As inclusive opportunities increase for students with disabilities, additional research is needed to examine high school students' classroom interactions. This descriptive study explores the nature of the social interactions of 10 high school students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) in the general education classroom. Findings from our observations indicated that students with IDD interacted with peers during approximately one out of every four minutes and interacted with the general educator during one out of every 10 minutes, less than their peer comparisons' interactions with peers and teachers. Students with IDD were present (M = 89.9%) and in proximity to peers (M = 71.7%) during the majority of the class period. We discuss additional results along with practical implications, limitations, and future research directions.
For many young adults, the high school years are a life-defining period prior to entering adulthood. During this critical stage, students develop their aspirations for the future, cultivate lifelong relationships, and, ideally, become contributing citizens of society. The high school environment is richly embedded with a variety of academic and elective courses along with extracurricular activities where young adults have opportunities to learn and thrive with guidance and support from teachers and peers (Arnett, 2014). On the other hand, high school can be a challenging time of transition and self-defining events for students with and without disabilities (Locke, Ishijima, Kasari, & London, 2010; Osterman, 2000). For example, many students experience loneliness, stress, and anxiety during their high school years as a result of interactions between mental development, physical growth, and social environments (Blakemore, 2008; Locke et al., 2010). Similar concerns have been reported by students with disabilities. Locke and colleagues (2010) examined peer relationships and social networks of high school students by conducting a survey in an inclusive high school class. A total of seven students with autism and 20 peers without disabilities completed the surveys. All students with autism identified their own strengths and areas for improvement, and shared similar definitions of friendship as described by their peers. However, when compared to their classmates without disabilities, students with autism reported experiencing significant social isolation with fewer friends, lower quality friendships, and smaller social networks.
Several risk factors have been identified as being associated with poor high school experiences, including bullying, inadequate supports, low attendance rates, failure of courses, and negative student attitudes (Mac Iver, 2013). In 2007, the National Dropout Prevention Center published a technical report that detailed risk factors for high school students dropping out (Hammond, Linton, Smink, & Drew, 2007). Some factors included having physical, cognitive, behavioral, and/or emotional disabilities, experiencing stressful life events, using drugs, working long hours, bonding with antisocial peers, having low occupational aspirations, missing school, being suspended or rejected by peers, participating in violence, and having friends who drop out of school (Hammond et al., 2007).
A protective factor that counteracts these potential risks that compromise high school experiences is having positive peer relationships (Arnett, 2014; Suldo, Gelley, Roth, & Bateman, 2015). Suldo and colleagues (2015) surveyed 500 high school students to investigate how peer relationships affected student mental health. Findings indicated that positive peer relationships and interactions with friends alleviate mental stress, decrease the feelings of isolation, and increase sense of belonging and well-being. Experiences with positive peer interactions have also been linked to enhanced academic performance and behavioral outcomes for high school students with and without disabilities (Carter, Sisco, Brown, Brickham, & Al-Khabbaz, 2008). In particular, for secondary students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), strong social interaction skills with peers and adults have led to effective self-determination skills and predicated better postsecondary employment and education outcomes (Giangreco, 2017). In addition, individuals with intellectual disability (ID) achieve better outcomes when teachers use individualized goals and objectives that closely resemble the learning outcomes of peers without disabilities (Giangreco, 2017). Peer interactions among students with and without disabilities are more likely to flourish when students with IDD have access to the general education curriculum, work alongside their peers on the same or very similar assignments, and participate in shared activities and discussions (Giangreco, 2017).
In high schools, the general education classroom is perhaps the most dynamic environment that offers unique opportunities for students to engage in different forms of interactions with a range of functions, from presenting historical cases, discussing group project procedures, commenting on peers' artwork, to conversing on school events. Although opportunities to access these settings have increased over time for many high school students with IDD (McLeskey, Landers, Williamson, & Hoppey, 2012), little is known about the nature of their classroom interactions in inclusive environments. Few descriptive studies have explored this area, despite there being several intervention studies that have documented limited peer interaction in general education classrooms for high school students with IDD without targeted supports in place (e.g., Carter et al., 2008; Carter, Moss, Hoffman, Chung, & Sisco, 2011). Previous investigations either involved interactions of younger populations (e.g., Andzik, Chung, & Kranak, 2016; Chung, Carter, & Sisco, 2012), targeted high school students with IDD across a range of school environments (e.g., Carter, Hughes, Guth, & Copeland, 2005), or examined the contextual variables but not the peer interactions of students with disabilities in inclusive high school classrooms (e.g., Feldman, Carter, Asmus, & Brock, 2016).
