What works best for preschoolers with special needs?

Parent Taking Child To Pre SchoolA recent study compared the cognitive and language growth of preschoolers with special needs placed in three types of classrooms. The instructional programs in these classes did not differ significantly one from another, but the classrooms had different proportions of general- and special-education students.

Classes ranged from special education only, to integrated special education (more than three-quarters special-needs students), to main-stream classes where the majority are general-education students. Despite similar programs in each class, the only special-needs students who demonstrated significant gains were in integrated-special-education classes.

Paulette E. Mills, Washington State University, and Kevin N. Cole, Joseph R. Jenkins and Philip S. Dale, University of Washington/Seattle, randomly assigned 66 preschool children with disabilities to one of the three programs. In examining the results, they discovered that the higher-level special-needs students benefited more from integrated-special-education classes while children functioning at lower levels benefited more from special-education-only and main-stream classes. Mills et al. report that these results
replicate previous research findings which suggest that a continuum of options is preferable to a single approach.

In this study, children were tested at the beginning and end of the school year using the McCarthy Scales of Children’s Abilities and the Preschool Language Assessment Instrument. Sixty-six children from two-and-one-half to five years of age qualified for special education by exhibiting a significant delay in one or more developmental areas (gross motor, fine motor, language, cognition, or social-emotional development).

Seventy percent of these children showed delays in gross motor, 83 percent in fine motor, 83 percent in language, 55 percent in cognition and 85 percent in social-emotional development. Fifty-one normally developing children attended integrated and mainstream classrooms in this study. Each classroom had 14 children and the program last 2 hours and 15 minutes a day, five days a week. On average, three adults worked in each classroom.

Integrated classes outperform mainstream classes

All three programs resulted in significant gains in language development. However, the largest effect sizes for special-needs children in all areas of development were seen in the integrated-special-education classes, followed by the special-education-only classes.
The smallest gains were associated with the mainstream classes. Although the differences between programs were small, only special-needs students in integrated-special-education classes consistently showed growth that significantly exceeded a normal rate of development, so that these children were closing the gap between themselves and average children their age.

Mainstream classrooms had more than twice as many normally developing children as integrated-special-education classrooms. Yet, rather than benefiting from the larger numbers of general-education students, higher-performing special-needs children in the mainstream classrooms showed less growth than their peers in the integrated-special-education classrooms. It appears that introducing a high ratio of normally developing children changes classroom dynamics in ways that do not favor higher-functioning special-needs students — at least during the preschool years.

These results indicate that special-needs preschoolers benefit from some level of inclusion, but that higher-functioning students do not benefit as much from full inclusion. However, lower-functioning students appear to benefit as much from mainstream classes as they do from special-education-only classes at the preschool level. These researchers conclude that providing integrated-special-education classes and mainstream classes is likely to meet the needs of most preschool children with moderate special needs.


“Effects of Differing Levels of Inclusion on Preschoolers with Disabilities,” Exceptional Children Volume 65, Number 1, Fall 1998, pp. 79-90.

Published in ERN November 1998 Volume 11 Number 8

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