2002 Conference Proceedings

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USING CMC TO BUILD MIDDLE SCHOOL COMMUNITIES AMONG PEERS WITH MILD/MODERATE DISABILITIES

Hannah C. Sellers, Asst. Professor
Eastern CT State University
176 High Street
Willimantic, CT 06226
Phone: (860)465-0076
Home: (860)432-0188
FAX: (860)465-5099

The public school population in the United States is becoming increasingly more diverse (Riehl, 2000). Moreover, the "need for kids to fit in among peers is arriving earlier and stronger" (Peterson, 2001, p. 8). Yet, many students with disabilities and their peers are not afforded opportunities to interact socially with age-appropriate peers in school settings. Although researchers name social isolation among the patterns of behavior that require intervention to prevent acting out and violence among youth (Berson & Berson, 1999), and recent tragedies in American schools have garnered national attention for promoting positive relations in schools, in reality, identifying and implementing educational interventions that support social interactions and friendships in school is challenging (Wentzel & Caldwell, 1997).

Computer-mediated communications (CMC), is increasingly a part of the instructional curriculum in middle school classrooms, however, few rigorous studies have been conducted to explore the potential of CMC to improve social relations in middle school settings.

The two-fold purpose of the study is to explore the potential of CMC to increase social interactions among 50 fifth grade special education and regular education students and to address the pressing need of the current knowledge base. The study aims to collect data on email communication patterns during a six-week structured CMC intervention designed to increase the amount of time and number of opportunities for online interactions to occur among participants.

Introduction

Recent tragedies in schools in the United States have garnered considerable interest in social adjustment and support for adolescent and preadolescent age youth in American schools that are considered "different. The social support for students with disabilities has long been a concern of special educators, particularly in the development of positive relationships with non special education peers. Problematic peer relationships are linked with many serious behavioral and psychological problems during adolescence that last through adulthood (Steinberg, 1993). At the same time, there has been dramatic growth in the use and availability of computer technologies in our schools. One aspect of this technology that seems potentially relevant to the social support needs of students is that of computer-mediated communication (CMC). The proposed study is designed to explore this potential with one group of preadolescent, 5th grade students in a predominately minority, suburban school district.

Statement of the Problem

Until recently, elementary school children were less aware or concerned about "fitting in" among peer groups (Peterson, 2001, p. 8). Moreover, changes in the structure of peer groups, increases in the amount of time spent with peers and the tremendous pressure to conform and avoid association with students who are "different" characterized the onset of puberty (Steinberg, 1993). However, "public schools in the United States are serving a more heterogeneous student population now than ever before" (Riehl, 2000, p. 55). The increasingly diverse population includes youth with disabilities, many of whom, are not afforded opportunities to interact socially with age-appropriate peers in school settings. Although promoting positive relations in schools is on the forefront of the national agenda, identifying and implementing educational interventions that support social interactions and friendships in schools is challenging (Wentzel & Caldwell, 1997).

The special education literature contains many reports of research demonstrating effective strategies for fostering positive relationships between children with and without disabilities who are often segregated and stigmatized in segregated classes or euphemistically labeled "resource rooms". For example, social skills training has had a long history and reasonable success (Hartup, 1995), and several programs employ direct instruction to teach social skills to students with disabilities (McLaughlin, 1993). Other approaches use peer and adult mediation (Haring & Breen, 1992; Odom & Strain, 1986; Older, 1990); and cooperative learning (Johnson & Johnson, 2000).

Over the past decade, dramatic growth in Internet access in our society has resulted in a new genre of electronic interpersonal communication (e.g., email, electronic bulletin boards, listservs, and chat rooms). There is a growing body of research associated with this phenomenon, and its impact on the development of social support networks in the adult workplace (Haythornthwaite, Wellman, & Garton, 1998; Wellman, 1997) and, most recently, among school age children and youth in local school districts (Guptill, 2000), across states (Quinn, 1998; Rubisch, Carr, & Breman, 2000), and internationally. However, to date, no research has examined the potential use of computer-mediated communications as a strategy to promote positive social relationships among preadolescent students with and without disabilities in the same school setting.

Research Questions

The purpose of this study is to describe and analyze patterns of online social interactions among fifth grade students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers in the same school setting. More specifically, this study will address the following questions:

1. Will a structured CMC intervention affect the email communication patterns between students with and without disabilities?
2. Will the quality of email messages (E.g., content, and tone) change over time?

Data collection for this study will begin during the last week of October. This 30 - minute presentation is designed to provide a brief overview of the entire study and present the results, limitation and implications for future research.


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