The peer relations of pupils with special educational needs in mainstream primary schools: The importance of meaningful contact and interaction with peers

Cynthia Pinto, Ed Baines, Ioanna Bakopoulou

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

17 Citations (Scopus)
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Background and aims: Children with special educational needs (SEN) are generally less accepted by peers in school and have fewer friendships than those without SEN. However, little research has examined peer relations across multiple dimensions, relative to severity of need and in relation to classroom experiences and individual behavioural characteristics. This unique study aimed to extend understanding of the peer relations of pupils with differing levels of SEN support relative to children of differing attainment levels without a formally recognized SEN and in relation to levels of social contact in class and teacher ratings of behaviour.

Sample: Three hundred and seventy‐five 9‐ to 11‐year‐old children recruited from 13 classes in four mainstream primary schools in the south of England. Fifty‐nine pupils had been identified as having a SEN, of which 17 had a statement of SEN.

Method: Pupil sociometric questionnaires provided a range of peer relations measures and the extent of meaningful contact with peers. Pupil behaviour was rated by teachers using the Pupil Behaviour Rating scales. Analyses examined differences in peer relations measures, pupil behaviour, and meaningful contact across different levels of educational need.

Results: Compared to pupils without SEN, pupils with a statement of SEN had lower levels of peer acceptance, fewer reciprocated friendships, and were less integrated into peer groups. While internalizing behaviours, such as social anxiousness and anxiety, and externalizing behaviours, such as aggression and hyperactivity, were related to peer relations measures, frequency of meaningful contact with peers was more predictive of peer relations measures than either SEN status or behaviour.

Conclusion: Findings point to the crucial role of meaningful social contact in the classroom for children's relationships with peers. The study advances understanding by highlighting that greater opportunity for meaningful social contact may improve social involvement of, as well as enhance academic outcomes for, pupils with SEN educated in mainstream schools.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)818-837
Number of pages20
JournalBritish Journal of Educational Psychology
Issue number4
Early online date23 Dec 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2019

Structured keywords

  • SoE Centre for Psychological Approaches for Studying Education
  • SoE Language Literacies and Education Network


  • inclusion
  • peer relationships
  • pupils with special educational needs
  • socio-cognitive mapping
  • sociometric methods


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