Wendy or Tinkerbell? How the Underrepresentation of Girls Impacts Gender Roles in Preschool Special Education

Article excerpt

In a public elementary school in the southeastern United States, a self-contained class of prekindergarten children with disabilities is playing with PlayDoh. As the children are molding and shaping the modeling compound, the only girl is helping the boys press shapes into their Play-Doh. She flutters around the other children showing them how to use the various shapes and encouraging them to roll and press the Play-Doh. The class comprised 10 boys and 1 girl. When questioned about the disparity in gender because of concern for the lone girl, the teacher commented, "Oh, she does okay, she mothers all the boys." In another classroom in the same school district, the single girl in a class of nine boys struggles to articulate her fantasy role model. The children are talking about their desire to be superheroes, vying for adult attention and pointing to their shuts to help illustrate their words describing popular cultural icons such as Superman, Batman, and Spiderman. The boys' exuberant, combined voices dominate the discussion and the adult listeners' attention is drawn to reinforcing the boys' use of language and participation in a discussion. Meanwhile, the little girl is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the boys but persists in attempting to be an active participant in the discussion. Many times she tries to enter the conversation repeating the same phrase of which only the word "bell" is understandable. Despite many attempts and prompts from the adults for more information, her words are not understood and she never gets to be a part of the discussion. Later, when the children are acting out their favorite superheroes, one of the adults puts all the clues together to finally comprehend that the little girl was saying, "Me Tinkerbell." These incidents underscore the underrepresentation of girls in preschool special education self-contained classes, leaving them with almost no same gender friends or peers and thereby limiting them to the single role of motherly "Wendy" as they struggle to identify themselves as "Tinkerbell."

Historically, boys have outnumbered girls in special education. Across the developmental age span, the prevalence rates indicate that boys are more often identified with a disability than girls with a rate of 12% for boys and 8% for girls, respectively. This 4% difference does not account for the 33 % difference in enrollment in special education [American Association of University Women, AAUW, 2006). In one large school district in the southeastern United States, this disparity in enrollment has resulted in preschool self-contained special education classes of predominately male students. The scope of this article is to discuss the underrepresentation of girls in these special education classes and the impact it has on their development. These classes are a distortion of social reality and place girls with disabilities at risk for appropriate language, peer, and play models. One of the greatest criticisms of separate, self-contained special education classrooms is the lack of peer role models, which has prompted a push toward more inclusive environments for preschoolers. Gallagher (2006], among others, reported increased social interactions by children with disabilities when taught with typical peers in inclusive environments and confirmed that typical children help to foster social interactions. Therefore, in these particular self-contained preschool classes, not only are opportunities for typical peer interactions lacking but same gender peer interaction even between girls with disabilities is not available. This lack of same gender role models for preschool girls with disabilities and the long-term impact on their developing social skills and self-esteem may not be noticed in the education world (Colwell & Lindsey, 2005; Maccoby, 1990).

Little research has been conducted on gender and disability and gender roles in self-contained separate special education classes. Recently the disproportionality of students of color and older girls in special education has come to the attention of the public [Oswald, Best, Coutinho, & Nagle, 2003). …