Relationships among young children’s ideas, emotional understanding, and social contact with classmates with disabilities

Relationships among young children’s ideas, emotional understanding, and social contact with classmates with disabilities

Karen E. Diamond

In the United States, it is increasingly common for preschool children with disabilities to be enrolled in early childhood programs with their typically developing peers. In its recent report to Congress, the U.S. Department of Education reported that slightly more than half of 3- to 5-year-old children with disabilities received intervention services in school programs designed for children without disabilities. An additional 9% of preschool children received services in a combination of general education classroom and resource programs during the 1996-1997 school year (U.S. Department of Education, 1997). There are no national data on the number of programs designed for typically developing children that include at least one child with a disability, although estimates range from 34% of childcare programs (Buysse, Wesley, Bryant, & Gardner, 1999) to 74% of early childhood programs (Wolery et al., 1993). Taking the more conservative estimate (that one third of early childhood programs are inclusive) and applying it to the 4 million 3- and 4-year-old children attending a preschool program for at least a part of the day (U.S. Census Bureau, 1998), more than 1.5 million preschool children are attending school with one or more classmates who have identified disabilities.

Because there is clear evidence that inclusive programs can effectively meet the learning needs of children with disabilities (cf. Buysse & Bailey, 1993), why is it important to pay attention to the experiences of typically developing children? It has been suggested that, if children’s experiences in inclusive preschool programs are positive, these experiences will support the development of positive attitudes toward people with disabilities, both during preschool and in subsequent years. Similarly, negative experiences in inclusive preschool settings may lead to the development of prejudices about people with disabilities (Stoneman, 1993).

In some studies, participation in programs that have included peers with disabilities has been associated with children’s and adolescents’ positive attitudes toward people with disabilities. In a study with preschool children, Esposito and Reed (1986) reported that contact with age-mates with disabilities was associated with long lasting positive gains in elementary-age children’s attitudes toward people with disabilities. In studies with older children, Helmstetter, Peck, and Giangreco (1994) have found positive outcomes of inclusion for high school students who participated in programs with agemates with disabilities. Kishi and Meyer (1994) found that teenagers’ attitudes were more positive and accepting of people with disabilities if they had participated in mainstreamed school-based activities during elementary school.

There is some evidence that typically developing children in inclusive programs hold more positive attitudes toward people with disabilities than do their agemates enrolled in preschool programs for typically developing children only. For instance, Diamond and her colleagues found that preschool children in inclusive classes gave higher social acceptance ratings to children with and without disabilities, and had more ideas about ways to help a classmate, than did their agemates enrolled in preschool programs that included only typically developing children (Diamond & Carpenter, 2000; Diamond, Hestenes, Carpenter, & Innes, 1997).

In a recent intervention study, Favazza and Odom (1997) used a variety of interventions to promote positive attitudes toward peers with disabilities among a group of kindergarten children who attended a public school in which agemates with disabilities were enrolled in special education classes but participated in school activities such as lunch and recess. There were two intervention groups. In the high-contact group, 15 kindergarten children participated in a 9-week program that included story time and discussions about children with disabilities, a 15-minute structured free play activity with age-mates with disabilities 3 days each week, and home reading activities. Fifteen children in the low-contact group saw children with disabilities during daily school activities (e.g., recess, lunch) but participated in none of the interventions. A control group of 16 children attended a school that included no children with disabilities. The attitudes of children in the high-contact group were significantly more positive at the end of the intervention than they had been at the beginning. In addition, children in the high-contact group held significantly more positive attitudes toward people with disabilities in general than did children in the low- and no-contact groups. These data suggest that regular, planned contact between typically developing children and peers with disabilities, along with activities to promote acceptance that were led by teachers and parents, promoted the development of positive attitudes toward individuals with disabilities. It is unclear which of the intervention components (planned interaction times, story time activities at school, home activities) were most influential in influencing children’s attitudes.