For example, Chung and colleagues (2012) observed the social interactions of nine elementary and seven middle school students with autism or ID in inclusive classrooms. The researchers found these students were engaged in interactions during an average of 67% of the time, with the majority of these interaction events (72%) being initiated by special education personnel. In addition, elementary school students were found to be engaged in significantly more social interactions compared to middle school students. More recently, Andzik and colleagues (2016) recorded the communication opportunities of 23 elementary school students with limited intelligible speech and who used aided augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems (e.g., pictures, speech-generating devices [SGDs]) across school environments, including general education classrooms. All but one participant received services under the disability category of autism, ID, or multiple disabilities. Andzik et al. (2016) reported that students were presented with an average of 17 communication opportunities to respond per hour, with the majority of the opportunities occurring in the special education classroom. In addition, during about half of these opportunities (46%), students did not have access to their AAC systems.
Carter and colleagues (2005) explored potential factors impacting peer interactions through observing 16 high school students with IDD when they were in proximity to peers without disabilities across school settings. The researchers found more peer interactions occurred when students with IDD were in more inclusive environments (where the majority of the students did not have a disability). In addition, students with IDD had higher frequency of peer interactions when they were in proximity to a peer buddy. As part of a large-scale project, Feldman and colleagues (2016) observed 108 high students with IDD across a total of 324 observations in the general education classroom. Results showed that students with IDD were present during an average of 84% of the class period, often arriving late and leaving earlier than the scheduled class periods. In addition, students with IDD were in proximity to their peers without disabilities during less than half of the classroom period (i.e., 42%). Following an analysis of comparison data of peers without disabilities, the researchers concluded that the contextual variables—limited presence and peer proximity—were among the barriers to meaningful inclusion of students with IDD.
To our knowledge, there is no descriptive study specifically focused on how high school students with IDD naturally interact with peers and adults in the general education classroom. Natural interaction refers to communication (social or academic) between students with IDD and other individuals in the classroom, without targeted interventions or contrived prompting. This information is critical for two main reasons. First, this knowledge can contribute to our understanding of the application of evidence-based practices in general education classrooms. Over the last few decades, the field of IDD has made substantial progress in promoting meaningful inclusion and communication outcomes of students with IDD through research (Bogenschutz et al., 2015; Snell et al., 2010). For example, the use of AAC systems and peer support arrangements have emerged as evidence-based practices for students with IDD (Carter, Sisco, Chung, & Stanton-Chapman, 2010; Spooner, McKissick, & Knight, 2017). However, little is known about the extent to which educators implement these evidence-based strategies to promote social communication of high school students with IDD in the general education classroom.
Second, such information will inform future classroom-based intervention research involving high school students with IDD, which is an understudied population, compared to younger students with IDD (Carter et al., 2010). By documenting key variables that impact classroom interactions—communicators, partners, and environments, this study can prepare future researchers and educators to develop interventions that better address the dynamic nature of high school classrooms. Therefore, we designed this descriptive study to address the following questions: (a) What is the nature and extent of the social interactions of high school students with IDD in the general education classroom? (b) What contextual factors within inclusive classrooms may be associated with the occurrences of peer interaction?
Upon receiving university approval, we approached teachers and/or administrators from a total of 32 neighboring high schools and school districts to recruit participants and subsequently obtained parent permissions. As a result, we recruited 10 students who met our criteria from five high schools. The remaining high schools indicated that there was no enrollment of students with IDD (n = 4), had students with IDD who attended special education classrooms full time (n = 4) or only attended inclusive physical education (n = 1), declined participation (n = 6), or did not respond to our recruitment contacts (n = 12).
