ERG SES C 11, Inclusive Education
Piaget (1932), Mead (1934; 1964) as well as Vygotsky (1978) emphasized the key value of children’s social interactions with their peers in contributing to their cognitive development. Positive peer interactions is one of the most importantindicators for high-quality inclusive preschool as it looks beyond structural features of the preschool and directly affects children’s development (Hestenes & Carroll, 2000; Odom, 2000).
Preschool teachers, according to vast theoretical and empirical evidence, play a crucial role in supporting children’s peer interactions. Specifically, Vygotsky (1978) stated that the ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD) of a child can be more effectively facilitated by an adult’s guidance. In inclusive settings, the presence of teachers’ scaffolding plays a foremost role in ensuring the high quality of social interactions for children with disabilities (Stanton-Chapman, Kaiser, & Wolery, 2006; (Stanton-Chapman, Walker, & Jamison, 2014). Teachers also decide on the necessary intervention strategies for facilitating healthier peer relationships (Moon, 2001). From Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory (1979), we know that a child’s behaviors develop through dynamic interactions with their teachers from the microsystem. Consistent with this idea, research also shows the positive impact of adult support on young children’s social development (e.g. Hestenes & Carroll, 2000).
Despite the importance of social interactions, very few studies (Hu, Lim & Boyd, 2016) have focused on the social interactions among children in Chinese inclusive preschools, let alone how teachers facilitate the whole peer-interaction process. As Chinese kindergartens gradually embrace a more balanced curriculum of both whole-group teaching and free play, it is important that studies are conducted to explore how teachers actually support in children’s daily peer interactions in inclusive kindergarten settings in order to fulfill their changed role (Hu, et al., 2016). Therefore, the present project will examine exploratively what specific strategies teachers apply to promote children’s positive peer interactions in a Chinese inclusive preschool context.
In specifically addressing the role of teachers for peer interaction in Chinese inclusive kindergarten, this study makes both scientific and practical contributions. Specifically, it will contribute to filling the gap existing in current research since it is the first to look into how teachers promote children’s social interactions in Chinese inclusive preschools as well as the first to contribute to the literature on designing chinese teachers’ trainings on promoting children’s peer interactions . As to the practical contributions: first of all, it intends to raise the awareness of the importance of children‘s social interactions and social development, since a very strong emphasis on children’s cognitive development prevails in preschools due to the ingrained performance-oriented assessment system in chinese public primary schools. Furthermore, this line of inquiry can help professionals to better understand how they actually deal with children’s peer interactions so that they can better adapt and improve their future teaching. Thirdly, the kindergarten in this study is one of the pilot inclusive kindergartens in Shanghai, therefore the findings may contribute to a better quality of inclusion practices in the pilot preschools, which would enable them to serve as better models for potential national implementation of inclusive education in the near future.
The basic research design for this study is a qualitative in-depth exploratory case study design. One kindergarten from the ‘Shanghai Inclusion Pilot Project’ was selected based on its high-quality and longest inclusion practices (according to the ‘Shanghai Municipal Commission of Education’ that initiated the pilot project). In this kindergarten, there are seven classrooms in total: four inclusive classes, two general classes, and one special class. In each classroom, there are two main teachers responsible for teaching and arranging daily activities. One intern teacher, five part-time teachers work as support teachers for children with SEN (special educational needs) both in the inclusive and special classes. The data collection lasted for seven and half weeks. All in all, four types of qualitative data were collected: first of all, more than 80-hour-long general participatory observations and 15-hour-long intensive participatory observations were conducted in all the seven classrooms. Specifically, the general observations took place during the morning session and the intensive observations during the free play session. Secondly, while conducting the observations, the researcher also collected data from various documents (e.g. official internet sites; teaching materials) as well as informal chatting notes (during lunch and after-class sessions). In the last week, 14 one-hour semi-structured interviews were carried out with teachers. After transcribing and translating all data to English, qualitative content analysis has been applied to analyze all data. Considering the nature of the research question as explorative, a more inductive content analyzing approach has served as the main approach (Elo & Kyngäs, 2008). Specifically, the researcher spent the first phase of analysis to understand the diverse and complex data. After this, the researcher conducted a systematic process of open-coding for the four data sources simultaneously. In order to ensure reliability of the data analysis, a trained master student from Education Science joined the main researcher. After the open-coding process, systematic categories of strategies teachers applied to promote children’s peer interactions will be analyzed. The last step is to arrange and report the research results.
Due to the preliminary stage of the data analysis, three main findings are to be discussed here: Firstly, the study finds that teachers apply strategies to influence peer interactions on different levels: 1. the whole kindergarten level (e.g. create mixed-age activity to enable children from different classrooms to interact); 2.the individual classroom level (e.g. ‘little teacher’ support children with SEN); 3. the level of specific curriculum and activity design (e.g. design ‘share-exchange' to increase children‘s social interactions); 4. the level of individual children with SEN (e.g. differentiated strategies for children with SEN to train their social skills). Secondly, the study identifies different strategies among teachers. Several factors may play a role in influencing teachers to adopt different strategies were identified: e.g., children’s age, children’s different SEN; teachers’ experience with children with SEN. One specific example is: two teachers who had relatively more experience with children with SEN applied differentiated and creative activities in dealing with children’s conflicts: e.g. a ‘story-time’ or ‘theater-time’ session to teach children how to better resolve conflicts. On the contrary, most teachers with relatively fewer experience always first attended to the child (children) with SEN when a conflict took place (regardless of the fact who might initiate the conflicts in the first place) or they ignored the conflicts as long as they did not influence the on-going activity. Thirdly, large discrepancies between the observational (what teachers do) and interview data (what teachers think) about the strategies have been identified. On one hand, teachers talked about to create an inclusive and interactive classroom environment where students’ differences are cherished. On the other hand, children being different were criticized in the class, such as, one girl being criticized for being too boyish when playing with boys; one boy being criticized for playing as a princess instead of a prince.
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