When high school students were asked about the ways in which their interactions with peers with moderate and severe disabilities had affected their lives, they reported seven different types of positive outcomes, including increased responsiveness to others’ needs (Helmstetter et al., 1994). In another study, general education teachers reported that children and adolescents without disabilities became increasingly aware of the needs of others when they were enrolled in a class that included a child with a severe disability (Giangreco, Dennis, Cloninger, Edelman, & Schattman, 1993). Finally, in a study by Peck and his colleagues, parents reported that their typically developing preschool children who were enrolled in inclusive preschools were more responsive and helpful to others than they would have been without this experience (Peck, Carlson, & Helmstetter, 1992). In all of these studies, increased responsiveness to others’ needs was associated consistently with regular interactions with peers with disabilities.

Research on the development of prosocial behaviors, such as helping, has suggested that children’s awareness and understanding of others’ emotions is an important component in these behaviors (Eisenberg & Miller, 1987). Denham found that preschool children’s understanding of emotions is related to prosocial behavior and sociometric status (Denham, 1986; Denham, McKinley, Couchoud, & Holt, 1990). Garner and her colleagues have found significant relationships between preschool children’s social competence and sensitivity to normative emotions in a variety of situations (Garner, Jones, & Miner, 1994). Similarly, in a study with third- and fourth-grade children, Garner (1996) found that children who were more sensitive to the “unique emotional cues of others” (p. 31) on interview measures received higher ratings from their teachers on a measure of prosocial behavior.

These studies suggest that, as a group, young children who participate in inclusive programs have more positive attitudes about people with disabilities than do agemates without these experiences. In addition, children’s frequent interactions with peers with disabilities appear to be related to the development of prosocial behaviors, including concern for others. Sensitivity to others has been reported to be related to children’s prosocial behaviors. Although a number of studies have demonstrated an association between children’s positive attitudes and interactions with peers with disabilities, few address the question of which came first: Children with positive attitudes toward classmates with disabilities are likely to be more inclined to interact frequently with peers with disabilities, and children who interact frequently with classmates with disabilities are likely to have more positive attitudes. In fact, researchers who have focused on attitude development suggest that both behaviors and cognitions are critically important, and mutually influential, in the development of attitudes toward others (e.g., Eagly & Chaiken, 1993; Triandis, 1971).

Research that attempts to understand the influence of participation in an inclusive preschool on young children’s ideas about and attitudes toward people with disabilities is further complicated by the fact that parents who hold generally positive attitudes toward people with disabilities will be more likely to enroll their child in an inclusive program than will parents who view inclusion as inappropriate. Thus, using peers who attend programs for typically developing children only as a control group may introduce nonrandom bias in parents’ attitudes (which influence children’s ideas) across the groups.

There is also reason to suspect that there may be differences among children in inclusive classes that are associated with their unique experiences in school. Two recent studies provide evidence that typically developing children in inclusive preschools participate in a wide range of different classroom activity areas and engage in different types of interactions with classmates and adults. Differences exist in children’s experiences, even when they are enrolled in the same classroom (Brown, Odom, Li, & Zercher, 1999; Kontos, Moore, & Giorgetti, 1998). Particularly in classrooms that provide opportunities for children to choose activities and playmates for at least part of the day, it is hardly surprising to find that children make different choices about both play activities and play partners (cf. Corsaro 1985). It is reasonable to expect that children’s ideas about others are reflected in, and influenced by, the choices that they make in school. One would expect that children in inclusive classes who have frequent social contact with classmates with disabilities will have more positive attitudes than will other children who rarely spend time with their classmates with disabilities.

The study presented here attempts to answer questions about children’s experiences in inclusive preschools by focusing on the relationships between children’s social contacts with classmates with disabilities and their ideas about others. It is hypothesized that children who have regular contact with classmates with disabilities will be more accepting of people with disabilities, show higher levels of emotion understanding, and offer more prosocial strategies than will children whose social contacts are primarily with typically developing classmates, even when all of the children attend the same inclusive program.