A student was included in this study if he/she met the following criteria: (a) the student received services under the category of autism, ID, or multiple disabilities; (b) the student attended at least one general education classroom, other than physical education, in a high school; and (c) teachers identified the student as having communication needs (e.g., working on social and communication Individualized Education Program [IEP] goals, or using AAC devices to communicate). As a result, 10 high school students, five males and five females with ages ranging from 15.0 to 19.8 years (M = 17.4, SD = 1.4), participated in this study (see Table 1 for participant descriptions). The majority of the participants were Caucasian (n = 8) and had a primary diagnosis of ID (n = 7). All students used speech as a primary communication mode, with outputs ranging from single word utterances used in conjunction with an AAC device (n = 1), multi-word verbal phrases (n = 1), to complete sentences (n = 8). Table 1 also presents the scores of the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales: Second Edition (VABS-II, Sparrow, Cichetti, & Balla, 2005) and the Scales of Independent Behavior: Revised (SIB-R, Bruininks, Woodcock, Weatherman, & Hill, 1996), completed by special educators and parents, respectively.
According to the VABS-II scores, the participants had communication skills ranging from moderately low levels (n = 1) to low levels (n = 9), socialization skills ranging from moderately low levels (n = 5) to low levels (n = 5), and daily living skills ranging from moderately low levels (n = 2) to low levels (n = 8). Students received SIB-R broad scores with skill levels ranging from limited to age appropriate (n = 1), limited (n = 3), limited to very limited (n = 2), very limited (n = 3), to very limited to negligible (n = 1). Table 2 illustrates social communication IEP goals for each participant. Four students had goals related to social interaction and six were working on specific communication functions (e.g., asking for help).
Schools and Classrooms
We observed the students in general education classrooms located within five different Midwestern high schools in the United States (see Table 2). These five high schools (four rural and one urban) had an average total student population of 947 (range = 442–1660), with a majority of students who were Caucasian (M = 87.7%; range = 74.0–93.9%), followed by Hispanic/Latino (M = 4.3%; range = 2.6–6.0%), African American (M = 3.7%; range = 0.7–13.0%), Asian American (M = 1.0%; range = 0.4–2.0%), and American Indian (M = 0.1% range = 0.0–0.4%). Across the five schools, students with disabilities accounted for an average of 12.6% (range = 6.0–16.0%) of the total student population, with an average of 32.8% (range = 16.0–52.0%) of students receiving free or reduced-price meals. Table 2 presents the 10 general education classrooms where observations took place, including choir (n = 4), art (n = 2), study hall (n = 2), contemporary studies (n = 1), and horticulture (n = 1). A majority of the participants attended general education classrooms between 21% and 60% of the school day (n = 8), with personnel support ranging from none (n = 5), peer (n = 1), peer and paraprofessional (n = 1) to special education/paraprofessional (n = 4). Across observations, each general education class consisted of an average of 25 students (range = 9–48), one to two general educators, and zero to two additional adults (i.e., special educator or paraprofessional).
Prior to classroom observations, we informed teachers and paraprofessionals about the purpose of the study and asked them to continue their typical class activities and supports. For students who attended more than one general education classroom, we asked the special education teachers to select a classroom that represented students' natural classroom interactions with peers and adults. We observed each focus student four times in the general education classroom. In addition, we collected peer comparison data by observing a same-gender peer one time in each classroom.
We conducted classroom observations using interval and event recordings in a paper-and-pencil format, with vibrating timers to track the observation intervals. Interval recording systems were used to collect data on focus students' classroom interactions with peers, special educators, and general educators, as well as contextual variables (i.e., instructional format and proximity). Event recording was used to count the number of different peers who interacted with the focus student during a given observation. We adapted coding categories and definitions from previous studies (e.g., Carter et al., 2008; Chung et al., 2012).
At the beginning of each 1-minute interval, we coded two contextual variables: instructional format and proximity. For instructional format, we recorded whether the focus student was participating in large group (with several or more classmates), small group (with one to several classmates), independent work, no instruction, or gone (was not present in the classroom). For proximity, we recorded if the focus student was within reaching distance of his/her AAC system (e.g., pictures or devices), peers without IDD, special education personnel (e.g., special education teacher or paraprofessional), and general educators.
