Welcome to Inclusive Education.

Supporting positive peer relationships


This guide focuses on supporting relationships between students to develop their sense of belonging and wellbeing and to improve their learning outcomes.  

It outlines whole-class and small group strategies that support every student to build relationships and work successfully with others. These strategies are most effective in the context of a whole-school approach to positive social interaction.

Supporting and strengthening peer relationships

Relationships foster a sense belonging, which is an important basis for learning. Create an inclusive environment where students can work together and support and encourage each other to learn.

For many students, school can be a lonely place, and low classroom acceptance by peers can be linked with subsequent disengagement and lowered achievement.

Source: Hattie (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximising impact on learning (p. 78). Routledge.

Suggestions and resources

Supporting communication and relationships (video)
Overview of free resources

An introduction to a collection of free social skills resources that have been designed to support students on the autism spectrum. The resources could be used to support all students in small group co-operative or conversation activities.

Tools for teaching social skills

No captions or transcript available

Source: Autism teaching strategies

Supporting communication and relationships
Students’ social development

A student’s social development influences how they interact with others. The student’s stage of development, the social context and differences (such as ASD or dyslexia) will shape a student's behaviour.

When a student seems uncomfortable in social situations, consider:

  • Are the social expectations mis-matched to the student's stage of development?
  • Have the social expectations been explained in ways the student can understand?
  • Do they have the skills, including vocabulary, to participate equitably?
  • Have they had opportunities to learn and practise the range of social skills needed in a particular context?

These resources will inform you about how to support individual students to build relationships with their peers:

Students’ social development
Problem-solving at Mission Hill School (video)
Supporting students to problem-solve in social situations

In this video, teachers at Mission Hill School (a full-inclusion school in the USA) facilitate student interactions.

No captions or transcript available

Source: A Year at Mission Hill (US)

Problem-solving at Mission Hill School
Targeted social skills teaching

Some students may need targeted teaching of social skills. For example, students with Autism Spectrum Disorder often need specific teaching to learn how to initiate interactions and share and take turns.

Teaching steps:

  1. Define one or more social behaviours the student needs to learn, in measurable terms.

  2. Use a range of teaching techniques (for example, structured discussions, social stories).

  3. Facilitate the generalisation of social skills to peers through role-playing and video modeling.

  4. Transition from a structured teaching situation to everyday situations – the student may need supports to achieve this.

  5. Check for social validity – can the student use the new skills in different situations?

Source: Adapted from Teaching social skills to children with autism, By Vince LaMarca, M.A., BCBA, Editor Lovaas Institute - Indianapolis

Targeted social skills teaching
Managing self

Positive social skills contribute to resilience and well-being. When students have strong social skills, they feel more confident negotiating and problem-solving in difficult situations. Provide specific teaching to:

  • teach assertiveness – practise saying “no” to things they know are wrong 
  • instill resiliency – practise strategies for facing difficult situations 
  • model empathy – discuss how they feel in different situations and help them to identify how others may feel
  • practise problem-solving – students need to know how to identify their feelings and manage their impulses.
Managing self

Resources and downloads

Emotional literacy: Teaching students to name and recognise emotions for social success

This website includes strategies, lesson plans, social narratives, and resources for teaching vocabulary to describe feelings and emotions.

Autism teaching strategies

This online website offers free social skills teaching resources for students aged 6–18. The skills covered include communication, relations, and emotions.

The FRIENDS resilience programmes

Information about the FRIENDS programmes for schools is available on this website. The programmes include Fun Friends for years 4–7, Friends for Life for years 8–11, and My FRIENDS for youth aged 12–16.

What is SEL?

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is the world’s leading organisation advancing the practice of promoting integrated academic, social, and emotional learning (SEL) for all children from preschool to high school. Their website provides information about SEL competencies, whole school approaches for introducing and teaching SEL, and resources.

4 types of social cues

This article explores four types of social cues that can be commonly misread. It provides information on how they are used, why they matter and what can happen when kids miss them.

SEL Framework (image)
Social and emotional learning framework by Casel
Five core competencies can be taught across the curriculum

Social and emotional learning (SEL) enhances students’ capacity to integrate skills, attitudes, and behaviours so they can deal effectively with daily tasks and challenges.