Participants were recruited from all four of the preschool classes in an inclusive program serving 3- to 5-year-old children. Letters of invitation describing the research, along with consent forms, were sent home with the parents of all English-speaking 3- to 6-year-old children (N = 55); 45 children (82%) were given permission to participate. Participating children were between the ages of 37 and 70 months (M = 52.4 months, SD = 8.2); 26 children were girls and 19 were boys. The ethnic backgrounds of the children were as follows: European American (72%), Asian American (20%), Hispanic American (5%), and African American (3%).


Participants attended an inclusive early childhood program that followed the developmentally appropriate practices guidelines of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997) and was accredited by the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs. Class sizes ranged from 18 to 20 children, and the teacher-child ratio was 1:6. Each class included 3 or 4 children who had been identified by the local school district as having a disability that required an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Teachers included all children in small- and large-group activities, but there were no specific interventions targeted at helping children to become more aware of disabilities, social interactions, or strategies for helping others. Specialized interventions for children with disabilities were organized around child-initiated and child-directed activities and occurred as part of classroom activities such as mobility training in the classroom and on the playground (see McWilliam, 1996). Disabilities represented in these classes included 4 children identified as having pervasive developmental disorder or autism, 2 children with multiple cognitive and physical disabilities, 2 children with developmental delay, 2 children with communication disorders, and 1 child with spina bifida. Data were collected in the spring of the school year, and all children had been enrolled in their class for at least 3 months prior to data collection.


Each child participated in two individual interview sessions, each of which lasted approximately 20 minutes. Interviews were completed in a small room away from the child’s classroom over a period of no more than 2 weeks. The order of the interview measures was counterbalanced. Dolls or drawings were used to illustrate the interview questions, because others have found that dolls, puppets, and drawings are familiar materials that attract children’s interest and lessen processing demands (Denham, 1986; Ramsey, 1988).

Interviews included questions about typically developing children and about children with disabilities. Because there is substantial evidence that preschool children understand the concept of physical disability, a doll in a wheelchair was used to illustrate questions that focused on disability (cf. Conant & Budoff, 1983; Diamond, 1994). As is apparent, a number of the children had no classmate with a physical disability when they participated in these interviews. The focus of the study, however, was on the ways in which children’s experiences in inclusive classrooms were related to their ideas about and positive attitudes toward others, rather than on the ways in which children understood different disabilities. Others have found no significant differences in young children’s prosocial ideas or acceptance as a function of type of disability (Carpenter, 1994), and the generic term “handicapped” has often been used to elicit young children’s attitudes toward individuals with disabilities (Favazza & Odom, 1997). In this study, a doll in a wheelchair was used to represent individuals with disabilities, in general. The disability of the doll was described to the child at the time the doll was introduced (e.g., “This doll’s sitting in a wheelchair because s/he can’t walk. His/ her legs don’t work. I want you to pretend that this doll is a real girl/boy who can’t walk”).


Social Acceptance Ratings. Children rated their acceptance of a child with a physical disability (represented by a doll) on three items designed to measure social acceptance. For each of the items, on one side of a page was a drawing of a child who was engaged in an activity with other children, and on the other side was a picture of a child who was apart from the group. The placement of the drawings on the right or left side of the page was counterbalanced across the items to control for position preferences in children’s selections. The adult pointed to one picture and described it (e.g., “This girl has lots of friends to play with”), and then the second drawing was pointed to and described (e.g., “This girl doesn’t have many friends to play with”). The participating child was then asked to point to the drawing which best described the doll (e.g., “If this doll were a real girl, do you think she would have a lot of friends to play with or not very many friends?”). After the child chose a drawing, she or he was asked if the doll was “a lot like” or “a little bit like” the child in the drawing. The child’s selection provided a score from i (the child thinks the doll would be a lot like the girl who was alone) to 4 (the child thinks the doll would be a lot like the girl who was playing with others). There is a separate version that includes the same items, with appropriate pictures and wording, for boys. Children’s responses were averaged, with higher scores representing higher levels of acceptance. Interitem reliability was good ([alpha] = .72).

