Mainstreaming preschoolers with disabilities into a regular classroom can boost their language skills, says a study by Ohio State University. The study was announced on March 28, 2014, and will be published in the journal Psychological Science.
“The results support inclusion policies in schools that aim to have students with disabilities in the same classrooms alongside their typically developing peers,” said Laura Justice, study co-author and a professor of teaching and learning at The Ohio State University. “Students with disabilities are the ones who are affected most by the language skills of the other children in their class,” Justice said.
A student’s average language skills in the fall can significantly predict the level of the student’s language skills in the spring, especially for disabled children. “We found that children with disabilities get a big boost in their language scores over the course of a year when they can interact with other children who have good language skills,” Justice said.
After one year of inclusion in a preschool with highly-skilled peers, disabled children had language skills comparable to their non-disabled. “The biggest problem comes when we have a classroom of children with disabilities with no highly skilled peers among them,” Justice said. “In that case, they have limited opportunity to improve their use of language.”
Researchers analyzed 670 preschool-aged children who were enrolled in 83 early childhood special education classrooms in Ohio. Approximately half of the children had an Individualized Education Plan, inidicating that the children have a disability. Each classroom had disabled children at a ratio of 25 to 100 percent of the classroom. The Descriptive Pragmatics Profile, a commonly used test, was used to measure the children’s language skills in the fall and spring.
The average score of all the children in the classroom was used to determine whether classmates had more highly skilled, less skilled, or average language skills. The study found that while the language skills of all children were affected somewhat by their classmates’ skill levels, the children with disabilities were most strongly affected.
Disabled children with the most highly skilled peers had language scores in the spring were approximately 40 percent higher in skill level than disabled children who were placed with lowest-ranked peers. Non-disabled children showed approximately a 27 percent difference in scores between the highest and lowest ranked peers.
“This study, like others, finds that the most highly skilled students are the ones whose language improvement is least affected by the skill of their classmates,” Justice said. “The highly skilled children aren’t hurt by being in classrooms with children who have disabilities, but children with disabilities are vulnerable if they aren’t placed with more highly skilled peers.”