Using the Buddy System to Create Peer Relationships Between Special Education Students and General Education Students

Similar to many elementary schools
around the country, our school has 4 low incidence classroom programs, housing
students with autism and developmental disabilities. As a teacher of one of the
autism classrooms, building social skills in my 5 to 8 year olds is a major priority.
Problem is, with a classroom of 8 students with social skill deficits, how do I
teach them skills that will be applicable with their same are peers when we
don’t have same age peers in the classroom. Skills such as taking turns, waiting
your turn, listening while others are talking, etc. can sound great in a lesson
plan, but once it comes time to “teach” my students about these skills, it
feels daunting and almost impossible, because they need a more “real-life” experience to learn.
At the beginning of last year, I had a
5th grade teacher approach me about her students conducting some
service hours with my class. The excitement overwhelmed me! Should I have them
cut out endless amounts of laminate or have them create new workboxes for the
students? Eventually, the teacher shared that her students really wanted to
read to my students. Now, the idea sounded great, but I was a little worried. I
knew how difficult it could be to get my kiddos to sit through a story I read
with expression, puppets, and anything I could get my hands on to keep them
happy and sitting for the length of one book. Would these 5th
graders be able to keep them sitting for 20 minutes or more?
The first morning her class visited,
books in hand and looking a little intimidated (as I would be when in 5th
grade), endless questions popped into my head. Who should I match together? How
will they handle a student’s behaviors if it occurs? Will my kids sit for an
entire 20 minutes? I swallowed my worries and went on with it. Each 5th
grader was assigned a student and our younger students still had an
instructional assistant close by to help and answer any questions the buddy
might have. The students brought their own books to read, and they were able to
spread out in our room so that there were 8 small clusters of buddies scattered
all over the floor or at tables. Once everyone was settled and the stories
began, I could not believe it! For once, I had absolutely NOTHING to do but
walk around and take in how well my students were behaving and how amazing the
5th graders were working with them (and of course take massive
amounts of pictures to tweet on our class twitter account). The first time they
visited went by in a flash, and before we knew it, the students were gone.
Fast forward to mid-year. During their
reading buddy time, the same group of fifth graders stop at each page, ask
questions about the pictures, prompt the students to turn the page, and are
even having conversations with the students through their communication
devices. The engagement coming from my students actually makes me a little
jealous! When we see them in the hallways, they say hello to my students, call
them by name and my students respond! As a teacher that knows the social
struggles that my students face, this has been such a beautiful experience for
me to witness.
Other “buddy systems” we’ve
incorporated throughout the year include lunch buddies, playground buddies, and
Ipad buddies. Regular education classroom teachers can award good behavior or
an outstanding achievement with time in my classroom with my students. How
amazing is it that these 5th grade students see this as a reward? We
also plan to start having cooking buddies once a week during our functional
cooking lessons.
Next year, we plan to have game buddies that visit us once a week on Fridays (our game day). Since taking turns is such an important social skill, we will be learning about it during our social skills group throughout the week and then applying what we’ve learned on Friday’s with our game buddies.
Through the buddy system, there has
been a growing awareness of our low incidence classrooms and a greater sense of
belonging to the school in my students. I love seeing my students become more
accepted by their peers. I also love knowing that my classroom has become a
place that allows those students to gain awareness about autism and it’s many
different components.
My students have so much to offer, as
do other students with developmental disabilities. Giving them the opportunity
to experience structured time with their school peers helps them gain the
social skills they need, but the “buddies” are the ones that truly get
rewarded. I love seeing the fifth graders grow into little adults as they
become more empathetic and understanding of the students in my classroom. I
would recommend the “buddy system” to any upper elementary school class. 


  1. Angela S on July 24, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    I teach in a self-contained school…so although I do not have the opportunity to match my kiddos with the gen ed population face to face, I have paired with other classes in other schools to create pen pals, This form of a "buddy" system works similar in that the power of peer relationships teaches my students in a way that I can't as their teacher. Awesome post!

    The Organized Plan Book

    • Catherine Stevens on July 31, 2015 at 7:01 am

      why can't you match students face to face buddies? I teach in a self contained classroom and I brought the idea up to my principal to set up a program I call; Circle of Friends. We work on similar activities games, reading, cooking, social/friendship activities, etc. I use kid's in my kid's grade level and the other kids use my classroom as a reward, they get to do special activities with us or even just classroom assistance. Everyone loves it; parents, teachers, and students

    • Catherine Stevens on July 31, 2015 at 7:03 am

      I forgot to mention I teach K-2 nonverbal students

  2. Emily on July 31, 2015 at 7:49 pm

    I love using peer buddies as supper for our students!! I just moved to a new school in my district and am working on a new peer buddy system. Do you have any materials or lessons on TPT to introduce students with disabilities and working together? Can't wait to see how you develop this program over the next school year!!!

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.