Source: Casel, 2017

SEL Framework
Positive environment (image)
positive learning environments include
Develop a positive learning environment

Students learn best in positive classroom environments that nurture their social, emotional, and cognitive skills. SEL is most effective when it is part of daily classroom life where teachers use everyday instruction to foster positive working relationships, increase student engagement, and model constructive behaviors.

Source: Teaching the whole child: Instructional practices that support social-emotional learning in three teacher evaluation frameworks

Positive environment
Integrate SEL into the classroom (video)
Practical examples of teaching SEL

Plan for students to develop social and emotional skills including: social skills, friendship skills, and problem solving skills to reduce their anxiety and develop self-confidence.

Closed captioning available in player

Source: Edutopia

Integrate SEL into the classroom
Support students social and emotional development

Use SAFE approaches to support the social and emotional development of students.

  1. Use modeling and coaching to  help students recognise how they feel or how someone else might be feeling.

  2. Teach students to use conflict-resolution skills and use dialogue to them through the steps to help them apply a skill in a new situation.

  3. Practice group decision making and setting classroom rules in class meetings.

  4. Teach cooperative skills and plan to practice these through participation in team sports and games.

  5. Support the development of problem solving skills by analysing an event (this can be in any curriculum area) through a set of questions based on a problem-solving model.

  6. Take a tuakana-teina approach, in which a younger student is paired with an older one to teach, to build self-confidence, a sense of belonging, and enhance academic skills.

  7. Teach reflective listening with students working with a partner to describe a situation and having the partner repeat what he or she heard.

Source: CASEL | Approache

Support students social and emotional development
SEL and key competencies (image)
Screen Shot 2017 06 05 at 8.05.38 PM
Integrate SEL into the classroom curriculum

Aspects of SEL are evident in the key competencies, particularly: relating to others, participating and contributing, and managing self. Plan to develop SEL skills and key competencies in social contexts so these skills become part of a student’s identity and expertise. Links between SEL & KCs.

Source: Wellbeing@School

SEL and key competencies

Resources and downloads

Big ideas | Social and emotional learning

A series of videos and student activities to support social and emotional learning for primary school students. Growth mindset, perseverance, empathy, and gratitude are the topics covered. These are part of ClassDojo. They can be accessed without having a ClassDojo account.

Teaching the whole child: Instructional practices that support social-emotional learning in three teacher evaluation frameworks

This research-to-practice publication, developed by the American Institute for Research, supports educators to identify teaching practices that promote student social-emotional learning. It showcases how three professional teaching frameworks embed practices that influence student academic learning and student social and emotional competencies.

What is SEL?

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is the world’s leading organisation advancing the practice of promoting integrated academic, social, and emotional learning (SEL) for all children from preschool to high school. Their website provides information about SEL competencies, whole school approaches for introducing and teaching SEL, and resources.

Supportive peer culture (NZ) (video)
Peer partnerships

Two year 13 students reflect on the way they work together to make school work.

Closed captioning available in player

Source: Enabling e-Learning (NZ)

Supportive peer culture (NZ)
Supporting friendships
  1. Encourage students as they work at making friends with peers. Create opportunities to talk about how to build conversations, expand interactions, and be a good friend.

  2. Be a positive role model and respect individual differences. Model respect, caring, patience, and positive interactions.

  3. Promote connections around common interests.

  4. Provide opportunities for ongoing student connections.

  5. Help students to join ongoing group activities and support roles where they can participate and contribute fully.

  6. Help keep student interactions going – explain the actions of students whose social skills are just developing.

  7. Share information about emergent friendships with parents so that they can arrange for students to get together outside class.

Source: Adapted from Promising practices to support friendships in inclusive classrooms

Supporting friendships
Peer tutors and helpers (image)
NZC Scenario 35 Numeracy 29
Creating opportunities for peer support

Students who act as peer tutors or helpers for their classmates experience personal benefits.

Source: Ministry of Education

Peer tutors and helpers
Talking about friendships (video)
Supporting junior class discussions

An animated video to support younger students with talking about making and keeping friends.

No captions or transcript available

Source: Start Empathy (UK)

Talking about friendships
Using technology to build friendships (NZ) (video)
Making friends using Facetime

A parent describes how using Facetime has helped her son with Aspergers connect with his classmates.

