Academic journal article Communication Disorders Quarterly

Communicative Functions of African American Head Start Children

Academic journal article Communication Disorders Quarterly

Communicative Functions of African American Head Start Children

Article excerpt

Children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are more often over- and underreferred for special education services than children from the mainstream culture. In fact, African American children, particularly boys, are more likely to be expelled from preschool programs. Differences in African American communication styles may be misinterpreted and consequently lead to frustration and conflict. Yet, little research had documented typical pragmatic development in African American preschool children. In this study, 12 African American Head Start children were videotaped during play, and their pragmatic communicative functions were analyzed. Significant differences were found in the types of communicative functions used by African American boys as compared to girls.

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Children from culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) and low-income backgrounds are overreferred to special education programs for language-learning and social--emotional problems. Children from CLD backgrounds exhibit speech and language that may be mistaken for disordered communication (Gildersleeve-Neumann, 2005; Paradis, 2005). In addition, gender and cultural differences in pragmatic or politeness styles may be misinterpreted, which may result in a misunderstanding of the communicated message, conflict, and poor social outcomes (Delpit, 1995; Harry, 1992; Kalyanpur & Harry, 1999; Terrell & Terrell, 1996). Furthermore, children from low-income backgrounds are exposed to different vocabulary and discourse styles that are atypical of the mainstream middle-class culture, which may affect performance on standardized measures (Hart & Risley 1995, 1999; Heath, 1983; Qi, Kaiser, Milan, & Hancock, 2006). Children from diverse backgrounds not only exhibit and express different speech, vocabulary, syntax, and discourse styles but also may have varying expectations for social interactions. These differences may have been a factor in the findings of the Yale University Child Study Center, which examined 52 state-funded preschool programs across 40 states. The study provided evidence that African American preschool children were twice as likely to be expelled from school as Hispanic or White children and five times more likely to be expelled than Asian American children (Gillam, 2005). In addition, boys were expelled four and one-half times more often than girls, regardless of cultural background.

In a study of preschool teachers, Nungesser and Watkins (2005) found that the teachers referred students for special education intervention most often on the basis of a particular subset of behaviors. Preschool teachers reported that violent physical reactions, impulsive behaviors, and noncompliance were the most descriptive of possible behavior problems. The teachers perceived the home environment as the key contributing factor for behavior problems. Few teachers believed communication played a role in social competence. African American children, however, may react to or misunderstand pragmatic discourse differences, and teachers may interpret the children's reactions as impulsive, aggressive, or noncompliant behavior that requires referral for special education intervention (Delpit, 1995). Gender differences in pragmatic communication may add to the misinterpretation, resulting in more boys than girls being referred or suspended. When educators misinterpret children's pragmatic communication, the students may communicate their frustration in ways that are interpreted as verbal or physical conflict. These mismatches in communication may result in referral for and identification of social-emotional or communication problems.

Overidentification of African American children for special education services has been well documented (Donovan & Cross, 2002; Hosp & Reschly, 2004). In previous studies, both demographic and economic factors have predicted placement of African American children into social-emotional or learning disability categories. …

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