The specific items that were used to measure social acceptance in this study were the following: (a) “Not many kids talk to this girl” versus “Lots of kids talk to this girl”; (b) “This girl plays with the other kids all the time” versus “This girl plays by herself because the other kids don’t want to play with her”; and (c) “This girl doesn’t have many friends to play with” versus “Even though she can’t walk, this girl has lots of friends to play with.” This scale has been shown to be reliable, with test-retest correlations ranging from .78 to .94 (Diamond, 1994). Children’s acceptance ratings for a child with a physical disability were used as a measure of children’s attitudes toward people with disabilities.

Helping Strategies Interview. This interview was adapted from Rubin’s Social Problem Solving Task-Revised (1988) and consisted of six short vignettes, each of which focused on a classroom dilemma. Three vignettes included a child in a wheelchair who needed assistance to complete an activity (e.g., reaching the paint brush that had been dropped on the floor). An additional three vignettes included a typically developing child who needed assistance with a task (e.g., opening a heavy door). These vignettes were designed to explore children’s ideas about the strategies that they might use to help a peer. Vignettes were presented in random order. Following each story, the child was asked “What will happen next?” Whereas some children offered specific ideas about what might happen (e.g., “I could pick up the brush for him”), others made more general comments (e.g., “I could help him”). In these instances, the interviewer asked “How would you help?” if no specific strategy had been offered. Children who did not spontaneously offer ideas about helping were prompted to think of something they might do in the particular situation with the question, “Is there something you could do?” If the child said “yes,” then that child was asked to describe what she or he might do. Because 3-year-old children were more likely than older children to require a prompt before offering a suggestion, coding did not differentiate between spontaneous and prompted responses because to do so would have confounded age (or verbal ability) with children’s ideas. (Copies of the vignettes can be obtained from the author.) Children’s responses were recorded verbatim, with audiotaping used to verify the written record.

Children’s helping strategies were coded using a scheme similar to that used by Diamond and Carpenter (2000). Responses were coded 1 if the child said “I don’t know” or gave no response, 2 for a strategy not appropriate to the story (e.g., offering to share an unrelated item) or an unelaborated helping response (e.g., “I would help him”), and 3 for an appropriate helping strategy. Coding of all of the interview transcripts was completed independently by two coders. Agreement was reached for 93% of interview questions ([kappa] = .88), with disagreements resolved through discussion. Mean strategy scores were calculated for helping strategies per child. Internal consistency reliability was [alpha] = .92.

Emotion Situation Knowledge. This measure, adapted from the work of Hoffner and Badzinski (1989), focuses on children’s knowledge of two different emotions: happiness and sadness. Vignettes of everyday events, such as a birthday party, accompanied by line drawings were used to assess children’s knowledge of normative emotional responses in particularly happy or sad situations. For each vignette, the child was asked whether the same-sex protagonist in the vignette was “happy” or “sad,” and then whether the protagonist was (for example) “a little bit happy,” “pretty happy,” or “very happy.” Children responded verbally or by pointing to one of three circles that increased in size and were labeled with the descriptions noted above. Scores for each vignette ranged from 1 to 6. A score of 1 was given if the child identified the strongest version of the incorrect emotion (e.g., saying that a child was very happy to have lost a toy), whereas a score of 6 was given if the child identified the strongest version of the appropriate emotion (e.g., saying that a child was very sad to have lost a toy). Internal consistency reliability was adequate ([alpha] = .66).

