PublicationsSystematic reviewsSEN & peer groupSEN & peer group - press release
A systematic review of pedagogical approaches that can effectively include children with special educational needs in mainstream classrooms with a particular focus on peer group interactive approaches. Press release

Working with other classmates can help children for whom school is more of a challenge

Children identified as having problems with learning and behaviour can make good progress in academic and social skills when teachers include them in structured group activities in the classroom with their mainstream peers.

A systematic review of research on the effectiveness of teaching approaches that encourage participation has found that this kind of cooperative learning can enhance both the social integration and academic performance of children with special needs. It suggests that focusing on both academic improvement and more positive relationships with peers may be more effective than the concentration on isolated skills usual in remedial education.

The inclusion of children with special educational needs in mainstream classes, rather than putting them in special units or schools, is now firm Government policy. But little information or advice has been given to teachers on how to teach increasingly diverse classes.

The authors of a systematic literature review, which was funded by the Government's Teacher Training Agency, sought evidence of what works for teachers of pupils aged 7 to 14 with very wide attainment levels.

They trawled more than 2000 potentially relevant reports published in English over the last ten years. This was whittled down to ten studies on peer group collaboration. These were selected because they focused on teaching approaches that teachers can use without the need for additional resources. Of the ten studies, nine were conducted in the USA, six focused on literacy and six were conducted in primary school settings.

Despite the small research base, the researchers say the studies do provide proof of the effectiveness of the collaborative learning approach. All showed evidence of some learning and, with the exception of the UK study on the Circle of Friends approach, this included academic learning. (The Circle of Friends study did not try to measure academic progress. Instead, it showed improvements in the social acceptance and self-worth of children with challenging behaviour when they are befriended by a group of peers within their class, who provide them with a support network under the guidance of teachers.)

Three studies provided explicit evidence of impact on both the academic learning and community participation of pupils with special educational needs. One study, where pupils were organised into co-operative learning teams on reading and writing activities, found that both pupils with learning difficulties and those without made more progress than in traditional classrooms.

Another study was concerned with the relative effects of social grouping and individual peer coaching on social interaction as well as academic achievement. It indicated that, if anything, support for pupils who experience difficulties may be marginally more effective in raising academic achievement when delivered by one peer. However, this is not straightforward given that many pupils preferred working in groups.

The researchers say more UK-based research is urgently needed, especially in secondary schools.

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