Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Peer Interactions in Mainstreamed and Specialized Classrooms: A Comparative Analysis

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Peer Interactions in Mainstreamed and Specialized Classrooms: A Comparative Analysis

Article excerpt

Peer Interactions in Mainstreamed and Specialized Classrooms: A Comparative Analysis

Early childhood mainstreaming has been a topic of intense interest since the late 1970s (Guralnick, 1978). Although the fundamental rationale for mainstreaming rests on humanistic and legal grounds, the potential of mainstreamed programs for promoting the development of young handicapped children has been one of its most intriguing features to educators, developmentalists, and researchers alike. From a research perspective, whether mainstreamed programs are in fact more effective than specialized ones is, of course, a highly complex issue. As is well known to those involved in efficacy research in any area (see Guralnick, in press; Guralnick & Bennett, 1987), threats to internal and external validity are found in virtually every decision and in virtually every experimental procedure. Even if designs involving random assignment of subjects can be achieved and all potential confounds somehow avoided, each study is constrained by the choice of programmatic variables selected to address the efficacy question, such as the ratio of handicapped to nonhandicapped children or the type and severity of the handicaps of participating children. The generality of efficacy findings must be established through many investigations that systematically probe the effects of essential programmatic factors (Guralnick, 1981a).

Interest in comparative efficacy research in early childhood mainstreaming has centered on the possibility that mainstreamed settings may promote the peer-related social development of handicapped children to a greater extent than do specialized settings (Guralnick, 1986a). In fact, the existence of a peer-interaction deficit exhibited by handicapped children enrolled in specialized settings (see Guralnick, 1986b), especially children with general (cognitive) developmental delays (Guralnick & Groom, 1985; Guralnick & Weinhouse, 1984), offers the possibility that involvement with normally developing children may have beneficial effects. While investigators recognize that programming at the individual child level or the implementation of a comprehensive peer-relations curriculum can promote peer-related social competence, the nature and ultimate effectiveness of these interventions may well be governed to a substantial degree by the social context in which those interventions occur.

Most experimental comparisons of mainstreamed and specialized programs have involved similar groups of children already enrolled in different programs (e.g., Cooke, Ruskus, Apolloni, & Peck, 1981; Novak, Olley, & Kearney, 1980). Although important preliminary information can be gained from these studies, problems of interpretation will always remain when nonequivalent settings or intact groups of children are involved. Even when random assignment has been possible (e.g., Jenkins, Speltz, & Odom, 1985), matching on the basis of teacher ratings rather than pretest scores due to practical constraints yielded nonequivalent classroom groups. The Jenkins et al. investigation, despite having a very small proportion of nonhandicapped children in the setting containing primarily mildly handicapped children, was actually a major advance in that control or monitoring over virtually all other potentially confounding factors was maintained. Other investigators have adopted within-subjects designs, and they have manipulated systematically the presence or absence of handicapped or nonhandicapped children (Field, Roseman, DeStefano, & Koewler, 1981; Guralnick, 1981b; Strain, 1984). This design avoids the equivalence-of-subjects problem and minimizes the possibility that differences other than those related to the characteristics of the children's peers in the setting are responsible for any obtained differences. This design, however, also limits the generalizability of the findings and is restricted to an assessment of immediate effects on peer interactions. …

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