Children’s Social Contacts with Classmates with Disabilities. Children’s social contacts with classmates were observed during the spring of the school year using a procedure adapted from Ramsey (1995). Each class was observed at 10-minute intervals for no more than 3 hours each week over a 6-week period, for an average of 49 observations for each child (SD = 4.1, range = 43-54). Observations took place during free play time, when children had the opportunity to choose their own activity and move from activity to activity as they desired. During this time, teachers supported children’s play but did not direct children to participate in a specific activity. Observers stood quietly in the room and, for each observation, scanned the classroom from left to right and recorded the position of each child and adult on a classroom map. They circled groups of children and adults who were engaged in social contact at the time of the observation. For this study, contact was defined as a verbal or physical exchange or sustained visual regard, which indicated that participants were aware of, and responsive to, each other (this is identical to Ramsey’s definition of interaction). For example, if six children were seated at a table drawing with markers, two of the children were talking to each other, and a third child was looking at the children who were talking, these three children were coded as engaging in peer social contact. The location and behaviors of children who were moving were recorded at the end of the scan. Observations were completed by three different observers. Ongoing reliability was checked on 15% of the scans by having two observers record the information. Mean percentage agreement was 95% for contact status ([kappa] = .96). Frequency of social contact with a child with a disability was derived by taking the sum of the number of scans in which the target child was included in an interactive group with a child with a disability divided by the total number of scans.


All of the variables were checked for multivariate normality by examining skewness and kurtosis (Tabachnick & Fidell, 1989). The only variable that was not normally distributed was the frequency of children’s social contact with classmates with disabilities. Approximately 40% of the children had no contact with a classmate with a disability across all observations. For children who had contact with a classmate with a disability at least once, rates of contact ranged from 2% to 18% of the observations (M = 6, SD = .04). Because transformations would not yield a meaningful variable, a new variable was created that identified children who had social contact with a classmate with a disability on at least one occasion (n = 27) and those who were never observed in contact with a classmate with a disability (n = 18).

All of the variables were examined for gender and age differences. There were no significant gender differences. Preliminary analyses revealed significant correlations between age and children’s helping strategy score. As a consequence, age was used as a covariate in analyses in which helping score was a dependent variable.

Inspection of the means suggests that children were generally accepting of individuals with disabilities (M = 2.9, SD = .94) and aware of normative emotional responses (M = 5.0, SD = 1.06). Mean helping strategy scores suggested that children generally indicated that they would help, but did not often elaborate (M = 2.34, SD = .60). In addition, children’s helping strategy scores were significantly related to scores for emotion understanding (see Table 1).

Multivariate analysis of covariance was used to test the hypothesis that differences in children’s acceptance of individuals with disabilities, emotion understanding, and sensitivity to the needs of others would be associated with social contact with classmates with disabilities. Differences between the group of children who were observed in contact with a classmate with a disability and children who were observed with typically developing peers only were tested in this analysis. This was the between-subjects independent variable. Children’s social acceptance, emotion situation knowledge, and helping strategies scores were the dependent variables; age was entered as a covariate. The results of this analysis were significant (F = 3.84, df = 3, p < .01, Wilks's [lambda] = .78, [[eta].sup.2] = .22). Follow-up univariate analyses (in which age continued to be used as a covariate) revealed significant group differences for emotion situation knowledge (F = 3.99, p < .05, [[eta].sup.2] = .08) and for social acceptance (F = 3.98, p < .05, [[eta].sup.2] = .08) but not for helping strategies (F = 1.4, p = ns). Children who were observed interacting with classmates with disabilities had higher emotion knowledge scores and social acceptance ratings than did other children (Table 2 provides unadjusted means).


The results of this study provide support for the suggestion by parents and teachers that opportunities to play with classmates who have disabilities are related to children’s sensitivity to the needs of others (Peck et al., 1992). Slightly more than half of the children in this study were observed in social contact with at least one classmate with a disability. Children who had social contact with their classmates with disabilities were more sensitive to cues associated with different emotions and were more accepting of individuals with disabilities than were children who were observed only with their typically developing classmates. These results provide support for the suggestion that experiences in inclusive settings support children’s positive attitudes and prosocial behaviors.

Theories of attitude development suggest that an individual’s cognitions, affect, and behaviors interact in the development of attitudes toward others (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993). Attitudes can be formed on the basis of any of these three processes alone. For instance, children may learn about attitude objects through indirect experiences, such as reading books or discussions with their parents. In a study of Israeli children’s concept of “Arab,” Bar-Tal (1996) reported that although the concept of Arab carried negative connotations, most preschool children had learned about Arabs indirectly from television, parents, and teachers rather than through direct experiences. In this instance, cognitive processes were primarily responsible for Israeli children’s negative attitudes toward Arabs.