Partial interval recording
At any point during the 1-minute interval, we recorded whether the focus student initiated or responded to a peer, special education personnel, or a general educator, or whether a peer, special education personnel, or a general educator initiated toward the focus student. An initiation was defined as a verbal (i.e., speech, vocalization, device) and/or nonverbal (e.g. facial expressions, gestures, pictures, sign) behavior with a clear communication intent to evoke a response from a specific person. An initiation was also coded when (a) 5 seconds elapsed between two interactive behaviors, (b) an introduction of a new type of topic, or (c) a new partner joined the conversation. A response was defined as a verbal or nonverbal behavior that overtly or passively acknowledged an initiation or response from a specific person. In addition, when the focus student initiated or responded to a peer or an adult, we coded whether the interactive behavior was task-related or social-related. We also coded the communication modes produced by the focus student during interactions, including: facial expressions, gestures, vocalizations (non-speech sounds), speech, signs, pictures, and/or communication devices.
We observed each focus student four times over two to four weeks, during the middle or the end of a semester, ranging from October to December and from March to April. The average time of the observation for each student was 41 minutes (range = 26–51 minutes). Each observation started and ended when the bell rang. In addition, we conducted one observation of a randomly-selected peer of the same gender as the focus student using the same measures. The average duration of peer comparison observation was 40 minutes (range = 29–48 minutes). Three special education faculty members served as observers, each of whom had teaching and research experience related to students with IDD. Prior to live observations, the primary observer (the first author) met with two secondary observers to discuss coding procedures and practice coding all measures using training videos. Both secondary coders achieved an average of 98.5% interobserver agreement (IOA; range = 88–100%) across all variables with the primary observer on training videos. During one of four observations for each student and three peer comparison observations, a secondary observer joined the primary observer in the observation setting, started their timers together when the bell rang, and collected data on all of the measures independently. We calculated IOA by comparing the coding collected by each observer and calculating the percentage of identical reported observations. Across focus student observations, IOA was on average 97.2% (range = 66.7–100%). Across peer observations, IOA was 94.8% (range = 66.7–100%). Mean percentage of IOA for the thirteen sessions (10 students and three peers) was calculated as follows: format (99.1%), proximity (99.3%), initiations and responses to peer (97.2%), initiations and responses to special education personnel (97.5%; this score was only checked in five sessions as special education personnel were not present in all classrooms), initiations and responses to general education teacher (98%), communication modes (96.5%), and number of different peers (82.7%).
After conducting all student and peer observations, we aggregated data across the four observations for each focus student and the one observation for each peer comparison. To better estimate the nature of student's classroom interaction and contexts, we used the total intervals during which the student was present in the classroom as the denominator to calculate percentage of intervals for all variables, except for the percentage of gone. For example, we divided the total partner-initiated, student-initiated, and student-responded intervals by the total intervals during which the focus student was present in the classroom. To calculate the percentage of gone, we divided the total intervals of gone by the total intervals of the entire observation. We reported mean scores related to interactions with peers, general educators, and special education personnel for both focus students with IDD and peer comparisons in Table 3. We also summarized the mean percentage of intervals for contextual variables and task or social related topics in Table 4.
The results illustrated similarities and differences in social interactions and contextual variables between focus students and their peers without disabilities in general education classrooms. We found that the 10 students with IDD were present during 89.9% (range = 76.3–98.3%) of the intervals, slightly less than their peer comparisons (M = 98.5%, range = 86.2–100%). The majority of instruction format was large group for both focus students and their peer comparisons (M = 48.4% and 53.9%, respectively). Across classrooms, students with IDD interacted with peers during approximately one out of every four minutes (M = 24.3%) and interacted with the general educator during one out of every 10 minutes (M = 9.4%), which is less than their peer comparisons' peer and teacher interactions (M = 40.5% and 24.3%, respectively). On average, students with IDD interacted with 2.9 different peers while the comparison peers interacted with 4.7 different peers during a class period. Not surprisingly, students with IDD interacted with special education personnel (M = 28.2%) more often than their peers (M = 1.1%). More interactions were about task-related topics than social topics no matter with whom the participants were communicating except when peers were conversing with other peers. Speech (M = 29% and 44.1%) was the mode of communication used most often followed by facial expressions (M = 16.4% and 23.1%), gestures (M = 13.2% and 20.3%), and vocalizations (M = 1.1% and 0.6%) for both the students and their comparison peers, respectively. Below we discuss the results in more detail as they correspond to the research questions.
