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What Works to Prepare Young Children With Disabilities for School?

A new review of research tackles the effectiveness of different strategies that are meant to prepare young children, especially those with disabilities, for school. Early intervention can have a huge effect on whether students with disabilities are ready for school, and may even help them exit special education before or soon after they enter school.

In a recent review, the U.S. Department of Education's  What Works Clearinghouse found that something called milieu teaching appears to have no discernible effects on prepping young children for school, and more research is needed about another strategy known as play-based interventions.

When teachers use strategies embedded in regular activities to prompt students to do a specific thing, it may be a form of milieu teaching. For young children with disabilities, the method can be a way to prepare them in preschool for the rest of their educational life.

Here's an example from the Plano, Texas, school district.

"This might be placing favorite toys visible but out of reach, presenting the child with a new activity, or 'forgetting' to provide a key component of a familiar activity. When the child appears to want the item, the adult makes eye contact with the child. The adult may simply look expectant,anticipating the child's asking for the item. If the child makes the request (i.e. is able to produce the target skill), then he or she is praised by the adult and receives the item along with social praise. If he or she does not respond appropriately, then the adult may try one or more of a variety of prompts, usually starting with the least intrusive. These include: providing the child with a natural prompt ('What do you want?'), explicitly asking the child to make the request ('Make the sign' or 'Point to the picture'), modeling the request for the child, or physically guiding the child in making the request. ... When the child has produced the target skill using whatever assistance was necessary, he or she receives the item along with social praise. It is usually not a good idea to use too many prompts because this can confuse the child, or make the child prompt-dependent. ..."

The What Works Clearinghouse said it looked at 161 studies about milieu teaching, finding only one that met its criteria for research. Based on that study of 40 preschool children with developmental delays in Davidson County, Tenn., the WWC said there just isn't enough evidence out there to vouch for milieu teaching.

The agency also looked at research about play-based interventions. These are described as "practices designed to improve socioemotional, physical, language, and cognitive development through guided interactive play." (Please share an example if you have one.) An interventionist uses strategies to sustain and encourage child play activities, WWC says. "Through the use of appropriate play materials and the direction of the interventionist, the goal is for young children with disabilities to be better able to explore, experiment, interact, and express themselves."

But does it work? A review of more than 60 studies from the past two decades found that none met the WWC's criteria for quality research, (something that's been lamented in the past).

The agency says still more research is needed.

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