Social Skills & Friendships in Inclusive Classrooms: What Research Tells Us
When exploring best practices in inclusive classrooms, our focus often falls on academics and what we, as teachers and teaching assistants, need to do to support our students.
But could that well-meaning support harm our students' social skills and friendships?
Dr. Michael Giangreco, a special education professor at The University of Vermont, has published several articles and books on inclusive classrooms. Much of his team’s research involved observing and asking questions in classrooms where Teaching Assistants (TAs) supported students with disabilities. Through these observations and interviews, Dr. Giangreco noted several common themes. Here are a few of the most prominent findings:
1. Classroom teachers felt like the student assigned to a TA was no longer their responsibility.
Dr. Giangreco highlights that once a teaching assistant was assigned to a particular student, there was an almost instant detachment between that student and the classroom teacher. It was now the duty of the TA to work with that student, and the teachers assumed the TAs would be making the majority of day-to-day decisions about how to help them.
Besides many TAs being untrained and unqualified to make these kinds of decisions, this contributes to the separation between students with disabilities and their peers. They may be in the same room, but there is an impression that they have two different teachers; therefore, that student is not really part of the class.
I have a friend who became a paraprofessional mostly for the convenience of having the same schedule as her kids. She did not have a background in education or any experience working with students with disabilities. Little did she know, instead of the responsibilities she thought she'd have, like making photocopies or supervising small groups, she ended up being the primary supporter of a young child with severe, undiagnosed disabilities. She received very little, if any, instruction about what to do and remained in survival mode for the school year. She quickly decided this wasn't a good fit for her and returned to her old job. This is unfortunate because, given proper training and more appropriate tasks, she would have been a great help to the teachers and students at the school.
2. Students were removed from their peers more than necessary.
Dr. Giangreco also observed that TAs tended to default to one-on-one instruction with their assigned student, thinking it was their responsibility. Although this is sometimes necessary, best practices tell us that students with disabilities should be included as part of the class whenever possible to promote peer interaction, develop social skills, and feel like they belong.
For example, during math class, it may be very feasible for a student with a disability to work through the stations using their own materials, play the games assigned at a station with their peers, and meet in a small group with the teacher. Instead, they are often pulled out and helped through an assignment with the TA, who believes this is what they were hired to do.
I once observed students pulled out unnecessarily during a group art project in an elementary classroom. The teacher asked students to gather in small groups and create collaborative artwork. However, the TA escorted three students with disabilities to an adjacent room, where they were each given an alternative, individual art task.
Regrettably, this arrangement deprived these students of the opportunity to take part in hands-on artistic expression and peer collaboration. They could have greatly benefited from the tactile experience of working with art materials and the social interaction that comes with creating art alongside their peers.
3. Students became overly reliant on adults.
In his observations, Dr. Giangreco found that a TA would often be so focused on helping that they didn't prioritize the goal of fading support over time. We've all been in situations where it's simpler just to do something for our students or children instead of giving them opportunities to learn how to do it themselves. This leads to overreliance and becomes a difficult cycle to break since it's easy for both adults and children.
This particular finding is something I've witnessed in my own teaching career with a student named Andrew. As discussed in my earlier blog post about seamless & silent supports, Andrew was a 2nd grader who would often retreat under his desk whenever he felt frustrated, and I was the only staff member who could coax him into coming back out. I would frequently get called into the room to help with Andrew, which initially felt endearing. However, on days when I wasn't available to come in, it created a very disruptive problem. Even though I had good intentions and did what I thought was the most helpful at the time, my actions caused Andrew to become overly reliant on me.
Thankfully, this was a significant learning experience for me, and now I understand what a better solution would have been: to teach Andrew's peers how to help instead. Using peer support is a wonderful way to prevent overreliance on adults, forge important relationships between students, and begin a path toward independence.
4. TAs made decisions for their students rather than with their students.
Dr. Giangreco's research suggests that in some cases, TAs may unintentionally make decisions on behalf of the students they support instead of involving them in the decision-making process. This lack of inclusivity can cause students to feel like they don't have control, contribute to social disengagement, and prevent them from developing important decision-making skills. Dr. Giangreco advocates for a collaborative decision-making approach that actively involves students with disabilities in shaping their own educational experiences.
I observed the consequences of a well-meaning TA overstepping decision-making boundaries with a middle school student named Fi. Fi had a physical disability that affected their mobility, and Mr. Ng was the TA assigned to support them throughout the day. Mr. Ng always had Fi's success and safety in mind, but over time, he began making decisions for Fi and didn't always include them in the process. Whether choosing which assignment to work on first, deciding when to take breaks, or even picking lunch options, Mr. Ng would often take charge without consulting Fi.
At first, Fi didn't mind all the extra support Mr. Ng gave them. After all, they knew he had their best interest at heart and was only trying to do what was best for them. But after a while, Fi started to feel like they were losing control over their own life. They yearned to make choices like their peers did, experience the consequences of their actions, and develop age-appropriate decision-making skills.
Thankfully, Fi advocated for themselves and told Mr. Ng they would like more personal freedoms. Mr. Ng happily stepped back and adjusted to find that "just right" level of support.
5. There were negative impacts on peer interactions.
Perhaps the most detrimental findings in Dr. Giangreco's research were the negative impacts a TA's close proximity had on their assigned student's interactions with their peers. It's easy to see how having a teacher sitting next to a student all day could interfere with the natural interactions between that student and the rest of the class. Some specific consequences include:
· Feelings of embarrassment, loneliness, or rejection
· Loss of natural peer conversations during group work
· Students with TA support picked last in group activities
· Discouragement of peer support
Dr. Michael Giangreco's research sheds light on the unintended consequences that might come up while teaching assistants are supporting students with disabilities and neurodiversities. It is essential for educators and support staff to be aware of these potential pitfalls and work collaboratively to implement strategies that foster social inclusion, independence, and positive peer interactions for all students in inclusive classrooms. In my next blog, we’ll begin to explore how to properly support the peer interactions, specifically in structured settings.
Giangreco, M. F., Suter, J. C., & Doyle, M. B. (2010). Paraprofessionals in Inclusive Schools: A Review of Recent Research. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 20(1), 41–57.
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