Since the 1970s, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandated that whenever possible, children with disabilities receive education in the least restrictive environment, including with non-disabled peers. In recent years, the fields of autism, special education, and applied behavior analysis have joined together in support of providing children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) the opportunity to learn from their same-age peers without disabilities. Peer-Mediated Instruction and Intervention (PMII) describes a growing body of research into how peers can help children with ASD meet a variety of social and communication goals.
What is Peer-Mediated Instruction and Intervention?
Peer-mediated instruction and interventions (PMII)—or any instruction or intervention implemented with another child without disabilities—can be applied in a variety of different ways. Rather than involving just a teacher or therapist and the child, PMII involves one or more peers who take on a role in the teaching. PMII works in dyads or ‘the buddy system,’ in small groups, and classroom-wide intervention programs.
How does PMII work?
Studies have shown that peer-mediated instruction and interventions work by increasing opportunities to practice appropriate social and communication skills in natural interactions with others (Neitzel, 2008). PMII addresses the core deficits related to autism, including social skills, communication skills, and engagement in restrictive or repetitive behaviors. The symptoms of autism cause difficulties in a variety of different peer interactions, including:
- Understanding verbal and non-verbal communication of peers.
- Inhibiting social imagination used in perspective-taking and social prediction skills
- Decreasing the access to learning opportunities provided by peers.
- Stereotyped or idiosyncratic behaviors that interfere with social engagement.
- Increasing behavior problems that result from not having the appropriate skills for social interaction.
- Inhibiting short-term relationships and long-term independence.
Some interventions suggest that it’s better to avoid peer interactions when a child shows social delays. PMII instead brings a peer directly into the learning process. PMII teaches peers the best ways to interact with a child with autism to foster social interaction and communication and work on the types of skills listed above.
PMII can be implemented in different ways.
PMII describes not just one intervention but a group of different methods. PMII has shown to be effective in classwide formats, using peers as natural models, using peers as instructors, and in social skills training. Below are some examples of how PMII can be customized to meet the goals of different learners with ASD.
Classwide PMII Interventions
Peer-Mediated Instruction and Interventions may be implemented not just with the individual learner and one peer, but instead with all the children in a classroom. Sometimes known as group-oriented contingencies, these interventions involve systems of reward or motivation for all peers that help foster interactions and appropriate behaviors for the individual learner. It can also include changing the physical characteristics of a classroom or clinic environment to promote interactions between children.
Peer Modeling Interventions
Some PMII methods capitalize on the peer as a natural model of appropriate behavior. Sometimes known as observational learning, the technique focuses on having a child with autism observe the peer and subsequently imitate the model. Research shows that having a peer model a behavior is just as effective for children with ASD as adult models. Peer-modeling can also be used to help a child with ASD learn to initiate and respond to natural social cues from a peer.
Peer Tutoring Interventions
Peer tutoring interventions describe a myriad of PMII methods where the peer without disabilities assumes the role of the instructor. During peer tutoring interactions, the peer may provide the instruction, provide the reward or positive reinforcement for good behavior, or may provide corrective feedback. In most peer-tutoring interventions, the peer undergoes training beforehand but then can independently implement the intervention. Some peer-tutoring interventions involve the reverse, where the child with autism acts as the tutor, delivering appropriate instructions and corrective feedback to a peer.
Social Skills Training
For learners with goals related to developing social skills, PMII interventions may involve social skills training. Sometimes known as peer networks, these social skills training groups practice a specific social skill in small groups. The group might focus on one response, like taking turns or having conversations, or it might have a broader focus on modeling appropriate social behaviors or developing friendships.
What evidence supports Peer-Mediated Instruction and Intervention?
As mentioned above, PMII continues to be one of the better-documented autism interventions because it spans many different fields. It’s currently listed on the National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders list of evidence-based practices. It fits the criteria of an evidence-based intervention for both early childhood and elementary-aged children. Some studies support the use of peer-mediated interventions with high-school students as well, although more research is needed to replicate the findings.
Steps to Starting a PMII Program
Before beginning to implement a peer-mediated instruction and intervention program in your classroom, home, or clinic, it’s helpful to consider both the needs of the peer and the needs of the learner. Ask these questions as you build an intervention:
- Of the child’s current goals, which ones work well with peers? Given that many IEP and treatment goals target the core symptoms of ASD, most, if not all, can be adapted to a peer-mediated intervention in some way. Start by choosing objectives related to social skills and communication that involve other participants.
- Which type of peer-mediated intervention might be the most helpful to teach this skill? Once you’ve determined the goal, decide what kind of peer intervention might be most effective. Can a peer model the response for the child? Can a trained peer teach the skill? Would it be more helpful to work on the task with a ‘buddy’ or in a small group of peers?
- Of the available peers, which ones might be the most effective in the intervention? Sometimes, the options for peers to participate in a peer-mediated intervention are limited to siblings or a family friend. However, with classroom interventions, you may need to select from a larger group of peers to identify the best fit for the child’s goals and the type of intervention. Is there a peer that the child already gravitates towards during play? Which children respond well to adult instruction? Is there a child that could also benefit from working in a peer-mediated setting? Are their children that can model appropriate social and language skills for the learner?
- What type of training will the peer need? Many PMII methods require the peer to receive some pre-training with an adult. Pre-practice for the peer ensures that the intervention goes smoothly, the intervention targets the critical social skills training objectives, and the peer feels confident in addressing challenges that may arise. Rehearse and practice until the peer demonstrates success first.
Neitzel, J. (2008). Overview of peer-mediated instruction and intervention for children and youth with autism spectrum disorders. Chapel Hill, NC: National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders, FPG Child Development Institute, The University of North Carolina.
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