Overall, students with IDD interacted with their peers slightly more than half as often as their peer comparisons (M = 24.3%, range = 0.6–51.6% and M = 40.5%, range = 9.3–96%, respectively; see Table 3). On the other hand, five students with IDD were engaged in more overall peer interactions than their peer comparisons (i.e., Hailey, Mark, Jared, Jordan, Sue). Students with IDD were initiated by other peers during a mean of 17% (range = 0.6–37.8%) of the intervals, slightly less than their peer comparisons (M = 26.1%, range = 4.5– 68%). Two students (Abby and Ronda) had the least amount of peer interactions (M = 0.6% and M = 2.0%, respectively), after the occasional peer initiation. Students with IDD initiated to peers during a mean of 9.7% (range = 0–27.9%) of the intervals, about half as often as peer comparisons initiating to other peers 22.3% (range = 2.2–44%) of the intervals. Similarly, students with IDD responded in 15.6% (range = 0–40%) of the intervals and peer comparisons responded in 31.4% (range = 7–84%) of the intervals. For students with IDD, the interaction topics with their peers were just about evenly split between task (M = 11.1%, range = 0–33%) and social (M = 10%, range = 0–36.3%) topics (see Table 4). In comparison, peers conversed more on social-related topics (M = 27.2%, range = 4.7–100%) and less about class tasks (M = 14.8%, range = 0–37.9%).
With general education teachers
Intervals with interactions between general educators and students with IDD (M = 9.4%, range = 2.6–20.3%) and peer comparisons (M = 13.4%, range = 0–32%) were similar. The general educator initiated toward students with IDD (M = 6.2%, range = 2.2–14%) slightly more often than toward the peers (M = 4.5%, range = 0–13.6%). Five peer comparisons never received initiations from the general educator. Students with IDD initiated toward the general educator less often (M = 3.7%, range = 0–17.7%) than their peer comparisons (M = 8.7%, range = 0–25%). Three students with IDD and three peer comparisons never initiated toward the general educator. Students with IDD responded to the general educator in 4.6% (range = 0.8–10.3%) of the intervals, less than their peer comparisons (M = 8.3%, range = 0–22.9%). Most of the interaction topics were task-related for students with IDD (M = 4.7%, range = 0–16.1%) and their peer comparisons (M = 9.1%, range = 0–25%). Social topics had a mean of 2.6% (range = 0–6.1%) of the intervals for students and 4.8% (range = 0–28%) of the intervals for peer comparisons.
With special education personnel
Only five of the students with IDD were supported by a special educator or paraprofessional (Abby, Mark, Bert, Kim, and Ronda), though special education personnel were occasionally present in Sue's choir class. Out of the six classes with special education personnel, the personnel initiated a mean of 25.5% (range = 4.3–70.3%) of the intervals, while students with IDD initiated and responded during a mean of 8.1% (range = 0–30.6%) and a mean of 14.7% (range = 1.2–54.6%) of the intervals, respectively. Most of the topics were about class tasks (M = 14.3%, range = 0–55%), compared to social topics (M = 5.6%, range = 0–16.4%). The peer comparison in Kim's horticulture class was the only peer observed who interacted with the special education personnel, and covered both task- and social-related topics.
Overall, most instruction occurred in a large group format for both students with IDD (M = 48.4%) and their peers (M = 53.9%). This format was highest in choir and contemporary studies. Individual work usually took place in study hall, art, and horticulture. The mean percentage of intervals for no instruction were also similar for both students (16.2%) and peers (18.4%). Conversely, students with IDD were absent from the classroom more often (M = 10.2%, range = 1.7–23.7%) than their peers without disabilities (M = 1.4%, range = 0–13.8%).
