Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Social Support in Inclusive Schools: Student and Teacher Perspectives

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Social Support in Inclusive Schools: Student and Teacher Perspectives

Article excerpt

An individual's social world is comprised of a complex interplay between experiences within his or her social network, feelings of social support, and perceptions of social competence. Researchers recognize the importance of gathering information about the structure, composition, and component relationships within a person's social network to obtain a richer understanding of his or her social experiences (Vaux, 1988). While the social network serves as a map of different relationships or affiliations the individual has with others, as well as the salience of these relationships (Farmer & Farmer, 1996), this network is dynamic and changes as a person grows. Network members perform several support functions, which have been described as social support.

The terms social network and social support have often, incorrectly, been used interchangeably. While the social network is the structure of an individual's social relationships, social support can be broadly conceived of as the process by which the individual feels valued, cared for, and connected to a group of people (possibly those within his or her network). Farmer and Farmer (1996) define social support as "processes of social exchange that contribute to the development of individuals' behavioral patterns, social cognition, and values" (p. 433). This definition emphasizes the importance of the social support received by individuals in shaping their value and belief systems, and thought processes. By this proposition, individuals who view themselves as receiving less support might experience difficulty in developing socially appropriate behaviors and accurate conceptions of their social efficacy.

A person's social competence develops out of, and continues to influence, his or her life experiences and social interactions with others within the social network. Preliminary research indicates that socially competent students who perceive their social relationships with adults and peers in their environment as being supportive, report having a positive self-concept and feel integrated in their social community (Forman, 1988; Kloomok & Cosden, 1994; Rothman & Cosden, 1995). Conversely, a lack of perceived social support is likely to give rise to lower social competence and feelings of loneliness in students (Vaux, 1988). Thus, support from one's social network appears to enhance social and emotional well-being.

SOCIAL FUNCTIONING IN STUDENTS WITH MILD DISABILITIES

Many students with mild disabilities demonstrate difficulties in developing social relationships with adults and peers in their environment (Gresham, 1992; Vaughn, Elbaum, & Schumm, 1996; Wenz-Gross & Siperstein, 1997). These students often evidence reduced social perceptiveness, finding it challenging to read verbal and nonverbal social cues and appropriately interpret these cues within a social and cultural context. Such difficulties inhibit social behavior that facilitates the development of friendships and peer relationships, and increases feelings of loneliness and social isolation (Luftig, 1988; Margalit, 1991; Pavri & Luftig, in press; Taylor, Asher, & Williams, 1987; Williams & Asher, 1992).

Preliminary findings reveal that there are similarities in the size and composition of social networks of students with and without mild disabilities (Geisthardt & Munsch, 1996; Wenz-Gross & Siperstein, 1997). However, students with mild disabilities receiving special education services sought less support from adults and peers in the areas of problem-solving and companionship than did their peers without disabilities.

In investigating social networks in inclusive general education classrooms, Farmer and Farmer (1996) found students with learning disabilities (LD), emotional disturbance (ED), and gifts and talents (GT) tended to affiliate with other students who were similar to them with regard to personal or social characteristics. …

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