Closed captioning available in player

Source: Enabling e-Learning (NZ)

Using technology to build friendships (NZ)

Resources and downloads

Impact: Promising practices to support friendships in inclusive classrooms

This site provides a list of ways that professionals and parents can help support friendships.

Teaching guide: Being friends for grades K–5

Classroom activities to support students to learn how to make and be a good friend.

Inclusive education – the foundation for friendship

This guide includes a list of ways educators can encourage interactions and support friendships between students.

Teachers and teacher aides working together: Fostering peer relationships

This New Zealand Ministry of Education module offers practical suggestion and strategies to foster students’ connections to peers and their sense of belonging at school.

The Peer Support Programme

Information onThe Peer Support Programme a structured introduction to school under the guidance of senior students who are trained as leaders.

Circle of friends (video)
Creating a student support network

A teacher shares how she uses the Circle of Friends strategy to tackle challenging behaviour and promote inclusion in year 7.

No captions or transcript available

Source: Teachers Media (UK)

Circle of friends
Fostering friendships

Sometimes structured or facilitated supports are needed to enhance or help maintain friendships.

The Circle of Friends approach recognises that a child who displays distressed and difficult behaviours is likely to suffer from isolation from their peer group, both in and out of school. It is often used to assist students with ASD to develop social and communication skills.

Identify a facilitator and a group of students willing to provide support. Establish a timeframe, a location, and develop activities based on mutual interests.

Source: The National Autistic Society: Circle of friends promoting inclusion and interaction

Fostering friendships
Buddy systems

Being a buddy is not the same as being a friend. Buddy systems can be used to promote interactions that allow students with special needs to learn social skills.

Buddies are given training on how to help students develop specific skills, such as recreation, social, and communication skills.

Buddy systems result in personal growth for non-disabled peers. To promote high quality interactions, students should also have opportunities to interact in activities that are not always instructional.

Source: Koppang, A. (2003). The Buddy System. Special Education, Principal Leadership pp. 38–41

Buddy systems
Student supports (video)
Circle of friends in practice

Ben has ASD. He needs support with communication skills. His circle of friends and teachers model and explain how the group works for him.

No captions or transcript available

Source: FAM UK Enterprises (UK)

Student supports

Resources and downloads

Circle of friends: A type of person-centered planning

This explains how to set up a circle of friends.

Primary SEN – Circle of friends – Ben

Ben, his circle of friends and his teachers model and explain how the group works for him in this 13-minute video clip.

Springboards 2 Practice: Friendship

Teacher strategies for supporting students with disabilities to make friends are outlined in this Ministry of Education publication, from the Springboards 2 Practice series.

Recreational activities (image)
Students playing a team game outdoors
Supporting all students to participate

Teach the rules for popular playground games, as some students won't pick them up just by watching.

Organise practice sessions for students that may need support with a small group of their peers.

Source: cobalt123

Recreational activities
Supporting unstructured time

Unstructured times, such as lunchtimes, can create stress for some students


  1. having a small choice of organised activities for students to participate in at break times

  2. providing buddies to model and mediate (if necessary) interactions during break times

  3. ensuring that students know where to go to find the duty teacher or peer mediators when they are concerned or need some help

  4. how to make all staff aware of the support individual students may need and how to provide it most effectively

  5. outlining the school boundaries and the school rules regularly

  6. providing alternative break times for junior and senior syndicates in larger schools.

Supporting unstructured time
Quiet spaces for play (image)
Students in a playhouse
Offer students quiet alternatives

Identify with students, indoor and outdoor spaces for quiet play or alone time.

Welcome the use of earplugs or headphones when students choose to minimise sensory inputs.

Source: Jane’s Pond Ltd

Quiet spaces for play
Buddy systems (image)
Students playing skipping games
Supporting students with initiating or joining games

Investigate initiating a buddy system where students offer to provide support for a peer in playground games.

Source: World Bank Photo Collection

Buddy systems
Consider the environment

Work with students to identify adaptations that can be made to enable all students to participate in physical education, games, and outdoor activities. Think about:

  • Sensory integration – including students with sensitivity to bright light and loud noises by:
    • lowering the volume when using music
    • using soundproof headphones in the gym or hall
    • using sunglasses for outdoor activities in bright sunlight
    • turning off some lights and relying more on natural lighting or using LED light bulbs. 
  • Accessibility – hard surfaces such as concrete and asphalt may be dangerous for individuals with dyspraxia, and softer surfaces such as sand or wood chips make it difficult to manoeuver a wheelchair. Consider:
    • an appropriate surface, such as gym or hall, rather than concrete
    • using outdoor mats
    • adapting games and activities so all can participate, for example, play a game such as sitting volleyball or scooter soccer.
Consider the environment

Resources and downloads

Recess for your child with special needs: 7 challenges and solutions

This is a series of suggestions to support students with special needs to participate during playtime and lunchtimes.

