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Goal structure effects on social interaction: nondisabled and disabled elementary students.

Goal Structure Effects on Social Interaction: Nondisabled and Disabled Elementary Students * Physical proximity, involving placing students with severe disabilities in a regular school with nondisabled peers, is often the first step toward integration. There is considerable evidence, however, that physical integration does not ensure social integration, which involves the opportunity for severely disabled individuals to participate fully in educational and community environments with nondisabled persons (Guralnick, 1980; Johnson, D. & Johnson, 1980; Meyer & Kishi, 1985).

Because integration is a valuable goal to attain, various features of integrated programming have been investigated (e.g., materials, group structures) as strategies to promote optimal outcomes. In particular, the effect of task structure on social interaction behavior enjoys a rich research history. This study builds on that existing empirical base.

Deutch (1949) conceptualized three different types of goal structures: competitive, individualistic, and cooperative. A competitive social situation is one in which a negative correlation exists among the goal attainments of the individual participants. A cooperative social situation is one which involves a positive correlation among the goals of the individuals. In an individualistic social situation, no correlation exists among the goal attainments of the participants.

Over the past 15 years, a multitude of research has demonstrated that cooperatively structured activities are more beneficial than individualistically structured activities in promoting more positive cross-ethnic and cross-handicap attitudes, as well as increased positive social interactions. These were discussed in a meta-analysis conducted by D. W. Johnson, Johnson, and Maruyama (1983). Two studies documented the benefits of a cooperative approach over an individualistic approach when adolescent students with moderate disabilities interacted with nondisabled students (Johnson, R., Rynders, Johnson, Schmidt, & Haider, 1979; Rynders, Johnson, Johnson, & Schmidt, 1980). Neither of these studies involved students with severe multiple handicaps. Other researchers have used the cooperative method with peer integration programs involving severely disabled and nondisabled students and have found this to be more beneficial than a nonstructured condition (Cole, 1986; Cole, Meyer, Vandercook, & McQuarter, 1986).

Thus far, several researchers have documented that without providing any specific strategies to promote generalization, positive results obtained during structured interactions generalized to unstructured free play settings (Johnson, D. W., Johnson, Warring, & Maruyama, 1986; Johnson, R., & Johnson, 1981; Johnson, R. T., & Johnson, 1982; Johnson, R. T., & Johnson, 1983; Martino & Johnson, 1979; Putnam, Rynders, Johnson, & Johnson, 1985). Only one of these studies, however, involved students with moderate and severe disabilities (Putnam, Rynders, Johnson, & Johnson, 1989).

Based on the limited research involving students with moderate and severe disbilities, we can conclude the following:

1. The cooperative goal-structured appraoch holds promise if the goal is to increase social interaction between students with severe disabilities and their nondisabled peers during structured recreational activities.

2. There is some evidence that generalization to unstructured settings occurs without specific efforts made to promote this generalization.


The purpose of this study is twofold. First, it examines whether the cooperative appraoch is more favorable than an individualistic approach when used with a younger population of severely disabled students, half of whom experience multiple handicapping conditions. Second, it notes whether the effects observed during the structured classroom activities carry over into free play settings. Because the free play sessions occurred right after the structured activity sessions and there were no specific efforts to promote generalization, this study constitutes a modest test for generalization.

Thus, this study will contribute to the existing body of literature on type of contact--cooperative versus individualistic--as it affects social interactions. It extends the parameters of previous findings to students who are younger than the students previously studied and more severely disabled--both in terms of mental capabilities and physical impairments.



Subjects in this study were 8 regular education students and 8 special education students from two public elementary schools in the Central New York area. The special education student were severely disabled, according to

Grossman (1983). In one school, all the students had severe cognitive impairments, with a few classified as both autistic and severely speech impaired. In the second school, all 4 students had severe cognitive impairments and extreme physical limitations. Moreover, 3 students had seizure disorders and 2 had vision impairments.

Regular education students were recruited from the same schools. Fourth and fifth graders were shown a "Special Friends" slide and tape show that depicted students with and without disabilities playing together. They were given additional information about the program, including what types of activities would be involved and how often and what time the program would operate. The regular education participants were randomly selected from among those who volunteered and were randomly assigned to the special education students (but matched for sex, because students at this age tend to select same-sex playmates). Tables 1 and 2 provide additional data about the students.


Structured interactions took place in the special education classroom during a half-hour recess period, with two dyads engaging in targeted activities simultaneously. Each dyad participated in the program twice a week. In the baseline phases, the pairs of students performed classroom jobs (e.g., taking a message to the office) and teachers were directed to instruct the students as they normally would. The baseline condition continued for three sessions unless either the data points were erratic or a positive trend emerged for the determining variable (cooperative play). In these cases, baseline was extended for a maximum of 1 additional week (2 sessions).

