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The Social Networks of Children With and Without Disabilities in Early Childhood Special Education Classrooms

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Abstract

Interaction with peers is an important contributor to young children’s social and cognitive development. Yet, little is known about the nature of social networks within preschool inclusive classrooms. The current study applied a social network analysis to characterize children’s peer interactions in inclusive classrooms and their relations with children’s disability status. The participants were 485 preschoolers from 64 early childhood special education (ECSE) inclusive classrooms. Results from teachers’ report of children’s social networks showed that children with disabilities formed smaller play networks compared to their typically developing peers in the classroom, but no evidence indicated that children with disabilities engaged in more conflict networks than their counterparts. Children’s play and conflict networks were segregated by children’s disability status.

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Acknowledgments

This research was supported by Grant R324A130066 from the Institute of Education Sciences. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education. We would like to thank the research team and the many administrators, teachers, and children without whom this study would not have been possible.

Author Contributions

All authors contributed extensively to the work presented in this paper. JC conceptualized and implemented the study, conducted literature review, data analysis, and took the lead on drafting and revising the manuscript; T-JL participated in the conceptualization of the study, provided guidance for data analysis and interpretation, facilitated in drafting and the critical revisions of the manuscript; LJ and BS made substantial contributions to the study design and data collection, and assisted with writing, reviewing, and revising the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Jing Chen.

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Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study. This article does not contain any studies with animals performed by any of the authors.

Appendices

Appendix 1: Teacher Rating Scale of Children’s Play and Conflict Networks

During a typical school day, children in your class enjoy playing with some children more than others. Examples of play behavior are pretend play, giving and sharing toys, exploring objects together, and collaborating on building blocks. We are interested in learning about how frequently the following children in your classroom play with one another.

Please write the number (0, 1, 2, 3, or 4) that best describes how often the child in column 1 (shaded) plays with each child across the top row during a typical school day, based on your observations over the last 3 months. Do this for all child-pairs listed.

  • 0 = Never play

  • 1 = Rarely play

  • 2 = Sometimes play

  • 3 = Often play

  • 4 = Always play

Example: The teacher recorded that Child B “sometimes plays” with Child A by placing a 2 in the second column and second row.

Child name

Child A

Child B

_____

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Child A

X

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Child B

2

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X

During a typical school day, children in your class may have conflict with some children more than others. Examples of conflict behavior are quarreling, fighting, kicking, hitting, and shouting with each other. We are interested in learning about how frequently the following children in your classroom have conflict with one another.

Please write the number (0, 1, 2, 3, or 4) that best describes how often each child in column 1 (shaded) has conflict with each child across the top row during a typical school day based on your observations over the last 3 months. Do this for all child-pairs listed.

  • 0 = Never has conflict

  • 1 = Rarely has conflict

  • 2 = Sometimes has conflict

  • 3 = Often has conflict

  • 4 = Always has conflict

Example: A teacher recorded that Child B “never has conflict” with Child A by placing a 0 in the second column and second row.

Child name

Child A

Child B

_____

_____

_____

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Child A

X

--

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Child B

0

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Appendix 2: Goodness-of-Fit Tests for ERGMs

Several goodness-of-fit measures were applied to assess the extent to which the ERGMs (Table 4) were able to reproduce certain network properties that were not specifically assessed in our models (i.e., “out-of-model” statistics, Hunter et al. 2008). The most common out-of-model statistics used to assess goodness of fit are the distribution of individual degree centrality and the distribution of edge-wise shared partners (Siciliano 2015). These goodness-of-fit plots were generated using the gof function in the statnet program in R (Handcock et al. 2008).

For each of the plots presented in this appendix, the thick black line refers to the observed value of a given statistic. The boxplots refer to the distribution of this statistic generated by simulated networks based on the parameters of the ERGM model specified in this study. The plots showed that both play and conflict network models reasonably captured the general trend of the observed interactions, even though the play network model underestimated the number of children whose individual degree centrality was nine and those who had eight edge-wise shared partners. The conflict network model generally fit well except that it overestimated the number of children whose individual degree centrality was three or four and who had one or two edge-wise shared partners. The model also underestimated the number of children who had five or six edge-wise shared partners. These might be caused by the skewed distribution of individual degree in conflict networks because only a few children were involved in conflict interactions.

figure a

Assessment of goodness of fit for the model of play networks

figure b

Assessment of goodness of fit for the model of conflict networks

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Chen, J., Lin, TJ., Justice, L. et al. The Social Networks of Children With and Without Disabilities in Early Childhood Special Education Classrooms. J Autism Dev Disord 49, 2779–2794 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-017-3272-4

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