Small Group Academic Instruction with Peer Modeling


Using systematic teaching in 1:1 arrangements is often effective for children with disabilities. However, the emphasis on least restrictive environments and the desire for children with disabilities to learn from their peers may mandate the use of small group instruction. Small group direct instruction (SGDI) involves using a systematic teaching procedure (see Progressive Time Delay or System of Least Prompts) to teach more than one child. Benefits of small group instruction include increased teaching efficiency and improved social opportunities. SGDI has been shown to be highly effective for a variety of learners1 and may be less complex than embedding instruction into typical play routines.2EBIP_communication_responsive play_1


Almost all children can be taught in small groups of at least 2 children. Children who are aggressive to peers and children who cannot imitate may not benefit from SGDI.

Pre-Instruction Decisions

The following decisions should be made prior to teaching:

  1. Which students should I group together?
    For children accustomed to one-to-one instruction or no direct instruction, it may be best to start SGDI by teaching that child with only one other child. Over time, you can increase the size of the group. Most small groups include 3-4 children; additional group members increases wait time, which can result in increased levels of problem behavior and decreased engagement.
  2. What should I teach? Most research has been conducted for teaching children discrete (1-step) skills like naming items, pictures, or academic stimuli (e.g., letters, numbers,1 but some research also shows that more complex play and social skills can be improved.3 Research shows that you can teach children similar behaviors (e.g., teach one child to name photos of common objects and teach their group mate to name pictures of different common objects) or dissimilar behaviors (e.g., teach one child to name photos of common objects and teacher their group mate to count objects with one-to-one correspondence).
  3. How should I teach? Use a systematic prompting procedure (see Progressive Time Delay or System of Least Prompts), with systematic and planned consequences, including items or activities that are likely to serve as reinforcers (see Preference Assessments).
    EBIP_peer skills_small group_1
  4. How many behaviors should I teach at once? For young children, children without direct instruction experience, and children who are likely to learn slowly, teach two behaviors until mastery and then teach two different behaviors. Never teach a single discrete behavior in isolation; this often leads to inappropriate learning. For example, if teaching a child to count with 1:1 correspondence, you may teach “Count to 2” and “Count to 3” at the same time—half of trials will include one direction and half of trials will include the other. This ensures the child must attend to the direction and discriminate the difference in “2” and “3”. For experienced learners, you can teach several new behaviors at once (e.g., 3 or 4 behaviors per session).
  5. How can I improve attention? Several strategies can be used to improve attention for students: (a) Present trials quickly.4 Have materials and reinforcers on hand and do not pause between trials. (b) Use an attending cue.5 These tasks show you that the child has paid attention to the materials. For example, if teaching an expressive naming task, have the child match the picture to be named prior to giving the naming direction. (c) Reinforce attending. Provide tokens or other primary reinforcers when children engage in appropriate behaviors. (d) Randomly order trials. For example, rather than alternating between two children, randomize the order of trials so that children do not know whether their turn will be upcoming.
  6. For how long should my sessions last?
    EBIP_peer skills_small group_3 
    For young children with disabilities, sessions should be very brief; no more than 5-10 minutes in length.6 For inexperienced learners, sessions can begin by including only a few trials (e.g., 2 per child) and teachers can gradually increase the number of trials.
  7. Which procedure should I use? An errorless procedure that uses a single type of prompt will result in few errors and shorter sessions (see Progressive Time Delay).
  8. Do I have to use reinforcers? YES!!!! Reinforcers are the reasons we all engage in certain behaviors and not others. If you want a child to learn a specific behavior, provide highly preferred items/activities for doing so. You can pair something the child already likes with a “back up” reinforcer (like a token) and eventually, the child can earn tokens for correct responding, and the preferred item/activity at the end of the session. For young children, we suggest gradually increasing the number of tokens required for reinforcement and never withholding reinforcement for more than one session.
  9. Is praise a “good enough” reinforcer? Usually not. Some children find praise reinforcing, but few children are willing to “work hard” for praise. Most adults wouldn’t work full time jobs for praise alone, so providing children with external rewards isn’t inherently bad.


