Peer Mentoring: A Potentially Beneficial Inclusion Strategy

Peer Mentoring: A Potentially Beneficial Inclusion Strategy

Among the many strategies and intervention programs that exist in education today, peer mentoring can be overlooked in spite of its potential.

Those not yet convinced of its value need look no further than a recent Minneapolis Star Tribune profile of Peer Insights, a suburban middle-school program that pairs students in special needs classrooms with typically functioning peers. As described by reporter Erin Golden:

“The middle-schoolers sit side by side in the classroom and [at] the lunch table, come together for special events like a dance marathon or the homecoming parade, and hang out on the weekend.”

Built on a basis of friendship, the program at Edina, Minnesota-based South View Middle School encourages students to play games together, talk, and otherwise get to know one another—but there is much more to it than that. Indeed, according to Golden, Peer Insights has “transformed the culture of the school,” with typically functioning students clamoring for the chance to mentor their peers who have special education needs. Simply put, the program is breaking down barriers among learners with different abilities and skill sets, and the school is becoming more authentically inclusive as a result.

In fact, it was students (under the leadership of one of the school’s special education teachers) who helped put the Peer Insights mentoring program in motion close to 10 years ago. As Golden reported, this teacher saw that the school's general education students wanted to connect with students who had special education needs—and yet, the two groups were often isolated in separate classrooms or programs.

Nearly a decade later, students are so inspired by the positive impact of this mentoring opportunity that, according to Golden, they are “imagining careers as special education teachers or paraprofessionals.”

Quantifying the positive impact of peer mentoring

Lending weight to the constructive work of the Peer Insights program, a 2018 report from the National Mentoring Resource Center (NMRC) took a close look at 40 studies that sought to quantify the impact and benefits of peer mentoring programs for special education students. 

The studies centered on four overarching questions:

  1. Are mentoring programs effective, and if so, how?

  2. What elements make up an effective mentoring program?

  3. How can mentoring programs be linked to outcomes for students with disabilities?

  4. When, where, and how have high-quality mentoring programs been established, implemented, and maintained?

According to the NMRC, carefully evaluating how to build a strong mentoring program is particularly important given the fact that the need for such initiatives is on the increase. Indeed, the report contended, students with disabilities are establishing a stronger presence at school and in society as a whole, thanks to advancements in medical care that “promote higher survival rates and life expectancy.”

However, these medical advancements don’t necessarily translate to an improved quality of life for students with special education needs. Indeed, many such individuals still face social isolation, fewer resources, and diminished future education and work opportunities—and this poses a significant human rights issue under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which states that young people with special needs deserve to be in inclusive settings that emphasize positive outcomes.

What makes a mentoring program successful?

With special education resources such as the website already advocating for cohesive classrooms that provide academic instruction and build social skills for students with typical and special needs, peer mentorship is becoming an attractive site-based strategy for bringing these students closer together. As the NMRC phrased it, the programs allow mentors to “teach or advise youth, offer support and coping strategies, and help them to feel less alone.”

Notably, the report did not deem any individual mentorship approach to be the most effective or beneficial—and nor should it, as students with disabilities are as varied as any other subsection of the student body. However, the report did highlight common program failures (e.g., lack of strong communication skills among students) and useful tactics observed over the course of the evaluation; in one example, a program that involved students conversing with one another about their future plans was considered successful because participants reported feeling more secure about their potential job and education options as a result. The NMRC ultimately contended that programs need funding, structure, clearly articulated goals, and disability-specific mentorship approaches to be successful.

While the Minneapolis Star Tribune did not break down the particularly effective elements of Peer Insights in detail, the program's success speaks for itself; visitors from near and far have come to see it in action, and South View Middle School even received an award from the Special Olympics organization. Thanks to programs such as Peer Insights, peer mentoring has emerged as a powerful inclusion strategy that can benefit all involved. After all, as Golden noted:

“Gone are the days when special education students spent the majority of their day tucked away in specific classrooms, passing other students in the hallway without either group knowing much about the other.”

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