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Structuring your classroom to facilitate collaborative learning

Use a structured, collaborative approach to provide students with specific roles and supports to build successful relationships. Create spaces that support and encourage students to work together.

Design learning opportunities where students with differing skills and achievements learn together and take responsibility for both individual and group achievement.

John Medcalf, 1995

Suggestions and resources

Classroom spaces (image)
Students working in a quiet space
Create a range of spaces for collaboration

Organise the classroom to support your students’ learning and social needs.

Provide a range of spaces for different types of activities.

Source: Anne Kenneally, CORE Education

Classroom spaces
Classroom climate

Create a warm classroom climate to facilitate positive learning and social behaviours

  1. Set clear boundaries and high standards and expectations.

  2. Be fair.

  3. Be aware of, acknowledge, and label your own feelings.

  4. Acknowledge and affirm students’ feelings.

  5. Talk through emotional situations.

  6. View emotional events as “teachable moments.”

  7. Avoid punitive tactics, put-downs, sarcasm and criticism – specify the positive alternatives.

  8. Be self-accepting, confident, and secure.

  9. Remain calm – your emotional state is mirrored by students.

  10. Develop student supports.

  11. Accept and empathise with students’ feelings

  12. Listen with interest.

Source: Warming the emotional climate of the primary school classroom by Ian Evans and Shane Harvey

Classroom climate
Classroom layout

Design your classroom layout to support students with varying learning needs and preferences in their collaboration. Choose a flexible layout that adapts to the learner, rather than limiting the learner. Include:

  • seating patterns, configurations, and spaces to facilitate social exchanges among students alongside quiet reflection time
  • a variety of technologies to support participation, communication, and collaboration 
  • visual supports such as timers, visual displays, and graphic organisers to support self management
  • different types of furniture to support students’ varying physical needs and preferences (for example, wobbly stools for students who move to concentrate).
Classroom layout
Open flexible spaces (NZ) (video)
Supporting differentiation

In this section of a longer video, teachers and students from Albany Senior High School describe how their spaces enable differentiated learning.

No captions or transcript available

Source: EDtalks (NZ)

Open flexible spaces (NZ)
Supporting student preferences (image)
Students reading under bookshelves
Valuing ingenuity

Encourage students to utilise all the spaces in the classroom to support their collaboration.

Source: Ministry of Education

Supporting student preferences

Resources and downloads

EDtalks: Modern learning environment

Videos of interviews and discussions about modern learning environments in New Zealand.

Building an inclusive classroom culture

This guide provides New Zealand illustrations of the distinguishing features of classrooms that value diversity and are truly inclusive.

Learning environments, belonging and inclusion

This CORE Education white paper explores ways in which a well-designed and thoughtfully implemented physical learning environment can foster a sense of belonging in learners, in turn contributing to their well-being, and ultimately to their educational success.

Writing collaboratively (NZ) (video)
Using Google docs

Kieran Moriarty, a teacher at Parkvale Primary School, talks about how his class use Google Docs to write.

Closed captioning available in player

Source: Enabling e-Learning (NZ)

Writing collaboratively (NZ)
Tuakana-teina in a primary school (NZ) (video)
Writing digital stories

Using a tuakana-teina approach, the older or more expert tuakana helps and guides the younger or less expert teina.

Closed captioning available in player

Source: Enabling e-Learning (NZ)

Tuakana-teina in a primary school (NZ)
Leadership roles at Onslow College (NZ) (video)
Providing leadership opportunities

Identify an activity that a student is good at and enjoys and use this as the basis for a group activity that the student can lead or contribute to.

Closed captioning available in player

Source: Ministry of Education, inclusive education videos (NZ)

Leadership roles at Onslow College (NZ)
What is tuakana-teina?

