Peer-to-Peer Learning and Student Leadership

Everyday Arts for Special Education

by Annie Levy, EASE Teaching Artist


In the fifth year of EASE, I find myself in a classroom of 12 older students, where everyone is cognitively older and everyone is verbal. The teacher, Mr. Sullivan, is a Level I Ease teacher, so the focus of my visits are on gaining comfort with the EASE activities and not on curriculum integration (which is the focus of Level II).


In the past, I have found that in classrooms like Mr. Sullivan’s, there is a natural pull to start layering in curriculum as quickly as possible, because doing so would address the student’s academic goals. However, from the first visit, Mr. Sullivan has wanted to put the focus on his students’ emotional development, building and strengthening the classroom community to help cushion the academic challenges the students will experience over the course of the year.


Two of the areas that support emotional development and are often overlooked when teaching academics in D75 are finding opportunities for students to work together and finding opportunities for students to take on leadership roles as part of the lesson. Mr. Sullivan wanted to find all the possible ways that EASE could support his students in strengthening their communication skills, through peer-to-peer learning and through developing their comfort with leadership roles. The EASE curriculum was, of course, happy to oblige such a focus!


Peer-to-peer learning and student leadership are the by-products of excellent scaffolding – the classroom teacher has guided students through a new idea or concept, starting simply and supporting the learning process to a point where the complexity of a concept is understood and, perhaps more importantly, an established trust has been built between teacher and students. To allow and encourage leadership among the students in a classroom signifies not only a belief that your students understand the concepts being taught, but are also going to be able add something to the lesson that you are trying to teach. There is an element of surrendering control in the moments where a teacher invites a student to formally take on a leadership role in the classroom… What if the student misses the mark and confuses other students who are still struggling to grasp the concept? What if the student reveals some flaw in the way the lesson was rolled out in the first place? What if chaos ensues?

EASE Student Leader

One aspect of a foundational theory of cognitive development is the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) first put forth by the Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky. According to Vygotsky, when a child is learning a new concept or task, that task falls in the student’s ZPD. This means that the student is not yet able to perform the task unaided or demonstrate competency of a concept independently yet. But with support from other students who have greater understanding of the task or concept AND by helping other student who have less of an understanding of the task or concept, the student gains competency, moving towards independence. In others words, that learning is social and students do best when actually learning along with their peers (and not simply side by side with their peers).


Cognitive development aside, when a student steps in the front of the room to lead the class, there is a different energy, a new sense of excitement over whatever task the student leader is going to ask of her peers. The other student’s recognize what “demonstrated understanding” looks like on someone who looks like them. For the student leader, the self confidence that is built through supported leadership has the potential to carry over to other tasks, concepts and academic subjects – especially those that the student is struggling with (because no one is always good at everything). A moment to shine now will lead to a higher potentiality of sustained attending to the task and general resilience (as opposed to frustration) later on in the day, the week, etc.


Student leadership also allows for students who might be older and more physically developed to feel at ease in classrooms where many of their peers appear to be younger than they are, which, in certain populations, could lead to feelings of self consciousness. In Mr. Sullivan’s class, one such student, India, has had such great success in taking on leadership roles that she feels like she can always help model successful participation for her classmates. She has become the classmate that the other students look to and learn from during EASE time.