We observed students with IDD near their peers without IDD during an average of 71.7% of the intervals with a range of 5.4% (Ronda in art with special education personnel support) to 98.3% (Jared in contemporary studies without personnel support). Abbey, who was in choir with a paraprofessional, also had a lower mean of 24.4%. Everyone else was in proximity to peers over 50% of the intervals. Peer comparison data were higher with a mean of 99.1% (range = 93.2–100%). Students with IDD were in proximity to the general educator less often than their peer comparisons (M = 12.6%, range = 0–51.3% and M = 26%; range = 0–84%, respectively). One student with IDD and four peer comparisons were never observed in proximity to the general educator. The five students who received individual adult support were in proximity to special education personnel during an average of 29.5% of the intervals. Three out of five students (Abby, Bert, and Ronda) were in proximity to their support adults over 83.6% of the intervals. On the other hand, both Mark's and Kim's paraprofessionals were purposefully not to be in proximity (M = 5.5% and 19.3%, respectively). Mark had a peer support and Kim preferred to work by herself. Only three students (Abby, Mark, and Ronda) used SGDs in the inclusive classrooms, with varied SGD proximity (M = 96.3 %, 35.5%, and 0.7%, respectively).
The purpose of this descriptive study was to examine the nature and extent of social interactions among high school students with IDD in the general education classroom and contextual factors within the general education classroom that may be associated with peer interactions. Findings from this descriptive study contribute to the limited literature on classroom interactions of high school students with IDD in several notable ways. First, our results showed that, in general, the high school students with IDD were interacting with their peers during a quarter of the class period, while their peers without IDD were interacting during an average of 40% of the time. These interactions between students with IDD and other members in the inclusive classroom are narrowing the gap between interaction differences and illustrating a potential benefit of inclusion. The interactions were naturally-occurring and related to both social and academic topics. We also noted that these 10 students with IDD—despite sharing somewhat similar communication profiles—were engaged in a broad range of peer interactions. That is, while two students (Abby and Ronda) were never observed initiating or responding to a peer without IDD across the four observations, five students (Hailey, Mark, Jared, Jordan, Sue) had more overall appropriate peer interactions than their peer comparisons. Although we randomly selected the peers, such variations can be associated with different personal and environmental factors, including students' and peers' prior interaction experiences, existing relationships, classroom type, classroom activities, teacher attitude, and school cultures (Amado, Stancliffe, McCarron, & McCallion, 2013). Additional data would need to be collected to further analyze the differences between students with IDD and their peers and ensure that the high rate of interactions were occurring at appropriate times during class and not hindering learning.
One notable contextual factor we recorded was adult proximity. We found noticeable differences in peer interactions for students with IDD based on the extent to which adults provided direct support—a finding similar to that from a previous observation study (Chung et al., 2012). For example, Bert and Ronda were engaged in lower levels of peer interactions, both experienced higher levels of adult support, and primarily communicated with their support persons. In contrast, Mark and Kim experienced lower levels of adult support, as evidenced by lower levels of paraprofessional proximity, and were observed to engage in higher levels of peer interaction. Our anecdotal notes showed that Mark's paraprofessional had established an existing peer support for him, and continued to monitor his participation while purposefully keeping her distance. This finding is not surprising, as adult proximity, specifically as it relates to special education personnel, has been identified as a potential barrier to inclusion and delivery of special education services for students with disabilities (e.g., Giangreco, Suter, & Doyle, 2010). However, it is important to note that paraprofessionals also can be seen as facilitators of peer interaction when promoting communication among students with IDD and peers and strategically fading their support (e.g., Carter et al., 2011). In addition, we observed notable differences in peer proximity based on whether students with IDD received support from adults. Specifically, students with IDD who did not receive adult support were more likely to be in proximity to peers without disabilities compared to those who received support from special education personnel. As such, it is possible that receiving adult support is a contextual factor that contributes to differences in peer and/or teacher proximity in high school classrooms, and therefore may affect the nature and extent of student classroom interactions.
