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Inclusive Classrooms Provide Language Boost, Study Finds

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Inclusion appears to offer a big boost when it comes to developing language skills in children with disabilities, a new study finds. (Glen Stubbe/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)

Inclusion appears to offer a big boost when it comes to developing language skills in children with disabilities, a new study finds. (Glen Stubbe/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)

For young children with disabilities, the key to mastering language may be surrounding them with their typically-developing peers, researchers say.

Over the course of just one school year, a new study finds that preschoolers with disabilities who attended mainstream classes with highly-skilled peers were using language on par with their classmates without disabilities.

By comparison, kids with special needs who were surrounded by children with weak language skills remained far behind their typically-developing peers at the end of the school year.

The findings come from a study of 670 Ohio preschoolers, slightly more than half of whom had a disability like autism, language impairment or Down syndrome. All of the kids’ language skills were measured in the fall and spring using a standardized assessment.

Children with disabilities in classrooms with highly-skilled peers outperformed those surrounded by the lowest-skilled youngsters by 40 percent in the spring testing, according to findings published online in the journal Psychological Science.

“In a sense, the typically-developing children act as experts who can help their classmates who have disabilities,” said Laura Justice, a professor of teaching and learning at The Ohio State University who co-authored the study.

While kids with disabilities saw a big boost from attending class with children with strong language skills, researchers note that the kids with the greatest abilities did not see any downside from interacting with those who were not as advanced.

“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.”

The findings highlight the importance of inclusion for young kids with disabilities, researchers say.

“We have to give serious thought to how we organize our classrooms to give students with disabilities the best chance to succeed,” Justice said.

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Comments (19 Responses)

  1. Beth T. says:

    This is not true for all children. My daughter has an auditory issue along with her autism and when she is around many children she blocks her ears and shuts them out. She did more in an autism learning center than she did in an inclusive setting. These kinds of studies are here only to push an agenda. THe more they can put our children in a regular classroom, the less they have to pay for services that our children truly need. I have spoken to many teachers and they feel that some of these children who are forced to be inclusive should not be there and they are disrupted as well as being disruptive. I think a happy medium can be found but to say that all children do better in language when in an inclusive setting is wrong.

  2. Joan Sheridan says:

    I agree completely. We had to hire lawyers to get our son with autism and very limited speech into regular classess. One thing he learned is how to behave normally. He now bags at a supermarket with a job coach and makes 12 $ an hour. I disagree with the previous writer. She says her daughter has an auditory issue..I am sure there is just as much noise in a segregated setting as in a regular classroom

  3. Mari R says:

    I agree in part with Joan and in part with Beth. My son is 5 and has multiple disabilities. He has anxiety and sensory and auditory issues. For a couple of years we thought he was non verbal. He was placed in a pre k program with other children with disabilities and neuro typical kids, his age of course. He was in the program for almost 2 school years and he did progress in language and social skills. He is now 5 and it seems that in the last 6 months or so, his vocabulary is coming in fast. I am so glad. I do strongly believe that a parent knows their child better than any expert, educator, doctor or other. At one point, the speech therapist, teacher and “lead” teacher recommended that he be moved to an FCC class which there were children with no language and we strongly opposed. I feel strongly that if would have allowed the move, he would not have progressed as well as he has. If you feel that the setting is not a fit for you child, then you must advocate to what you know is best for them. I also think that offering new opportunities for new experiences, may help children with disabilities.

  4. Jean says:

    My child with Down syndrome attended kindergarten in a GenEd classroom. Her language blossomed. More importantly, she made friends. At the end of the year, the teacher said her classmates learned empathy and acceptance by having Emily as a classmate. Some lessons can’t be taught, they have to be experienced. The children in her class were fortunate to have an opportunity to get to know a peer with a disability.

  5. Kristi pedersen says:

    The study doesn’t say all children it just states that their little study showed that children with autism tended to improve their language skills in inclusive classroom. Listen, if we say we don’t support inclusion most children with disabilities are secluded, warehoused in the special education department without a voice. Being around other students also keeps aides on their toes and keeps it more dynamic because you have others watching what you r doing..ie working with them…

  6. Emily Hensel says:

    Deaf children,..who use signed languages as their major communication system,..do not benefit from such mainstreaming. Their true peers are other Deaf children,..who also sign!!

  7. Lauren Chipps says:

    There is no doubt in my mind that special needs children benefit from being mainstreamed in school they learn by imitating the typically dev. children. They are like small teachers.

  8. Anon says:

    I agree with Beth T. on noise in the classroom. The more disabilities, the more hardship for the kid in mainstream. The worst is open-concept setting – meaning there are 4-6 classrooms in a “pea-pod”. All teachers teaching 6 different subjects at once with other grade level making their transition in these halls to other classes all day long. The noise level is horrendous. Most kids with autism do NOT fare well in mainstream or regular classrooms, only a few do such as Joan Sheridan’s case.

