Establishing the Efficacy of the "Special Friends" Project
Purpose: Successful peer interactions lead to positive social and emotional development. Children with disabilities engage in social interaction with peers less frequently than typically developing children do. Children with disabilities who fail to develop positive social relationships with peers are at elevated risk for social maladjustment and academic failure. In addition, they are at great risk of being rejected by their peers. Therefore, effective interventions that can be used in education settings to engage children with disabilities in social interactions with peers, improve social outcomes of children with disabilities, and support acceptance are needed.
Researchers are evaluating the efficacy of a class-wide kindergarten program called Special Friends. Special Friends is designed to improve social outcomes of children with disabilities. The purpose of this study is to test the efficacy of Special Friends as a class-wide approach for promoting social acceptance and friendships among kindergarteners with and without disabilities.
Project Activities: A randomized controlled cluster design will be used to examine the short- and long-term effects of the program. During the first three years, kindergarten classrooms will be randomly assigned to receive Special Friends intervention or a control intervention focusing on science. Data will be analyzed to examine the efficacy of Special Friends for improving (a) peer acceptance of children with disabilities and (b) social skills of children with and without disabilities. Data will also be analyzed to determine whether children maintain improved social skills and peer acceptance a year after receiving the intervention. In addition, data will be analyzed to determine if intervention effects are moderated by teacher attitudes about inclusion and teacher perceptions of school administrative support for inclusion.
Products: The products of this project include evidence of the efficacy of an intervention designed to improve social outcomes of children with disabilities, published reports, and presentations.
Setting: The research will occur in Rhode Island and Illinois.
Population: Approximately 128 kindergarteners with disabilities will participate in this study. Disabilities represented will include children with mild, moderate, or severe-multiple disabilities. Study participants must have consistent school attendance. In addition, the study will include approximately 640 typically developing kindergarteners.
Intervention: Special Friends is a six-week long multi-component program designed to promote acceptance of children with disabilities. In the first component, teachers read a story about a child with a disability to their classes followed by a brief guided discussion. Story time will occur 3 times a week for 6 weeks. The second component involves a cooperative learning activity designed to support socialization among children with and without disabilities. Each cooperative activity lasts for fifteen minutes and occurs three times per week. The third component of Special Friends is conducted at home. Each week, children will take home one of the previously read stories and repeat story reading and discussion with a family member.
Research Design and Methods: A randomized cluster design will be used to examine the short- and long-term effects of the Special Friends program. During the first three years, kindergarten classrooms from each state will be randomly assigned to receive the Special Friends or a control intervention, Science Start. In addition, follow up data will be collected six months, one year, and two years after the intervention determine the long-term effects of Special Friends.
Control Condition: Children in the control condition will participate in a three component science and literacy unit, Science Start, from the Children's School Success (CSS) Curriculum. These science activities are designed to support language and literacy outcomes in the context of language rich science lessons. The control condition will share similar features with Special Friends. It consists of a large group activity in which a science concept is introduced followed by a book reading and guided discussion. Children will also participate in a related cooperative learning activity. Finally, children will repeat the first component at home with a family member.
Key Measures: Researchers will assess children's acceptance and understanding of individuals with disabilities as well as the establishment of social networks. In addition, data on children's behavior and social skills will be collected. Researchers will also collect data on school barriers to inclusion, teachers' perceptions of administrative support for inclusion, and teachers' experience with children with disabilities. Finally, fidelity of implementation data will be collected.
Data Analytic Strategy: Hierarchical Linear Modeling (HLM) will be used to examine the efficacy of Special Friends for improving (a) peer acceptance of children with disabilities and (b) social skills of children with and without disabilities. In addition, data will be analyzed to determine whether intervention effects are moderated by teacher attitudes about inclusion and teacher perceptions of school administrative support for inclusion.
Publications from this project:
Yu, S. Y., Ostrosky, M. M., & Fowler, S. A. (2011). Children's friendship development: A comparative study. Early Childhood Research and Practice, 13(1).
Yu, S. Y., & Ostrosky, M. M. (in press). Young children's understanding of disabilities: Implications for attitude development and inclusive education. In B. Spodek & O. Saracho (Eds.), Handbook of research on the education of young children (pp. 355–364). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Yu, S. Y., Ostrosky, M. M., & Fowler, S. A. (in press). Measuring young children's attitudes toward peers with disabilities: Highlights from the research. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education.