Inclusive Curriculum May Not Help Disabled Kindergartners Make Friends

Inclusive classrooms that use disability awareness curricula do not necessarily help children with disabilities make new friendships, according to a new study published in the journal Topics in Early Childhood Special Education.

The findings also showed that having at least one best friend helps children with numerous problem behaviors and low social skills gain peer acceptance.

Inclusive classrooms are defined as those that integrate children with special needs into a mainstream classroom.

“The fact that about 40 percent of young children with disabilities will enter kindergarten without age-appropriate social relationship skills is striking, because these skills help them form friendships, which in turn supports smoother transitions in kindergarten and may prevent later peer victimization,” said lead researcher Lori Erbrederis Meyer, Ph.D., assistant professor of early childhood and early childhood special education at the University of Vermont.

“We found that inclusion in and of itself does not equate to increased acceptance, classroom membership, or peer relationships. This research emphasizes the importance of individualizing class-wide programs based on children’s support needs.”

In the study, entitled “Impact of an Affective Intervention on the Friendships of Kindergarteners with Disabilities,” Meyer investigated the impact of  a disability awareness curriculum on the development of close friendships among 26 kindergarteners with disabilities enrolled in six inclusive classrooms.

She also observed whether the presence of at least one best friend could help mediate the relationship between children’s social skills/problem behaviors and peer acceptance.

Myers compared the results of two study groups, each containing students with and without disabilities. In one group, teachers taught from a “Special Friends” program, a curriculum designed to increase children’s positive attitudes about disabilities. In the other group, teachers implemented a curriculum with a focus on science.

Each program included class-wide shared book reading, mixed-ability cooperative learning groups where students could participate in play-based activities with each other, and a lending library, in which students could bring books home to read with their families.

Children in the Special Friends program read books with a focus on disability-related themes, with teachers discussing the book’s plot, connections between the children and the characters in the books, understanding of disabilities and disability-specific vocabulary. Teachers using the science program led book reading in a very similar way.

“Contrary to our hypothesis that the number of best friendships would increase in the Special Friends program, we found a significant increase in the number of best friendships for children with disabilities participating in the science program,” Meyer says.

There was one important difference between the cooperative learning groups’ activities in Special Friends versus the science curriculum.

In the Special Friends group, the curriculum encouraged open-ended, dramatic play — like pretending to run a restaurant — while the science group worked on project-based activities that had clearly defined outcomes — such as working together to build a bird’s nest.

“Evidence shows that children in the Special Friends program may not have had the play skills necessary to engage in extended, independent play interactions during the cooperative learning group activities,” Meyer says.

“Some of the children weren’t sure how to initiate interactions. This may account for the group’s decline in the mean number of best friendships.”

Furthermore, the results showed that self-regulation and social skills are directly related to having at least one best friend and acceptance among peers.

“Children who had higher rates of problem behavior and lower social skills also had lower rates of peer acceptance,” Meyer says. “However, when children with these social-behavioral characteristics had a best friendship, it did not result in lower peer acceptance scores.”

Meyer suggests that to increase the chances of children with disabilities making friends, high-quality inclusion models must be structured in a way that creates an environment that supports young children’s acceptance, membership, and the development of friendships.

“Our research shows that at the same time we’re focusing on improving children’s social skills and decreasing their challenging behaviors, we also have to be helping them make friends in the classroom because of the protective factors that it has and its effect on producing better social and academic outcomes.” she says.

Source: University of Vermont