McKinley, & Helbig, 2019). In theory, any behavior can be appropriate for PMI; however, it is critical that the behavior is clearly defined and the peer interventionist can accurately determine if the behavior has occurred or not. The target behavior should be defined in such a way that evaluation as to whether the response should be praised or corrected can easily be made by the peer interventionist. For example, if the peer is responsible for implementing a reading intervention, the peer needs to be able to accurately read the material themselves so they are able to provide accurate feedback to the target student. In another academic example, the peer may not have mastered the targeted math skills but could effectively provide feedback if they are provided a sheet with the solutions to the problems. Determinations of the appropriateness of PMIs for academic skills is arguably easier than determining the appropriateness of a PMI for social skills. Clearly defining social behavior while also including acceptable approximations may be challenging and, in turn, result in procedures that are difficult for peers to implement accurately. For PMIs targeting behavior, much attention must be given to creating clear, operational definitions so students inappropriate behaviors are not reinforced. Complex academic and behavioral skills should be broken down into steps to aid in teaching and evaluating a behavior, especially in the context of PMIs.

Training Students as Peer Interventionists

Training requirements vary across different PMIs. For example, peer-mediated group supports may require little to no peer training because they are often implemented by the classroom teacher (Dart et al., 2014). In contrast, peer tutoring, cooperative learning, and peer modeling interventions require that interventionists be formally trained to implement the intervention protocol (Dart et al., 2014). When crafting an intervention, much time and effort is focused on making sure there is a solid plan for the target student both in terms of introducing and implementing the intervention. When it comes to interventions where the peer has responsibility for implementation, significant time and effort should be dedicated to ensuring that the peer is appropriately trained. Intervention implementation can be complicated and involves many skills including giving prompts, providing positive reinforcement after desired target behaviors are demonstrated, and blocking specific target behaviors(Dart et al., 2014). One criticism of PMIs is the number of sessions and amount of time required to train and monitor the peers. Kohler and Strain (1990) advised researchers to include information about this in studies of PMIs so that feasibility could be weighed against intervention effectiveness. However, one could argue that PMI is efficient and will save time in the end. Once the peer is trained, teachers and staff will only be needed to monitor adherence and effects.

To ensure proper adherence to the intervention, one must thoroughly introduce expectations for the steps of the intervention using a detailed script and provide multiple practice opportunities. Examining several variables that may (p. 12) affect the outcomes of PMIs, Dart et al. (2014) found that the amount of time taken to train the peer was the only variable that meaningfully affected intervention effectiveness. Although it was unclear if intricate interventions that require more training are more effective than less intricate interventions or that simply more thoroughly trained interventionists are more effective, the results highlight the importance of preparing the peer interventionist in training (Dart et al., 2014). When creating a training plan, a good place to start is to use the gradual release of responsibility model, or “I do, you do, we do” approach, as it is straightforward and a highly effective plan for training (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983). This means first modeling the steps, then offering guided practice, and finally providing opportunities for independent practice (Kosanovich, 2012). Generous praise and corrective feedback should be utilized throughout this training model (Bear, 2010).

Careful Selection of Peers to Serve as Intervention Agents

There are many factors one must consider when selecting a peer to serve as an intervention agent; however, the most important is that the student is able to implement the plan as intended. The student must have the skills and motivation to follow the intervention script and accurately evaluate student performance. Previous research suggests that it is not critical that peers be matched by gender (Dart et al., 2014) or age (Wright & Cleary, 2006). However, based on social learning theory and the literature on children’s social development, if all other factors are equal, it may be preferable to select a peer interventionist who is similar to the target student. The best models for learning are as similar as possible to the learner (Bandura, 2001). Further, students respond well to those who are their own age and are empowered by being able to solve problems without perceived adult assistance (Myrick, 2002). If a peer is similar to the target student and is modeling the desired behaviors, the target student may better relate to them. Thus, they will better envision themselves also engaging in similar, appropriate behaviors. In the next chapter, we will further explore this concept of crafting culturally responsive interventions by selecting similar peers for PMI.

Another important consideration is the value of the peer interactions. Ideally, the peer interventionist would be a preferred peer for the target student, increasing the chances that the target student is engaged in the intervention and experiences positive peer interactions. For example, if a student looks up to an older peer and finds their experience and opinions valuable, they may be the best choice for implementation. If a peer is similar to the target student, but the student does not get along with them, they may not be an effective interventionist. The target student must feel comfortable enough with the peer interventionist to follow (p. 13) instructions, accept feedback for errors, receive praise for accurate responding, and positively engage in the procedures.

Ongoing Monitoring of Adherence and Retraining

Peer adherence to the intervention steps should be monitored frequently to ensure the intervention is being implemented as intended. It is important to check in regularly and make sure the peer understands the different steps of the intervention. A major element to emphasize to the peer is providing ample opportunities for reinforcement to the target student. Monitoring adherence to this part of the intervention is key so that the student recognizes when they are accurately responding and to ensure that the intervention is a positive experience.

Developing a plan for collecting adherence data is vital. To aid in the evaluation of adherence, it is helpful to define each component of the intervention in observable and measurable terms so that the occurrence or nonoccurrence of each step can be readily recognized (Kazdin, 2001). When collecting adherence data, direct assessments of adherence are more reliable than indirect measures and should be utilized whenever possible (Mowbray, Holter, Teague, & Bybee, 2003). However, indirect measures like permanent product reviews or student self-ratings can provide valuable additional information about the intervention delivery. It may be useful to vary the days adherence data are collected so the peer is not always expecting to be observed during implementation. This will give a more accurate representation of how the intervention is truly being implemented. If it becomes clear that the peer has misunderstood or forgotten a step, retraining may need to take place. Having a refresher with the script and opportunities to practice can help resolve these issues. Going back to the aforementioned modeling, guided practice, and independent practice can make the retraining a simple and effective process. Adherence to the intervention steps and/or active participation in the training can be incentivized through a system of reinforcement.

System for Reinforcing the Peer Interventionist’s Implementation

Although peers can serve as effective intervention agents, the real question is, will they? For PMIs to be effective, the peer must be motivated to participate. This means creating a system of reinforcement for the peer to make sure the role of interventionist is highly motivating. One should conduct a preference assessment with the peer and find what they are willing to work for to create an individualized plan for reinforcement. Praise and tangible rewards can be highly motivating, but there are other, more intrinsic motivators to consider as well. It is important to highlight the value and usefulness of the behaviors the intervention (p. 14) is targeting and then emphasize the importance of the peer’s role, as this can be just as reinforcing (Bear, 2010).

Conclusion

School systems are under ever-increasing pressure to meet the academic, behavioral, and social-emotional needs of students with often limited and decreasing resources. Peers are a readily available resource who can be leveraged for the benefit of all students through the implementation of PMIs. Although time and careful planning are required to set the stage for success during PMI implementation, these efforts can be well worth it to improve significant outcomes for students.

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