Another noteworthy finding from the current study revealed that high school students with IDD were present in the classroom during 90% of the class period. This is in contrast to findings from previous observational studies, in which younger students with IDD were absent from the general education classroom during an estimated 20% of the class time (Chung et al., 2012). Such difference may be associated with the high level of independence and mobility of these high school students with IDD. All but two students (Abby and Bert) transitioned between the classes without an adult—often arriving to classrooms on time and staying for the entire class period. It is rewarding to witness high school students with IDD demonstrating autonomy by successfully navigating school environments, as a result of inclusion. However, it is important to note that, even though students with IDD were present during most of class time, the students in our study were in proximity to their peers without disabilities less often than their comparison peers. This result calls for the need for educational teams to further examine the nature of inclusion for their students with IDD, given that placement in the general education classroom does not always guarantee inclusive experience for students with and without disabilities.
Finally, our findings show that students with IDD—despite engaged in fewer overall classroom interactions—may share some similarities with their peers without IDD across certain interaction variables. For instance, both students with IDD and their comparisons were engaged in similar overall task-related peer interactions (M = 11.1% and 14.8%, respectively). Also, five students with IDD and seven comparison peers were found to spend more time responding rather than initiating toward peers. Moreover, students with IDD and their peer comparisons were observed to have a similar amount of teacher interactions with more task-related conversations. Together, these similarities in interaction profiles shared by students with IDD and comparison peers highlight the significance of classroom participation and support the use of strength-based thinking when planning services for students with IDD (Walker, DeSpain, Thompson, & Hughes, 2014). To continue efforts on supporting meaningful inclusion of high school students with IDD, future researchers would want to more closely examine environmental factors that facilitate classroom interactions and participation.
There are several implications for practice that should be considered in light of the findings outlined in the previous section. In the current study, all but two students with IDD were engaged in initiations and/or responses involving peers, and all students with IDD interacted with classroom teachers in some capacity. These findings are reassuring as they indicate that the majority of the observed high school students with IDD benefited from the rich interaction opportunities of general education classrooms, as a result of inclusion efforts of their educational teams. However, for two students in the current study, these opportunities seemed significantly limited. Interestingly, we found that students with higher VABS-II communication scores were not necessarily engaged in higher levels of social interaction. This might suggest that factors beyond student characteristics (e.g., communication mode, communication level) may play an important role in facilitating interactions in inclusive settings (e.g., Andzik et al., 2016; Chung et al., 2012). It will be important for educators to carefully consider both student characteristics and contextual factors that may promote or impede communication and participation within the general education classroom and plan accordingly based on an assessment of these factors (Rao, Smith, & Lowrey, 2017).
We were encouraged by the fact that general educators, rather than special education personnel only, were observed communicating with high school students with IDD. Three students received varying levels of special education personnel support in different courses, from without a paraprofessional (Jared in contemporary studies), with a paraprofessional who was present but not in proximity (Kim in horticulture), to direct paraprofessional support (Ronda in art). Interestingly, all three students had higher levels of interactions with the general educator. Consequently, classroom teachers can play a critical role in elevating the classroom membership of students with IDD regardless of whether special education personnel are present. Communication opportunities exist in all types of classrooms. For example, general educators can expand on their existing interactions with students with IDD and/or redirect interactions to involve peers without disabilities. Doing so will require teachers to be more aware of opportunities and strategies that promote social interactions across different conditions and among students who have a range of communication support needs (Snell et al., 2010). Increased teacher awareness of social interactions will likely encourage more purposeful planning in terms of instructional format and grouping during classroom activities. For example, small group or independent work with a peer, in contrast to a whole group arrangement, might provide more opportunities for academic-related peer interactions. On the other hand, for a course that is mostly whole group format (e.g., choir), teachers may consider including pair activities to check progress or understanding, or embedding short breaks that involve students moving around the classroom for conversations.