Eagly and Chaiken (1993) suggested, however, that when children have direct experience with attitude objects, attitude formation is likely to occur through an interaction of cognitive, behavioral, and affective processes. Relationships among young children’s cognitions and behaviors are evident in this study: Children who interacted with classmates with disabilities were also more sensitive to the affective content of interpersonal situations and more accepting of their peers. The results of this study do not, however, provide evidence about the ways in which cognitions and behaviors interacted to influence the development of children’s attitudes. Although it is likely that children’s positive attitudes may set the stage for positive interactions, positive attitudes were not a guarantee that interactions would occur.

The regularity of contact between typically developing children and their classmates with disabilities varied widely. There is ample evidence that children are likely to select as friends those children who share similar interests (cf. Corsaro, 1985). The different rates of contact with classmates with disabilities may reflect, at least to some extent, differences in children’s interests. In his study of preschool children’s interactions, Corsaro (1985) found a wide range in the proportion of children’s preschool classmates who were also regular playmates. In his study, some children played regularly with as few as 6 other classmates (25%), while others played with as many as 20 classmates (85%). The fact that 40% of typically developing children were not observed with classmates with disabilities in this study is not inconsistent with Corsaro’s findings for typically developing children. It does raise questions, however, about the extent to which opportunities for social contact are available for children with disabilities. Examining the range of children’s social contacts with classmates from the perspective of both children with disabilities and typically developing children will provide a better picture of the social experiences that are available to all children in inclusive preschool classrooms.

The question of how social contact and social interaction should be defined, both in research and in interventions, is an important one. In much of the research that has focused on social interactions among children with and without disabilities in inclusive settings, interaction has been defined as including a focus on another child accompanied by behavior “aimed at producing a social effect” (McWilliam & Bailey, 1995, p. 130). Somewhat different definitions of interaction have been used, however, in much of the research on the development of social interaction skills in typically developing preschool children. For example, Ramsey (1995) described interactions as “any verbal or nonverbal exchange in which all participants showed some awareness of the other[s]” (p. 767). Parallel play, while often included as a component of social play in studies with typically developing children, is often omitted from studies of social interactions among young children with disabilities and their typically developing peers. Harper and Huie (1985), in a longitudinal study of 3- and 4-year-old children’s social relationships, found that parallel play (defined as engaging in the same or similar activity within 6 feet of another child) served as a “bridge” between solitary play and social interaction. They argued that parallel and interactive play represented different forms of peer involvement and that both should be considered as components of social interaction. Howes and Matheson (1992), in a study of the development of young children’s competent social play behaviors, found that the proportion of observations in which children were engaged in parallel play (within 3 feet of each other and engaging in the same activity without acknowledging the other child) decreased over the period from 13 to 60 months. The proportion of observations in which children engaged in parallel aware play (parallel play with eye contact) did not change over the same developmental period. Even for children engaging in the most sophisticated levels of cooperative social play, the proportion of parallel and parallel social play combined remained close to 20% of the observations. Clearly, the ways in which social play (and social interaction) are operationalized affect the results of studies of social interaction. Particularly because parallel play is common among young children, it seems appropriate that it should be included in definitions of social interaction if we are to develop a better understanding of preschool children’s social experiences in inclusive classrooms.

An issue in research that examines young children’s ideas is that of effective strategies for eliciting young children’s ideas about their experiences. Familiar scenarios, the use of materials (such as puppets and dolls) that support children’s responses, and questions that reflect children’s experiences are more likely to elicit responses than are more abstract questions. Hypothetical vignettes have been found to be effective strategies for eliciting children’s ideas about important social dilemmas (Iskandar, Laursen, Finkelstein, & Fredrickson, 1995). The interview questions that were used in this study were designed to reflect situations that occur frequently in preschool classes, although children were asked to think about these situations in general rather than specific classmates. The advantage to this approach was that it ensured consistency in measures across the different classrooms. The disadvantage, however, is that hypothetical situations make the context neutral and somewhat distant from children’s everyday experiences. Alternative approaches that would have more ecological validity would be ones in which children are asked about specific events that occurred in their classrooms, either by showing them videotapes of specific classroom situations or by asking children about events as they occur in the classroom. The disadvantage to these approaches, however, is that the situations to which children are asked to respond are not standard across the entire group, and some events may occur rarely during the observation periods.

