Peer support can be an invaluable resource for SEN pupils, not only those who need help and encouragement with learning but also for the de-motivated under-achievers and those whose social skills are under-developed

There are different sorts of peer tutoring/mentoring, so consider which is most appropriate for particular needs. Then include details in your provision mapping, detailing how the support is used and how it is planned and monitored for maximum benefit.

  • Peer mentoring – useful for children and young people who are underachieving, have low self esteem and/or have social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Older pupils are often a good choice for this type of intervention: secondary students for year 5/6 pupils, sixth formers for year 9 etc. Make sure that mentors have ‘street cred’ to ensure that mentees will have a healthy respect for them. How they look, their popularity, their interests, their sporting achievements – these will all count.
  • Peer tutoring – effective for children who need help and support in lessons (particularly in practical activities such as science investigations) where a more competent peer can act as a ‘guide’. Also good for reading practice, learning spellings, etc. Pupils in the same class are often the most appropriate in terms of availability, but consider asking sixth formers in secondary schools – the experience is good for their CV, and younger pupils respond well to them (see comment above, though ).
  • Circle of friends – providing a support network for a child with a disability or behavioural difficulties, or a child who is simply new to the school. This can be a good opportunity to involve children who are slightly isolated themselves, and even children who are having minor behavioural difficulties – the responsibility of looking after someone else can do a lot for raising self-esteem and confidence.
  • Buddies – one-to-one support can work well for children who lack confidence; they can respond well to an ‘older brother or sister’ relationship with a peer who will look out for them. The comment above also applies here, but take care to choose pupils who have appropriate personal qualities.
  • Study partners – sharing ideas about how to revise, how to make useful notes, how to plan an essay; these are skills that able pupils can pass on to others in an accessible way. This type of work is an excellent project for more-able students; task them with planning and delivering a session or sessions to younger pupils about skills and techniques such as mind-mapping.
  • Peer mediation – young people can be trained to mediate disagreements between peers in instances such as name-calling, bullying, fighting, and quarrelling. The approach is usually one of group support which enables children and young people to understand the hurt that they have caused, so that each person comes away from the mediation with a positive experience and the sense that the outcome is fair to both sides.

Whichever type of peer support you are going to set up, key issues will be:

  • the choice of pupils (both those ‘delivering’ and those ‘receiving’ support)
  • appropriate training
  • continuing support for the project (regular meetings with a teacher or TA)
  • careful monitoring and evaluation.

The choice of pupils
You may decide to:

  • approach particular pupils you know are reliable and sensible, with good interpersonal skills
  • advertise throughout the school and be prepared to turn down some pupils
  • offer an opportunity to individuals who lack motivation or self-esteem, as a way of building their own self-confidence as well as helping the recipient.

The ‘recipient’ needs to have the approach properly explained to them, and be given a choice in the matter. If there is angry resistance to the idea, it is unlikely that the intervention will be a huge success; you may need to set up an interim arrangement in the first place allowing for each party to get to know one another.

Appropriate training
Training is essential to the success of this type of work. Pupils need to understand how to actively listen, encourage, explain and understand the importance of confidentiality.  Use role play, video and modelling; brainstorm strategies and agree which can be tried. Be clear with the group about responsibilities, disclosures and boundaries. Let them know exactly what is expected of them.

Continuing support for the project
The key to success in this approach is a teacher or TA who is committed to using it, and who will be able to give sufficient time to supporting the tutors/mentors. Weekly meetings can provide mutual support in the group as well as opportunities to discuss tactics and progress, and any issues that arise. This interaction also helps to sustain interest and motivation. Make sure that there is some kudos attached to the role of ‘tutor’, ‘buddy’, etc; possibly with special privileges.

Careful monitoring and evaluation
Peer support schemes will require a degree of resourcing, so you need to demonstrate their effectiveness over time. Use quantitative measures such as attendance figures, numbers of ‘reported incidents’ (which hopefully will show a decline in poor behaviour) and test scores/ class work marks. Quantitative evidence can include questionnaires, remarks from teachers and pupils, case studies and samples of work.

SEN News

The DCSF has published revised guidance on the education of children and young people with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD). While the department awaits the outcomes of the externally-led review of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), it is issuing guidance which reminds schools, early years settings and local authorities of existing advice on improving outcomes for these children. Advice for improvement includes:    

  • whole-school promotion of positive behaviour
  • whole-school promotion of mental health
  • the application of principles and processes contained in the SEN Code of Practice alongside guidance set out in school discipline and pupil behaviour policies
  • the application of the Disability Discrimination Acts 1995 and 2005.  

The purpose of this guidance is to bring together existing advice on improving achievement, health and emotional well-being for children and young people whose behavioural, emotional and social difficulties are persistent and provide an obstacle to their learning. 

The guidance is set in the context of SEN and disability legislation and guidance, The Children Act requirement for local cooperation, guidance on mental health, and the report of the Practitioners’ Group on School Behaviour and Discipline. It updates and replaces DfEE Circular 9/94 and DH Circular LAC (94) 9: The Education of Children with Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in June 2008

About the author: Linda Evans is the author of SENCO Week. She was a teacher/SENCO/adviser/inspector, before joining the publishing world. She now works as a freelance writer, editor and part-time college tutor.