  9. vmgillen says:

    Studies show that general ed students benefit from inclusion, particularly where related services are “push-in” rather than “pull-out.” The argument about including deaf children comes down to deaf culture – in my personal experience, the entire class took to sign language en masse (no doubt prompted by the realization that their parents, siblings, et al. had no idea what they were talking about: secret code). As to environmental conditions (noise, lighting – any issues re. sensory over-stimulation), most design standards for education environments call for careful consideration. We need to make sure existing spaces are not over-crowded, and are retro-fitted, if need be, to comply with standards. That means spending money – which is a tough nut to crack, for inclusive or segregated paradigms.

  10. Whitney says:

    What I am getting is that each child is an individual case and there is no correct way approach. It depends on the child and the individual disability. Parent X has a solution to his or her offspring and it works but Parent Y implements it and it does not work. I think the problem is when a parent find solution to child’s disability and they want to implement for all children of that disability.

    With Autism they need a period of socializations and to keep up with the soft skills. This is depending of the function level of the individual. The other problem is that if the Teacher is really good they can control the noise level and even direct it. That is if the class room is not overcrowded and the Teacher is good.

  11. Diana C. says:

    I’m on the fence. My daughter with DS has excelled in a special class with 6-8 others and spends part of her day in mainstream with her grade level, as well as lunches and recess. She talks, reads etc. There are some in the class doing the same that aren’t doing as well. I think it depends on the child and working with your child at home is essential.

  12. Amanda says:

    In response to other comments, I think it’s common sense that this study is circumstantial. I don’t think it pushes any agenda to defund any services. I think it simply means if someone has a language development issue, then they could (depending upon their circumstances and other health issues) pick up on language easier and quicker from their peers than from another source.

  13. Harrison Dixon says:

    I don’t know why this is new information, it seems that it would be obvious to anyone with even the simplest understanding of the learning process that exposure to better conditions will improve one’s own situation.

    Harrison Dixon

  14. cheryl anderson says:

    Thank you for this study! We are the grandparents of a beautiful 8 year old granddaughter who lives with Downs. After an 11 month absence, we recently spent the better part of 5 weeks with her and her parents and cannot express our joy in seeing the progress made as a result of her inclusion in a “typical” 1st grade classroom environment! She is expressing herself clearly; she can add and subtract; is reading and writing. She wants to converse on the phone and is; she knows how to behave at a library; a first-class restaurant; the playground etc. She offers to set the table and clean up! Thank you to all who are giving her the chance to function in a typical environment. It is working wonders!

  15. JR says:

    I remember talking to a parent at my sons’ school whose child was a refugee from a preschool with much higher functioning children. The other children were learning to cut with scissors while her daughter was not yet able to hold her head up. A center-based special ed program with teachers and staff more attuned to children with multiple and complex disabilities was a more appropriate setting for that child (as well as my own). Fortunately, studies are not the determining factor in where and with whom a child goes to school. Those decisions that require judgements about what is best for an individual child are made by parents and schools.

  16. Sarah says:

    I agree with this finding and I do not at the same time. My son has PDDNOS and he is verbal but has behavioral issues. He has continual issues in the regular classroom. Mostly because there are simply too many other kids, he cannot keep up, he cannot follow the directions. They have tried so many different approaches with him and all of them have had limited success. His learning is suffering, if he were in a smaller more controlled setting this would not be the same issue. I do not think in our case it matters if the other children have similar needs or not, but the classes really are just too big when inclusion is the goal.

  17. Yolanda W says:

    My 10 yr old was in fourth grade special education but still cant write letters or numbers. Was having speech therapy. What classroom she needs to be in. Inclusion with first graders or what. Help please.

  18. Patty says:

    I do think that they learn a great deal in the regular classroom, but on things that they struggle in, I think pull out is beneficial. They can go at a slower pace. In a regular class they get paired up with better students who end up doing all the work. Not sure how much they are learning by sitting there while the typical kids do all the work, but it is what it is. I did like the time that my daughter was with her learning peers in order to make friends. Let’s face it, typical students are not going to be calling our kids to go hangout, but at least our kiddos who struggle and have learning disabilities do seem to form a bond. We all have dreams for our children, and we all do the best that we can. Diana is right when she says the biggest difference is what we do with our children at home.

  19. Michael Carpenter says:

    I’ve been reading a lot of research papers along these lines as background info as we engage in difficult negotiations with our school district. I followed up with a researcher directly on some questions about their findings, specifically reflecting the arguments that our son’s teachers and therapists are making against a push-in service model for our son. The researcher’s response wasn’t as definitive as the research itself, from which I concluded that the issues under debate aren’t trivial.

    I’m guessing there are few right/wrong answers that apply to all children and it takes a lot of effort and dedication to find what works for each individual child. But few parents and/or school systems seem to be able to set aside their prejudices and work towards finding a working solution for a child.

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