Eliciting verbal responses from preschool children who are still learning language presents additional challenges. One approach is to use questions to which children can respond by selecting one of several possible outcomes (e.g., by pointing), without requiring that they offer their ideas. There is evidence, however, that preschool children are particularly sensitive to, and eager to comply with, the expectations for responses in interview situations (Robinson & Briggs, 1997). There tends to be less bias in responses when children generate their own ideas rather than selecting among those offered by the adult (Ross & Ross, 1984), which suggests that children’s responses may more closely reflect their own ideas if the interviewer develops strategies that allow children to respond in their own words, at least to some questions. Because young children are more likely to talk with an adult they know than with one whom they have just met for the first time, the interviewer must spend time getting to know the children in their homes or classrooms before proceeding with the interview. We have found that beginning an interview with forced choice questions that allow a child to respond by pointing (such as the social acceptance items used in this study) often provides a valuable “warm-up” period, after which the child is more likely to respond to open-ended questions.

Guralnick (1993, 1999) has argued that we need to move beyond asking global questions about intervention classrooms to focus more specifically on the aspects of the classroom setting and curriculum that are associated with behavior change for children with different disabilities and different needs. The results of the present study suggest the importance of adopting a similar approach in understanding the experiences of young, typically developing children. Typically developing children’s experiences in inclusive classrooms vary. There is some evidence that different experiences are associated with different outcomes. We do not know whether children’s initial dispositions (e.g., emotion understanding and sensitivity) make it more (or less) likely that they will interact with classmates with disabilities, or whether children’s interactions promote increased understanding and sensitivity. It is likely that both individual characteristics and experiences are important in the development of children’s acceptance of people with disabilities. Understanding the ways in which aspects of the classroom context interact with individual child characteristics and lead to positive social outcomes for typically developing children in inclusive classrooms is an important area for further study.


If children’s attitudes of acceptance are related to interactions with peers, what should classroom teachers do to encourage the development of positive attitudes and interactions among children who interact with classmates with disabilities infrequently? How do teachers support the positive attitudes and interactions that already exist? Research suggests that children’s attitudes about people with disabilities in general, as well as about specific classmates, are shaped in part by the ways in which teachers behave toward, and communicate about, people who are different from themselves (cf. Bigler, Jones, & Lobliner, 1997; Okagaki, Diamond, Kontos, & Hestenes, 1998). There is, in fact, considerable evidence that the social environment plays a critical role in the development of intergroup attitudes (Bigler et al., 1997; Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood, & Sherif, 1961). For example, Bigler and her colleagues (1997) found that when teachers made functional use of social categories, even in the absence of explicit information to children concerning that attribute, they communicated “that a particular attribute is uniquely important for understanding individuals and their behavior” (p. 539). After 4 weeks, children in classrooms in which teachers made functional use of T-shirt color in creating social groups gave significantly higher ratings to members of their own in-group (i.e., children who wore the same color T-shirt); there was little evidence of group preferences in the control classrooms in which T-shirt color was not used as an important attribute. To the extent that a child’s disability becomes a basis for adults’ responses, these responses may influence the development of children’s attitudes toward people with disabilities. Thus, interventions designed to promote young children’s positive attitudes toward, and interactions with, people with disabilities may be most successful when they address both children’s ideas and behaviors.

