Friendship is often described as a major outcome of early childhood inclusive classrooms that support all children, irrespective of their abilities.
Friendships provide children with joy, laughter and comfort. They may also prevent later bullying and support smoother transitions into kindergarten for children with a range of disabilities. Friendships are considered a vital developmental milestone for all children.
Yet, developing close relationships may be difficult for some children. This is especially true for children who enter school without well-developed social-emotional skills. About 40% of children with disabilities, for example, enter kindergarten without developing age-appropriate skills in this area.
So, what impact does curriculum have on the development of friendships for children with disabilities? And how can teachers help nurture these friendships?
Investigating the impact of curriculum
To answer these questions, we conducted a study that included 110 kindergarteners, 26 of whom had disabilities, within six classrooms across a Midwest and a New England state.
This study took place as part of another longer-term research project in which teachers were randomly assigned to use either a “disability-awareness curriculum” or a modified science curriculum. Cooperative play is an area in which advanced or higher-level skills are needed to be successful.
In our study, curricula included similar components of class-wide book readings and teacher-led discussions, “cooperative learning groups” (a teaching strategy that brings together groups of students with different abilities), and a classroom lending library to promote shared reading at home.
These curricula were chosen because they were alike in some ways. Both allowed teachers to focus discussions on similarities between the book content and kindergarteners. And both could include the three core components (ie, book reading, cooperative groups, and home literacy).
What we found surprised us. The number of close friendships among children with disabilities significantly increased in classrooms where the science curriculum was implemented.
Examining the results more closely
Implementation of the two curricula was designed to create similar opportunities for interactions between children with and without disabilities.
In their classrooms, children participated in similar activities: they were read books and encouraged to participate in discussions either about disability or science-related topics. Each week, children were able to take one of the books home that was read to them at school.
However, the cooperative learning groups were designed differently. In the cooperative learning groups for the science curriculum, children focused on science activities that were more outcome-orientated (eg, making bird nests, measuring worms).
In the cooperative learning groups for the disability-awareness curriculum, children participated in play-based activities with open-ended materials and toys (eg, farm animals and a barn, pretend kitchen set and food).
Our observations of children’s play during the cooperative learning groups suggest that participating children with disabilities may not have had the skills needed to fully engage in the group’s play.
For example, some children struggled to enter into ongoing play. During one such activity, a child was playing with a “pretend cash register” and another child with a disability wanted a turn with it. The child asked his peer if he could play with it. However, the peer said no.
In response, the child repeated his same question again and again, receiving the same response from his peer. The child with a disability did not have a broad repertoire of social or play skills to try other strategies such as asking if he might have a turn when the peer was done, or if he could trade roles with the peer (eg, become the cashier and suggest the peer become a shopper).
It seems that cooperative play is an area in which advanced or higher-level skills are needed to be successful. These skills include sharing materials, assisting peers, entering into ongoing play or offering a storyline for imaginative play.
The results from this study on friendships suggest that without these skills, children’s contributions to play may have been less successful, and peers may have viewed children with disabilities as less than ideal play partners.
In comparison, the science experiences such as making bird nests together, painting group posters with each child’s handprints on them and measuring the length of worms may have provided children with outcome-oriented tasks and the support needed to participate in ways similar to peers.
A shared activity with a common goal may have provided the structure that some children with disabilities needed to successfully participate alongside peers. In this arrangement, peers may have viewed classmates with disabilities as competent contributors to the group task.
Taken together, this could have been the reason for the increase in close classroom friendships for children with disabilities who participated in the science curriculum.
What can we learn from this?
First, there has been a lot of discussion focused on how play is no longer a valued part of kindergarten education in the United States. Also, kindergarten schedules leave very little room for play or for supporting the development of social-emotional skills.
Our results provide support for creating opportunities for children to learn through playful interactions. These findings also acknowledge that some children may enter school with limited social-emotional and play skills that are needed to form friendships. These children need teacher support and repeated classroom opportunities to master those skills.
Second, the debate of whether kindergarten classes should have either an academic or social focus must stop.
We believe that the structure of the science-based cooperative learning groups in our study may have served an important role in supporting the development of close friendships, especially for children with disabilities.
We also believe that social-emotional skill development, and the development of friendships, can occur across the school day depending on how teachers structure their classroom environment and schedule, and support learning outcomes.
What can teachers do?
Early childhood teachers can support the development of friendships by the way they structure activities in their classroom.
For example, teachers can purposefully place more social children next to quieter children during group activities. They can pair children who already have a budding relationship to do an activity together, or they can create activities in which small groups of children can interact while completing a project together.
Teachers can support the development of social skills through large and small group instruction. Also, teachers can provide individualized social skill instruction based on student needs, and on an individual basis as necessary.
Inclusive classrooms are a trend increasing in the United States. Teaching children how to share, how to handle anger and conflict, how to express their emotions and how to enter into ongoing play situations are all important skills for young children to learn. Some children might need more support than others to develop these skills.
Simply placing children with and without disabilities in the same classroom will not guarantee peer acceptance or friendships.