There is little doubt that the experiences students enjoy during high school play a prominent role in shaping the outcomes they encounter early in and throughout adulthood. For substantial numbers of youth with severe intellectual disabilities, however, the important social, learning, and school experiences that equip most youth for life after high school remain elusive. Best practices in secondary transition indicate that youth with disabilities should access meanningful learning opportunities within the general curriculum that promote attainment of important social and functional skills, extracurricular and school activities that provide avenues for exploring one's strengths and interests, and opportunities to develop social competence and meaningful relationships with their peers without disabilities. However, ensuring that youth with significant disabilities experiences these opportunities remains a challenging task for most secondary practitioners. Moreover, research suggests that the primary approach for supporting the social, learning, and extracurricular experiences of high school students with significant disabilities—individually assigned, one-to-one paraprofessionals and special educators—can inadvertently hinder students from attaining these very outcomes. It is clear that secondary practitioners need effective intervention strategies that enable them to support access to meaningful social, classroom, and school experiences during high school.
Peer-mediated interventions have emerged as a promising alternative to one-to-one adult-delivered support models for improving peer interactions, social relationships, and school participation of students with severe disabilities. This proposed four-year project will employ a randomized design to rigorously evaluate the efficacy of two types of peer interventions—one specifically targeting general education class participation (i.e., peer support interventions) and the other focused on broader school participation (i.e., peer network interventions)—relative to individually assigned adult support. The differential impact of these interventions on students' peer interactions (e.g., social- and task-related interactions, interaction quality and duration), functional skill acquisition (i.e., social/communication skills, adaptive behavior, IEP progress), social relationships (i.e., social contacts, social status, social networks), and school/community participation (i.e., general education class enrollment, extracurricular involvement, and afterschool activities) will be examined, as well the generalization of intervention effects beyond the classroom, outside the school day, and over time (i.e., up to 2 semesters later). This project will be a collaborative effort among researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, staff at the Waisman Center's Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center, and educators, youth, and families from 10 high schools in Dane County school districts.
An ethnically and economically diverse group of 150 students with severe intellectual disabilities (with and without autism) between the ages of 15-21 will be randomly assigned to receive the peer support or peer network interventions, with a comparison group receiving one-to-one paraprofessional support (i.e., business as usual). This project is designed to yield clear information on the impact of peer-mediated interventions on the interactions, skills, relationships, and school experiences of a segment of the secondary school population whose in and post-school outcomes are the among the most disappointing.