The ways in which teachers organize their classrooms to include children with disabilities in all aspects of the school day are important in children’s developing ideas about who belongs to their peer group (cf. Bigler et al., 1997; Schnorr, 1990). In a recent study, Hundert, Mahoney, & Hopkins (1993) examined differences in the behaviors of early childhood and early childhood special education teachers and the relationships between teacher behaviors and peer interactions for 35 preschool children with disabilities who were enrolled in 19 different integrated preschool classes. They found that higher levels of peer interaction occurred when early childhood special education teachers focused on groups of children with and without disabilities, rather than on individual children with disabilities. Providing children with disabilities the same opportunities to participate in classroom groups as their typically developing peers is a potentially important intervention. To the extent that classroom experiences promote more opportunities for all children to work and play together and fewer situations in which children with disabilities are left out of classroom activities, such experiences may also promote the development of more positive attitudes toward classmates with disabilities.

Being part of a group is unlikely to be sufficient, by itself, in promoting positive attitudes toward and interactions with classmates with disabilities. This suggests that teachers also need to use additional strategies for grouping children and bringing them together. In the course of a preschool day, teachers have opportunities to determine the composition of groups of children (e.g., which children are assigned to a small-group activity, who sits at each table for snack or meals) as well as individual partners (e.g., partners on a field trip or for a music activity). Such groupings foster children’s interactions with all of their classmates (cf. Ramsey, 1991, 1998). Teachers need to first observe the children as they play in self-identified play groups, usually during a free play period. A variety of strategies (e.g., keeping maps of where each child is playing, anecdotal records of play group activities) can be used to identify children who may be more or less involved in social play groups, as well as a child’s more preferred (or less preferred) play partners. This information can then be used to help a teacher form new groups of children for specific activities. Carefully structured groupings provide opportunities for children to learn more about each of their classmates, including classmates whom they may not have chosen as a play partner. Obviously, when teachers determine the membership of classroom groups for specific activities, those activities need to be planned so that all children have opportunities to participate in, and contribute to, the group.

Both theory (e.g., Eagly & Chaiken, 1993) and research (e.g., Bar-Tal, 1996; Favazza & Odom, 1997) suggest that the development of young children’s attitudes toward others is influenced by indirect experiences as well as direct contacts with the “attitude object.” When teachers help typically developing peers accept responsibility for including a classmate with a disability in an activity (Salisbury & Palombaro, 1998), wait for a child in a wheelchair to join the group (Janney & Snell, 1996), or point out the activities that a child does well (Diamond & Stacey, 2000), they communicate that all children are important. It is likely that these behaviors support children’s acceptance of people with disabilities as important members of their classrooms and the communities in which they live.

TABLE 1. Intercorrelations Between Measures of Social Acceptance,

Emotion Knowledge, Helping Strategies, and Frequency of Contact

with Classmates with Disabilities

Social Emotion Helping

acceptance knowledge strategies

Social acceptance — — —

Emotion knowledge r = .02 — —

n = 44

Helping strategies r = -.02 r = .33 * —

n = 44 n = 45

Frequency of contact r = .20 r = .26 r = -.27

n = 44 n = 45 n = 45

* p < .05.

TABLE 2. Mean Scores x Experience Interacting

with Classmates with Disabilities

Children who

Children who did not have

had contact contact with

with classmates classmates with MANOVA

with disabilities disabilities (b) statistics (c)

Variable (a)

Emotion M = 5.3 * M = 4.7 * F = 3.99

situation SD = .89 SD = 1.22 [[eta].sup.2] = .08


Social M = 3.1 * M = 2.6 * F = 3.98

acceptance SD = .83 SD = 1.04 [[eta].sup.2] = .08

Helping M = 3.1 M = 2.7 ns

strategies SD = .60 SD = .58

Note. Unadjusted mean scores.

(a) n = 27. (b) n = 18. (c) df = 1, 44.

* p < .05.


1. This study was funded by a grant from the Agricultural Research Program at Purdue University.

2. Portions of this work were presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Indianapolis, March 1997.

3. The author thanks Jenny Bandyk, Karen Giorgetti, Angela Dingel, and Inga Vaystikh for their assistance with data collection and coding. The participation of the children and their teachers is gratefully acknowledged.


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Address: Karen E. Diamond, Department of Child Development & Family Studies, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907-1267.

Karen E. Diamond, Purdue University


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