The concept of a tuakana–teina relationship

The tuakana–teina relationship, an integral part of traditional Māori society, provides a model for buddy systems. An older or more expert tuakana (brother, sister or cousin) helps and guides a younger or less expert teina (originally a younger sibling or cousin of the same gender).

In a learning environment that recognises the value of ako, the tuakana–teina roles may be reversed at any time. For example, the student who yesterday was the expert on te wā and explained the lunar calendar may need to learn from her classmate today about how manaakitanga (hospitality) is practised by the local hapū.

What is tuakana-teina?
Teamwork through PE

Social skills and collaborative teamwork are benefits of a balanced physical education programme

  • Select games that only succeed when a whole team works together, for example, Ants on a log.
  • Organise peer-to-peer support groups or buddies to ensure students needing extra support understand the game rules and their role in the team.
  • Explain behavioral expectations from the beginning with visual supports such as pictures, diagrams, and a clear timetable of events.
Teamwork through PE

Resources and downloads

20 Collaborative learning tips and strategies for teachers

This is a list of ways to include best practices for collaborative learning in the classroom.

Activity ideas: Imaginative ways of organising debate and discussion

This resource outlines six different approaches to organising discussions that support all students to participate.

Teaching strategies for inclusive classrooms part 1: Cooperative learning

Information to support setting up a successful cooperative learning programme in your classroom. Created for the NZ Ministry of Education.

Videos for building climate & culture

A series of short videos showing classroom practice with accompanying reflective questions to support building a greater sense of community in the classroom.

Effective learning in classrooms

This book is about learning in classrooms, what makes learning effective, and how it may be promoted in classrooms. Chapter seven outlines collaboration and effective learning.

Jigsaw learning (NZ) (video)

The Jigsaw approach in action in a year 5–6 class. Expert learners are deliberately grouped with those that need support.

Closed captioning available in player

Source: ESOL Online (NZ)

Jigsaw learning (NZ)
Reciprocal teaching of reading

Reciprocal teaching of reading is effective in improving the achievement of learners from diverse backgrounds.

While the focus of reciprocal teaching is on developing the comprehension and critical thinking of independent readers, the structured small-group approach (where students have specific roles) provides a tool for supporting students to interact and collaborate successfully.

It involves four explicit strategies for reading comprehension:

  • formulating questions to stimulate thoughtful discussion
  • clarifying ideas and information in the text
  • predicting what might follow, using prior knowledge and information in the text
  • summarising information in the text.

Source: Literacy Online

Reciprocal teaching of reading
Peer tutoring

Peer tutoring is a form of cooperative learning where two students work together – a more skilled "tutor" with a less skilled "tutee".

Benefits for tutees

  • more individual teaching
  • gains in learning
  • gains in social/relationship skills
  • improved attitudes towards learning
  • improved self-esteem 

Benefits for tutors

  • practice/reinforcement of skills at earlier levels
  • learning gains
  • insight into the learning process
  • development of social/relationship skills
  • development of responsibility 
  • development of self-esteem

Benefits for teachers

  • more effective use of time
  • greater coverage of individual needs
  • opportunities to observe students at work, and to assess skills

Source: Teaching strategies for inclusive classrooms part 2: Peer tutoring

Peer tutoring
Cooperative learning groups

Successful cooperative learning groups:

  • can be teacher-selected to ensure balance, inclusion, and productivity
  • can be formed around target students with supportive peers
  • are no larger than four students
  • give students specific roles
  • can be changed periodically. It can take students some time to build relationships. Think about changing groups to extend the relationships your target students have.

Cooperative learning formats provides information on how to set-up and implement cooperative learning groups.

Cooperative learning groups
Build relationships (video)
Watch the video and ask yourself:
  • how can I structure building student relationship skills into my teaching?
  • what are my expectations for students?
  • how do I make those consistently clear?

No captions or transcript available

Source: Videos for building climate & culture

Build relationships

Resources and downloads

Differentiated learning strategies

This resource provides step-by-step instructions for using Jigsaw reading combined with reciprocal teaching.

Reciprocal teaching

This resource provides step-by-step instructions for introducing reciprocal teaching with your students.

Social sciences online: Cooperative learning

This resource provides a range of group and team activities in which students have opportunities to work together to achieve shared learning goals.

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This is a Ministry of Education initiative

Building a world-leading education system that equips all New Zealanders with the knowledge, skills, and values to be successful citizens in the 21st century.