Five of the students with IDD in the current study received support from a paraprofessional on a regular basis. Paraprofessional support has continued to be a common practice for students with IDD in the general education classroom (Giangreco et al., 2010). However, given the potential issues with overreliance on paraprofessional support, educators must exercise caution in how paraprofessional support is utilized in these settings. Special educators and administrators would want to equip and empower paraprofessionals with the knowledge and skills necessary to effectively promote social communication and active participation in general education settings. For example, our findings indicate that students with IDD who were observed may have benefited from decreased paraprofessional proximity and increased peer proximity as well as paraprofessional-implemented prompting to initiate or respond to peers without disabilities. As such, training for paraprofessionals working with these students might be focused on reducing proximity and promoting more interactions with peers without disabilities so as to promote more meaningful inclusive experiences (e.g., Chung & Douglas, 2015).
During the recruitment phase of the study, we experienced significant challenges. In fact, several high schools that we approached reported that students with IDD were not enrolled in their schools or their students with IDD were not included in any general education classroom during the school day. This recruitment difficulty may be indicative of the challenges high school educational teams face in planning for and implementing the inclusion of secondary students with IDD (Molfenter & Hanley-Maxwell, 2017). Despite these potential challenges, there is evidence to support that secondary students with IDD can benefit from inclusion in the general education setting both academically and socially (e.g., Chung & Carter, 2013; Wood, Browder, & Flynn, 2015). Through our observations, we noted a range of established natural supports provided by peers and classroom teachers of students with IDD. For example, Hailey independently attended the study hall and received ongoing support from two peers under the guidelines of the classroom teacher. In the horticulture classroom, Kim primarily worked on her own when completing hands-on activities. However, in a review lesson, we observed that the classroom teacher provided additional support by asking a classmate to work with Kim on a worksheet. We hope our findings will motivate educational teams to continue exploring feasible natural supports and expanding their schools' capacities for inclusion. Inclusion in secondary schools can lead to natural supports generalized across environments and increased overall quality of life beyond the classrooms, as a result of an inclusive community (Brown, Hatton, & Emerson, 2013).
Limitations and Future Research
There are several limitations to the current study that should be considered. First, our anecdotal notes indicated that several schools initially recruited for this study appeared to have an existing history of excluding students with IDD from general education classrooms. As such, our recruitment efforts resulted in a small sample size, thereby limiting the generalizability of our findings. More observational research is needed to explore peer interactions in inclusive high school settings among a larger, more diverse sample of students with IDD. Second, we conducted only one peer comparison observation at a different point in time to avoid observer reactivity. Because of this, observations may have captured different instructional activities and environmental demands that might have affected the nature and extent of interactions during those sessions. Future researchers should consider conducting multiple peer comparison observations to allow for more accurate comparisons across study participants. Third, we conducted in-vivo observations in the classroom that may have resulted in observer reactivity. In addition, this data collection method might have contributed to lower IOA scores due to the possibility of coding interactions not seen by the other observer. To address these potential issues, future studies can involve video-recorded observations to reduce the threat of the observer's presence interfering with classroom activities and inaccurate coding. Finally, we limited our data collection to interval recordings of interactions with peers and teachers, event recording for the number of different peers conversed with, and time sampling recordings of instructional format and proximity. Additional measures (e.g., number of turns during interactions, quality of interactions) may allow for a more in-depth understanding of the quality and the nature of dynamic social communication among high school students with IDD in general education classrooms.
Inclusion begins with a presence in general education classrooms, but also includes social interactions and academic progress for true effectiveness and long term benefits. The 10 high school students with IDD observed in this study were present in their general education classroom 90% of the time, an increase from a prior study observing younger students (Chung et al., 2012). While they attended classrooms using different instructional formats for class activities, half of the students with IDD interacted with their peers more often than their peer comparison. Furthermore, students receiving adult support interacted more with peers when paraprofessionals were not in proximity, yet present for support. Only two students, who received adult support, never initiated or responded to peers. Interestingly, students conversed about task- and social-related topics almost evenly no matter if they were interacting with peers or adults. In summary, these results support the benefits of inclusion for students with IDD and present the need for continued advocacy and training for educators and peers working with students with disabilities in inclusive settings.