A Mixed-Method Study of Peer Network Interventions in Secondary Schools

Erik W. Carter, Karen Gardner, Heartley Huber, and Jenny Redding

As part of the U.S. Department of Education’s new Center on Secondary Education for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (CSESA), our work has focused on developing an effective comprehensive high school program to meet the needs of high school students along the entire autism spectrum. During the first year of this IES-funded project, our team focused on developing and refining the social competence interventions that will comprise one piece of this comprehensive intervention. Using an iterative design approach, we (1) obtained stakeholder input into the initial design and delivery of social competence interventions, and (2) piloted four variations of peer-mediated interventions across high schools in three states. This work has focused centrally on promoting full involvement in the social life of high schools for students with extensive support needs.

We adopted a “design-based research approach” to ensure the strategies we developed were acceptable to stakeholders, feasible to implement, focused on important outcomes, and carried out in schools serving students with and without disabilities. We conducted a series of ten focus groups involving a broad range of stakeholders (e.g., parents, educators, advocates, providers) to gather their perspectives on the design and delivery of the social competence intervention. In addition, we conducted individual interviews with more than 30 youth and young adults with ASD to solicit their feedback on how best to support them. This information was used to inform a series of pilot intervention studies. We then conducted two semester-long intervention studies to evaluate the efficacy and social validity of peer networks as a way to foster social inclusion. Multiple-baseline across participants and reversal designs were used with six high school students with autism in urban, high-poverty schools. Observational measures included social interactions with peers and adults, targeted social skills, and adult facilitation behaviors. Our study methods incorporated quality indicators of single-case design and a functional relation was demonstrated in both studies. Thus, the interventions were successful at building social connections with natural peer supports in inclusive school settings.