04 SES 04 D, Small Worlds: Exploring peer relationships in the inclusive classroom
Students identified as having special educational needs (SEN) represent a distinct but heterogeneous group within the educational system. More recently and as a result of international efforts, there has been a growing momentum towards more inclusive educational provision in general education settings, especially within elementary schools. It is increasingly argued that students with SEN will particularly gain social benefits (Lindsay, 2007) as well as academic (Frederickson, Dunsmuir, Lang, & Monsen, 2004) by being more included in general education classrooms. Inclusive settings are seen by parents and educators as providing more opportunities for enhanced social outcomes, such as increased friendships, social interactions with peers and active participation in social and play activities (Boer, Pijl, & Minnaert, 2010; Symes & Humphrey, 2011). Parents in particular hope that their child can build positive relationships with typically developing peers (Koster, Pijl, Nakken, & Van Houten, 2010). Additionally, Avramidis and Norwich’s (2002) classic review of teachers’ attitudes towards inclusion showed evidence of positive attitudes, but found no evidence of acceptance of a total inclusion or ‘zero reject’ approach to special educational provision. Despite the rhetoric, there is substantial evidence to show that students identified as having SEN predominantly remain socially excluded and are likely to have fewer friends (Bossaert, Colpin, Pijl, & Petry, 2013; Mamas, 2013; Pijl, et al., 2008).
Two main research questions are being addressed:
1. What is the position of SEN students in their classroom social networks?
2. What does the structure of the network may reveal about the social participation of SEN students?
This paper draws on a study conducted in Cyprus. In particular, a critical case study design (Yin, 2017) has been adopted to examine the concept of social participation from a social network perspective in 10 classrooms. This study draws on the theory of social capital (Putman, 2001). The 10 classrooms/cases were chosen on the grounds that they would allow a better understanding of this theory (Bryman, 2015) in terms of students’ social interactions and friendships in their classrooms’ social networks. The term social capital has been used to describe norms and certain resources that emerge from social networks (Ferlander, 2007). Putnam (2007, p. 137) defined social capital as ‘social networks and the associated norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness’. According to Scott (2017), social networks are a particular form of social capital that individuals/students, can employ to enhance their advantages or opportunities. A notion of social capital is that social relationships provide access to resources that can be exchanged, borrowed and leveraged to facilitate achieving goals (Moolenaar, Sleegers, & Daly, 2012). Therefore, classroom social networks built up through friendship ties or other relational ties may provide access to social capital.
Data were collected through a social network survey and social network analysis was employed to analyze the data. Students were asked to identify their friends in the classroom, who they play with during recess, who they are asking for help when the teacher is not around, and finally who they talk to if they are having a bad day. In total, 212 students completed the survey across all classrooms. Social network maps for each classroom were developed and network measures were calculated at three levels of analysis, namely the network level (density), the dyad level (reciprocity), and node level (centrality: in-degree). First, at the whole network level, we applied the measure of density which refers to the sum of all present ties divided by the number of possible ties in a classroom social network. Second, reciprocity was employed. One way of calculating reciprocity is to divide the number of reciprocated dyads by the total possible number of adjacent dyads. In classroom friendship networks, a classroom that has many reciprocated friendships between students may be a more inclusive and socially responsive where students enjoy learning as they feel socially valued and integrated. At the node level of analysis, we were particularly interested in examining the in-degree of students with SEN compared to that of their peers without identified SEN. In-degree centrality falls under node level centrality which is defined as a property of a node’s structural position in a network (Borgatti, et al., 2013). In a classroom network, centrality indicates specific aspects of the quantity of the pattern of ties that surround an individual making them more or less socially “active” in a network. For example, within a friendship network centrality may reveal students who are popular or isolated based on the number of incoming ties to the actor. Students who have high in-degree centrality are usually popular within the classroom.
Conducting social network analysis has enabled for a deeper understanding of the structure of networks where all students in a classroom reside as well as identifying the position of individual students within the network, especially those with SEN. The findings from each case/classroom were revealing of the social participation of students identified as having SEN and provided an additional layer of understanding with regards to the social responsiveness and inclusion of each classroom. In line with previous studies on social participation of students with SEN, the position of these students in their classroom’s social networks varied but many students with SEN were found to be on the periphery of the various networks rather than at the centre. Overall, in-degree centrality scores were lower for students identified as having SEN, meaning that they received fewer friendship and recess nominations than their peers without SEN. The data suggests that students with SEN may struggle have more challenges than their peers with regards to accessing resources, support and knowledge through their membership in their classroom’s social networks. This may have a detrimental effect on their overall social capital. The results cannot be generalized as the sample was not randomly selected and its size is not substantial for generalizations.
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