Guest Blog: Peer Education to Promote Acceptance of Difference, Empathy and Inclusion

16 March 2018

Author: Dr Debra Costley

We are really pleased so share this guest blog from Debra Costley at the University of Nottingham – read below about an interesting project around peer education promote acceptance of difference, empathy and inclusion. The programme focused on helping peers to understand Autism and try to improve relationships and to help students with social interactions in inclusive settings. There is an opportunity for secondary schools to get involved in the UK trial. Read on to find out more.

If you are interested in getting involved, click here for further contact details.


Peer Education to promote acceptance of difference, empathy and inclusion

Researchers: Dr Debra Costley, University Of Nottingham; Dr Mitchell Byrne, University of Wollongong, Australia; Dr Ian Dale, National Autistic Society

debra costley

Researcher Profile

My name is Dr Debra Costley I have been at the University Of Nottingham for just over a year having returned from living and working in Australia for 13 years.  For eight of those years I was National Director for research and development at Autism Spectrum Australia.  As part of this role I was always on the lookout for projects and strategies that would help to improve the educational experience of students on the autism spectrum.  One of the projects we supported was a peer education programme, which seemed to be having positive results for students.  There are a range of peer-mediated programmes that try to improve relationships and to help students with social interactions in inclusive settings but I have not come across anything in the UK that actually seeks to change the knowledge, attitudes and behaviour of the mainstream community.  We spend a lot of time and energy trying to change the people on the autism spectrum and others with differences, to make them fit in to the mainstream, but I believe we need to also be supporting the mainstream students to change their behaviour in order to foster tolerance and inclusion.

I have teamed up with Dr Mitchell Byrne, who devised the programme, and with Ian Dale from the National Autistic Society in the UK, to develop a project to trial this approach in UK secondary schools.

Background summary

Secondary schools are diverse microcosms of society that are led by policies of inclusion, equity and diversity.  Unfortunately for many young people with a range of differences, such as disability (particularly autism), first language other than English, ethnicity, gender, mobility (refugees and travellers) policies do not always translate into practice.  Difference is often met by fear and/or ignorance from other students, resulting in social exclusion and, at worst, bullying and harassment. There is ample research demonstrating the deleterious effects of bullying in particular, including behavioural difficulties, mental health problems, and suicide. The attitudes and behaviour of students cannot be changed by policy; direct intervention needs to happen to disrupt the patterns of exclusion and bullying that impact on the school experiences and outcomes of those targeted.

Understanding our Peers Programme

Peer education is a way of changing attitudes and understanding, with the potential to influence the behaviour of the whole school community.  With a focus on ‘difference’, programs developed to enhance the attitudes and behaviours of students toward specific minority groups have been developed and shown to effect attitudinal change, enhanced knowledge and positive behavioural intentions. We are planning to trial the Australian “Understanding Our Peers” program, originally developed to target support for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, but adaptable and applicable across all areas of disability and/or difference. The programme involves an eight-week intervention at a whole class level with the aim of enhancing knowledge (overcoming ignorance), attitudes and pro-social behavioural intentions.

Planned UK Trial

We plan to trial the full Understanding Our Peers Programme in two UK secondary schools.  We are looking to identify two schools that would work with us to deliver the programme to four classes of year 8 students.  We need to identify schools that have children on the autism spectrum in their cohort.  No children will be identified to their peers.

We will train research assistants to deliver the programme to ensure fidelity to the programme and consistency across schools.  In each school we would also be looking for a matched number of classes (4) to be the non-intervention control group.  We would deliver the programme to this group post the intervention with the first group.  We would be willing to consider working with smaller cohorts if there are schools that are interested but do not have an 8 form entry.

In addition, we would want to test the Year 7 and Year 9 groups to identify ‘spill over’ effects of the training to other year groups and also to identify any changes in student behaviour that is due to other initiatives in the school.

Ethics approval will be sought through the University Of Nottingham, School of Education Research Ethics Committee.


Data Collection Methods

The “Understanding Our Peers” programme was evaluated using the following measures:

Shared Activities Questionnaire (SAQ) – a 24-item self-report scale which assesses behavioural intentions of students to engage in social, academic and recreational activities with a group of target children;

Similarity Rating Form-Revised (SRF-R) – a 6 item self-report scale developed to assess how similar participants think they and their mainstream peers are to the children with difference;

Perceived Responsibility Questionnaire (PRQ-R) – is an 8 item self-report measure developed to assess how much control participants think target children have over their behaviour.


Byrne and his colleagues (2013; 2014) report significant change across measures, with strong training effect sizes for knowledge (d = 1.78), attitudes (d = 1.32) and similarity (d = 1.43), and smaller effects on behavioural intentions (d = 0.28). Gains were maintained at a 10-week follow-up post intervention (eta squared = 0.83). Importantly, the authors speculated upon how to improve behavioural intentions, and this would form an addition to a UK trial of the “Understanding Our Peers” program.  You can read more about the programme in the papers referenced below.


We plan to use the same measures in the UK trial and to enhance this quantitative data with qualitative data on quality of life at school; student and parent perspectives. 


Benefits to the Schools

Delivery of lesson content to students that addresses issues of difference and stigma, with the aim of:

  • making the social environment of the school accessible to all children;
  • reducing isolation of children who are different;
  • promoting community engagement;
  • reducing bullying.
  • Taking part in a research trial of a new initiative to the UK that had proven benefits in Australia.
  • Training of teachers in the Understanding Our Peers programme, so that the school has the opportunity of rolling it out across the school.





Staniland, J. & Byrne, M. 2013 The Effects of a Multi-Component Higher-Functioning Autism Anti-Stigma Program on Adolescent Boys.  Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43: pp2816-2829.


Ranson, N. & Byrne, M. 2014 Promoting Peer Acceptance of Females with Higher-functioning Autism in a Mainstream Education Setting: A

Replication and Extension of the Effects of an Autism Anti-Stigma Program.  Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Vol44, No11, pp2778-2796.



Posted on 16 March 2018
Posted in: Blog

Comments are closed.