Study finds spillover effects of having a classmate with emotional problems

Group Of Primary Schoolchildren And Teacher Working At Desks In ClassroomIt’s a question that is carefully avoided in public but that privately continues to concern both parents and educators:  Does educating children receiving special education services  in general classrooms have negative “spillover effects” on the rest of the class?

A new study of 11,373 children published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management says those concerns are not unfounded. Kindergarten and 1st-grade students who had classmates with emotional problems scored lower on their math and reading tests than children who did not have classmates with emotional problems, says researcher Jason Fletcher, an assistant professor in public health from Yale University. The impact  is similar in magnitude to large increases in family income or  1-2 years of additional maternal education, he says.

“Cross-sectional results suggest that having a classmate with an emotional problem decreases reading and math scores at the end of kindergarten and first grade by over 10 percent of a standard deviation, which is one-third to one-half of the minority test score gap.”

For math scores, black and Hispanic students seem to be most affected by exposure to classmates with emotional problems. The effects on reading scores of a classmate with emotional problems is greatest on Hispanic students.

Interestingly, in both reading and math, exposure to girls in the classroom increased achievement–a 10% increase in the proportion of classmates who were girls increased  achievement by 1% of a standard deviation.

While schools have been progressively moving toward a full inclusion policy, the researcher says his study suggests that a more nuanced policy is needed.  Possible effects on non-disabled children should be considered, he says.

‘”Important in the re-evaluation of this policy is the likelihood that the effects of inclusion differ by disability….It is possible that students with other disabilities (e.g., speech and language disabilities) do not pose problems for their classmates’ ability to learn.”

One action step may be to target additional resources to classrooms that educate children with serious emotional problems. The research study was supported by a grant from the American Educational Research Association.’

“Spillover Effects of Inclusion of Classmates with Emotional Problems on Test Scores in Early Elementary School,” by Jason Fletcher,  Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Volume 29, Number 1,  2010, pp. 69-83.

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