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.

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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.