Strategies That Promote Social Relations among Elementary Students with and without Severe Disabilities in Inclusive Schools

Article excerpt

Social relationships with peers provide children with a range of supports and tacit acknowledgment of their acceptance in the social milieu of the school. Studies of young elementary-age children reveal that positive social relations influence their intellectual, communicative, interpersonal, and emotional development (Asher, 1983; Bates, 1975; Hartup, 1978; Parker & Asher, 1987; Rubin, 1980). During the primary grades, children begin to understand and adopt the core values of their culture, and they develop the social skills needed to act effectively on those values (Solomon, Walson, Delucchi, Schaps, & Battistich, 1988). The public school classroom has particular importance as a context for the development of relationships between groups of children who have little contact outside the school setting. Despite the importance of these relationships, few studies have investigated how classroom teachers may help students improve their social relationships, attitudes, values, or behaviors (Solomon et al., 1988).

The development of positive social relationships and networks is a particularly important and problematic goal for students with moderate and severe disabilities--because this is the group of children who have been most routinely segregated from contact with "typical" children in general education classrooms (Brown et al., 1989; Haring & Breen, 1989; Meyer & Putnam, 1988; Stainback & Stainback, 1987). The ability of young children with severe disabilities to learn and apply important skills in functional situations can best be achieved in normalized social contexts (Haring, 1991). At a deeper level, achieving a sense of "belonging" within the community is fundamental to each child's psychological well-being (Kunc, 1992; Strully & Strully, 1985). On a broader level, the development of social policy that supports the integration of vulnerable people in social and community networks reflects a society that recognizes and values its sense of community and that is accepting of people who make diverse contributions to that community (Bellah, Madson, Sullivan, Swidelr, & Tipton, 1985). The relatively recent shift in educational placement policy toward including children with moderate and severe disabilities in general education classrooms further focuses attention on issues about the social relationships among children and the cultural context in which these relationships develop. How educators can address these implementation issues remains a continuing challenge in the field.

Research involving elementary-age students with mild and moderate disabilities suggests that social acceptance and positive social interactions are affected by the child's social competence, as well as their similarity to and collaborative interactions with peers without disabilities (cf., Acton & Zarbatany, 1988; Miller et al., 1989; Siperstein, Bak, & O,Keefe, 1988). These data are consistent with the research on typically developing children of elementary age and provide some guidance in understanding issues that influence the development of relationships in integrated educational contexts.

Little is known about the nature of social relations among elementary-age children with and without severe disabilities. Available research suggests that relations will be more frequent, positive, or equitable when children are educated in an integrated setting (Brinker & Thorpe, 1986; Cole & Meyer, 1991) and when educators create opportunities for collaboration among students with and without severe disabilities (Eichinger, 1990; Putnam, Rynders, Johnson, & Johnson, 1989). Most of what is known about the influences of instructional practices on social relations, however, is based on intervention practices in integrated contexts derived primarily from the discipline of special education (Odom, McConnell, & McEvoy, 1992). However valuable these intervention studies are, they share a high degree of reliance on the availability and disciplinary knowledge of special educators and other specialists. …