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122 APRIL 2009
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Building a sense of belonging: The PALS program

Mary E. McNeil

This author describes an innovative program designed to facilitate the transition of disabled students returning to their home schools by pairing them with peers who serve as instructors, friends, advocates, and decision makers in a variety of arenas of school life.

"If we are to achieve a richer culture ... we must weave one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.” (Margaret Mead as cited by Dillan et al., 1993, p. 25)

Historically, many of our children and youth with challenging conditions such as emotional disturbance, behavioral disorders, or severe physical or mental disabilities have been placed in restrictive settings. These placements have been due not only to the nature of their conditions, but also to the belief that regular educators did not have the requisite training or resources to provide these students with the appropriate education called for under IDEA. However, by changing the cultural context of regular school environments, even regular educators can succeed in helping students with severe disabilities make the transition into less restrictive settings.

Bringing them home
One concrete example of “achieving a richer culture” for students with disabilities is Merced High School’s unique approach to bringing home a number of secondary-age students from segregated county facilities and programs. Four years ago, administrators from the school district and the county offices in Merced, CA, reviewed the lists of students with severe disabilities who were attending segregated county programs outside their local community. After visiting the students in these settings and talking with their parents or guardians, it was determined that neighborhood schools would be a more appropriate setting for the students' education and socialization.

A transition team was formed to develop a strategic transition plan for these students. This team was composed of the director of special education, a school psychologist, teachers, parents, and several students who were in transition to their “home” schools. This team met on a regular basis for one year and began its work by examining the literature on best practices. The following elements were determined to be critical for successful reintegration:

The planning team also reviewed fiscal matters, made suggestions for curriculum and safety (a number of the students had serious health and emotional needs), and surveyed the campus for the best locations for classroom space. Their goal was to ensure that these students would be at the center of campus life.

The PALS program
A critical outgrowth of the transition team’s planning process was the creation of the PALS Program (Peer-Assisted Learning System). This program was designed to enhance the transition of students returning to their home school by pairing them with peers who would serve as instructors, friends, advocates, and decision makers in a variety of arenas of school life.

The students in transition were categorized variously as severely disabled, developmentally delayed, emotionally disturbed, hearing/visually impaired, and behavior disordered. Many exhibited severe acting-out behaviors, and many were nonverbal. The students who were recruited during course registration to serve as PALS were also diverse. PALS were selected to participate in the program based on several criteria:

Students' GPAs were deliberately not made a criteria for being a PAL. In fact, during the first year of the program, a dozen students ranging from honor students to students with mild to moderate disabilities were selected. An elective course was established whereby student volunteers received credit toward graduation requirements.

These students were then trained in their four roles – instructor, friend, advocate, and decision maker – through a series of meetings with the director of special education, the school psychologist, and the classroom teacher. Because the students served by the PALS had severe disabilities and often exhibited extreme acting-out behavior, special attention was given to strategies for safety, disengaging from escalating situations, and getting help.

PALS as instructors
One of the primary roles of the PALS was to be instructors to their partners. The quality of instruction from these peers was recognized as potentially more effective than that received from adults because children use more age-appropriate, meaningful language and may better understand their peers' potential misconceptions (McNeil, 1994). However, the PALS were also introduced to elements of effective instruction identified by research on best practices.

As instructors, the PALS worked with students in their classrooms by coaching them in computer skills, self-care skills, social skills, basic math and literacy skills, as well as mobility training and strategies for accessing the campus. While the PALS were working one-on-one with their partners, the teacher was free to serve as an instructional manager, checking procedures and assisting PALS when necessary. The PALS of students who were nonambulatory and required technical devices for assistance were trained by county staff in how to operate these devices. They were then responsible for teaching others.

Because many of the students served by PALS were nonverbal, a number of PALS requested assistance with learning sign language. The school responded by offering sign language instruction two days a week before school. Any interested individual on campus could participate, and students, teachers, and administrators responded with enthusiasm. Some PALS went a step further and enrolled in sign language classes at the local community college. They then returned to school and provided instruction not only to their partners but also to their peers so that everyone could communicate with the nonverbal students. The culture of the entire school began to move toward valuing the uniqueness and gifts of these students who were now attending their home school.

PALS as advocates
As advocates, PALS worked to ensure that the transitioning students had an opportunity to participate in the richness of high school life. After completing a workshop at the district office on the merits and possibilities of being an advocate, they became invaluable participants in meetings with teachers and often helped to determine accommodations for their partners. PALS would also assist and advocate for their partners in the community. In particular, the school worked with area businesses to provide jobs for the students, and their PALS would often walk with them to the job site, help them get started on the job, and perhaps even pick them up at the end of their shifts.

PALS also advocated for their partners with the students' parents when appropriate. In one case, a 17-year-old student who had been making significant progress in school suddenly stopped attending. When school officials talked with her family, they responded that she was needed at home to help her grandparents. Pleas from the school officials yielded no results. However, when her PAL approached the family and explained how important it was for the young woman to be in school, she was allowed to return immediately. This same young woman had issues with personal grooming. Her PAL acted as an advocate in that arena as well, convincing her parents to allow her to get a haircut, taking her to get her ears pierced, and showing her how to use makeup. This student, who was hearing-impaired and nonverbal, received a hearing aid with funding provided by the school, and was actually able to say her PAL’s name by the end of the first year – producing sound for the first time.

