The "peer effect" of attending preschool with children who have strong language skills offered a benefit to students with disabilities, according to a study of more than 600 children conducted by researchers at Ohio State University and Toledo University in Ohio.
But peer effects also had a potentially negative consequence, according to the study: The language skills of children with disabilities suffered when they were surrounded by typically-developing peers who had weak language skills themselves.
The study was published July 25 on the website of Psychological Science. Researchers followed 670 students (the average age was around 4) enrolled in 83 early-childhood special education classrooms in an unnamed Midwestern school district. The classrooms, with an average enrollment of 13 children, served students with disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder, language impairment, Down syndrome, and developmental delay. About half of the students in the classrooms were typically developing, an intentional effort on the part of the district to create an inclusive setting.
The students were evaluated in the fall and spring. In addition to the peer effects mentioned above, the study also found that typically developing childen were not as strongly impacted by their peers compared to students with disabilities, suggesting that the inclusion did not hold back students who came in with strong language skills. However, the findings also suggest that grouping students with poor skills together is not ideal.
The researchers hypothesize that as children with disabilities interact with their classmates through play, learning to take turns in a conversation, telling stories, and communicating their wants and needs, they benefit from a chance to imitate good language skills.
"If peer effects operate as our work suggests they do, it is very important to consider how to organize children in classrooms so that their opportunities to learn from one another is maximized—and so that young children with disabilities are not segregated into classrooms serving only those with special needs," said Laura M. Justice, a psychological scientist at Ohio State University and lead author on the study, in a press release announcing the study results.