After making the decisions above and completing the Small Group Instruction Worksheet, you are ready to teach!

  1. EBIP_peer skills_small group_2Set up all materials, including rewards given for correct responding, teaching materials, and data collection materials. Have everything set up and ready before children arrive.
  2. Allow children to make a choice regarding reinforcers or remind them of the reinforcer they’ll receive for correct responding.
  3. Begin instruction. Give a task direction and prompt according to set procedures. Do not repeat task directions or prompts. Wait the specified amount of time for a child response.
  4. Reinforce correct responses.
  5. Move through trials as quickly as possible, with minimal wait time for students.
  6. Consider reinforcing (or at least praising) attention to peer materials and responses.
  7. Occasionally check to see if the child has learned information taught to his peer.


  1. My student doesn’t pay attention or engages in problem behavior. Consider reinforcing attention (e.g., providing a reinforcer when the child looks at materials or at you) and other desired behaviors (e.g., sitting).
  2. My student doesn’t answer correctly. If you are using a single prompt procedure, consider reverting back to 0-second trials (see Progressive Time Delay). If your student doesn’t answer correctly even when prompted, consider using a different prompt or evaluating whether rewards are preferred (see Preference Assessments).

EBIP_peer skills_small group_4

Data sheets and other documents:
Small Group Instruction Worksheet
Small Group Instruction Cheat Sheet

Where can I find additional resources regarding small group direct instruction?

  1. Ledford, J. R., Lane, J. D., Elam, K. L., & Wolery, M. (2012). Using response-prompting procedures during small-group direction instruction: Outcomes and procedural variations. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 117, 413-434.
  2. Wolery, M. (2012). Reflections on instruction and naturalness in classrooms. Young Exceptional Children, 15, 41-44.
  3. Ledford, J. R., & Wehby, J. E. (2015). Teaching children with autism in small groups with students who are at-risk for academic problems: Effects on academic and social behaviors. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45, 1624-1635.
  4. Carnine, D. W. (1976). Effects of two teacher-presentation rates on on-task behavior, answering correctly, and participation. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 9, 199-206. doi: 10.1901/jaba.1976.9-199
  5. Wolery, M., Ault, M. J., & Doyle, P. (1992). Teaching students with moderate to severe disabilities: Use of response prompting strategies. New York: Longman
  6. Ledford, J. R. & Wolery, M. (2015). Observational learning of academic and social information during small group instruction. Exceptional Children, 81, 272-291.
  7. Collins, B. C., Gast, D. L., Ault, M. J., & Wolery, M. (1991). Small group instruction: Guidelines for teachers of students with moderate to severe handicaps. Education and Training in Mental Retardation, 26, 18-32.
  8. Kamps, D., Abbot, M., Greenwood, C., Wills, H., Veerkamp, M., & Kaufman, J. (2008). Effects of small-group reading instruction and curriculum differences for students most at risk in kindergarten. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 41, 101-114.
  9. Lane, J. D., Gast, D. L., Shepley, C., & Ledford, J. R. (2015). Including social opportunities during small group instruction with preschool children with social-communication delays. Journal of Early Intervention, 37, 3-22.
  10. Rodriguez, B. J., & Anderson, C. M. (2014). Integrating a social behavior intervention during small group academic instruction using a total group criterion intervention. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 16, 234-245.
  11. Urlacher, S., Wolery, M., & Ledford, J. R. (2016). Peer modeling of commenting during small group instruction. Journal of Early Intervention.

To cite this page (APA 6th edition):

  • Ledford, J.R. & Chazin, K.T. (2016). Small group academic instruction with peer modeling. In Evidence-based instructional practices for young children with autism and other disabilities. Retrieved from