PALS as friends
Historically, students with intensive needs have been excluded not only from academic pursuits but also from extracurricular aspects of school life. To promote a sense of belonging and strong friendships, the PALS brainstormed ways to involve the students in such activities as basketball games, dances, student field trips, pool parties, and other afterschool and weekend events. Sometimes PALS would initiate activities that would include the students, such as one PAL who threw a pool party and invited everyone in the PALS group plus all of her other friends. In other cases, PALS would provide transportation to school-sponsored events and call the students' parents to let them know about the arrangements.

One very special friendship developed between a young man who exhibited severe acting-out behaviors and his PAL, the school’s star basketball player. Because both boys shared an interest in basketball, they would often go and shoot hoops after having lunch together. When the basketball team went to the state championship game, the young man traveled to the game on the bus with his PAL and the other basketball players. This friendship, and the lunches in particular, also helped eliminate some of the student’s behavioral challenges. All misbehavior would cease at his teacher’s question, “Were you planning to have lunch with John today, or were you planning to have lunch with me in the classroom?”

PALS as decision makers
PALS also became integral to the IEP and Transition Planning Process (TPP). They assisted students and faculty in the transition process by suggesting job training and placement opportunities, contacting potential employers, and recommending courses and experiences on campus that supported the TPP. In some instances, they were literally a voice for nonverbal students with severe disabilities who could not speak for themselves. In other instances, they offered students their “moral support” and assisted them in self-advocacy, particularly when students had conflicts with parents or educators regarding the content of their IEP or TTP.

PALS produce results
The Merced High School PALS Program has proven highly successful as a vehicle for facilitating transitions for youth. Twenty students who would not even have attended a public school without their PALS, much less graduated, have received high school diplomas. Several of these, students, who were nonverbal for years in restrictive settings, learned sign language and actually spoke for the first time as a result of their time on campus with a PAL.

But perhaps more important, the students who transferred from segregated settings to the local high school gained a sense of belonging within the school community because of the program. They had friends at school. They could navigate the school campus on their own, or with the help of a peer, rather than an adult. Their right to a free, appropriate, public education in the least restrictive environment was achieved and celebrated. After the program’s first year, the school psychologist reported, “I have never had so many parents in tears at their children's IEP meetings. They were crying not because they were upset with the school but because they never dreamed so much was possible for their son or daughter.” Goals for working and even independent living after high school were achieved.

Transitions for the PALS
The lives of the PALS also changed in significant ways as a result of their roles in facilitating transitions for their partners. A number of them who had not been particularly focused on their career goals became interested in teaching and health-related fields. Others became dramatically more connected to school. One young woman reported, “Before I became a PAL, I only came to school two to three days per week. Now I come every day. I am able to play sports because my grades are up, and I know I want to become a special education teacher.” Another PAL, who had suffered a traumatic brain injury, also rarely showed up for school and was actually receiving home instruction to enable him to graduate. But he never missed school when he had responsibilities as a PAL to perform. At his own IEP meeting, he promised, “I'll always be there.” Finally, one PAL whose dream was to be an honor guard at the White House wrote about his experience as a PAL on his application for the job. Not only was he accepted, but representatives from the Secret Service actually visited Merced High School to learn more about the program that this young man had described so enthusiastically.

Perhaps the most unexpected benefit of the PALS program, however, was the effect that it had on teacher attitudes about the transitioning students. These attitudes were epitomized by one teacher who greeted the news of Merced's transition plan with the words, “Those students don’t belong here. I’m an AP teacher – I work with gifted students. I shouldn’t be wasting my time with children who will never succeed at this school:” But after observing the program for a year and being invited to a special PAL-sponsored lunch attended by PALS, their partners, and other teachers and administrators, this same teacher actually invited one of “those students” to visit her honors English class. It is clear that these very special relationships have touched, enriched, and supported the lives of students, PALS, and educators alike.


Dillan, A., Paschie, C., Schuh, M., Jorgensen, C., Shapiro-Barnard, S., Dixon, B. and Nisbet, J. (1993). Treasures of celebration of inclusion. Concord, NH. University of New Hampshire, Statewide Systems Change Project, Institute on Disability/University Affiliated Facility.

McNeil, M. E. (1994). Creating powerful partnerships through partner learning. In J. S. Thousand, R. A. Villa and A. I. Nevins (Eds.), Creativity and collaborative learning: A practical guide to empowering students and teachers (pp. 22A-260). Baltimore. Paul H. Brookes.

Williams, W., Fox, T., Thousand, J. and Fox, W. (1990). Levels of acceptance and implementation of best practices in the education of students with severe handicaps. Education and Treatment in Mental Retardation, 25. pp. 120-131.

This feature: McNeil, M.E. (1998). Building a sense of belonging: The PALS program. Reaching Today’s Youth, 2, 4. pp. 13-16.

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