During the intervention phases, pairs of student engaged in various games or cooking and art activities. Activities were selected on the basis that they were age appropriate, typically enjoyed by elementary students, and able to be structured both individualistically and cooperatively. Within the 4-week intervention phases, the four dyads in each school were randomly assigned to either an individualistic treatment condition or a cooperative treatment condition. These conditions differed relative to three aspects: type of directions provided, distribution of materials, and reinforcement provided.

Within the cooperative condition, the dyads were instructed to work toward a common goal. For cooking and art activities, the students were told to share one set of materials. This corresponds to the cooperative learning technique in which materials are arranged like a jigsaw puzzle to each student has some of the materials needed to complete the activity (D. W. Johnson, & Johnson, 1987). Students received verbal reinforcement for working together, for cooperating, and for taking turns.

In the individualistic condition, the stated goal for each student was to work on his or her own to play a game or to complete a project. Students were given their own sets of materials. Reinforcement was provided to individual students for doing a good job and for making a nice product.

Because some of the multiply handicapped students may not have understood the teacher's directions, it is possible that in these instances the nonhandicapped child acted as the mediator of the teacher's interventions.

Free play sessions of 10 to 15 minutes (min) were held after the structured activity sessions during all phases. Board games, video games, and toys with adapted switches were available to the students.

In both settings, there were additional opportunities for the students to interact with one another. The special education students in one school ate lunch in their classroom but attended schoolwide assemblies. In the other school, the special education and regular education students ate lunch together and shared common recess and arrival and dismissal times.

Dependent Variables

A slightly modified version of the Social Interaction Observation System (SIOS) developed by Voeltz, Kishi, and Brennan (1981) was used to monitor four classes of social behavior: affect, touch, play, and vocalizations. The SIOS, originally designed for use with dyads of nondisabled and severely disabled students, includes some different behavior codes for the two groups of students, thus capturing the different skill repertoires of the two groups. The SIOS, which has been shown to have good reliability (Noonan, Hemphill, & Levy, 1983), has been used extensively in previous research on peer interactions between students with severe disabilities and their nondisabled peers (Cole, 1986; Cole et al., 1986; Meyer et al., 1986; Voeltz & Brennan, 1984).

The instrument used a 10-second(s) time-sampling procedure to note the behaviors of the disabled and nondisabled students. Data were collected over a 5-min period during each activity and every other free play session.

Before the study began, paid observers passed a written test, received 45 hour (hr) of training and practice coding using videotaped samples of students and spent 10 hr in each classroom for habituation.

To monitor implementation of the independent variable, systematic observation of the two special education teachers was conducted. An independent observer monitored 10 dimensions of the teachers' behavior during 90% of the structured activity sessions to document procedural reliability.

Design and Data Analysis

A series of single case experimental designs employing an A-B-A-B strategy was used. The two groups consisting of four dyads (1 disabled and 1 nondisabled student) differed in terms of the applied treatment condition. Four of the dyads moved into a cooperatively structured condition after each baseline phase, while the other four dyads moved into an individualistically structured activity condition after each baseline phase.

Data were graphed and visually inspected for trends. For more information on this analysis, see Eichinger (1988). Data were also analyzed using independent t-tests within both settings. Within these t-test comparions, the daily data probes constituted the unit of analysis. Prior to the t-test comparisons, serial dependency was assessed by testing for autocorrelation in the data. Variables that had autocorrelated data were not analyzed statistically. In addition, significant baseline differences between the two conditions were tested for all behaviors. An analysis of covariance test was used to adjust any behaviors that were significantly different at baseline.


Observer Reliability

Because the results were analyzed across schools, kappa coefficients were analyzed across schools. Raw percentage agreement scores ranged from 70% to 100% and kappa coefficients ranged from .60 to .85.

Relationships between Structured Activity

Conditions and Various Facets of Social

Interaction Behavior

T-test group comparisons were made between the cooperative and individualistic conditions for the 8 nondisabled students and for the 8 disabled students. Only those behaviors that had neither autocorrelated data nor significant differences between the two conditions at baseline were included. Data from both schools were pooled to determine whether there was a treatment effect.

To conduct the t-test comparisons, daily social interaction scores (percentage of occurrence) for each student were aggregated across the two treatment phases, resulting in approximately 60 scores for the 4 students in each condition, during the structured activity sessions. Free play generalization probe data were collected approximately every other time a structured activity session took place, resulting in 3-5 days of data collected per child per phase, or 30-35 scores.

Results Involving Regular

Education Students

For the nondisabled students, only one of the nine (11%) social interaction behaviors analyzed during the structured activity sessions was related to the treatment condition. The nondisabled students in the individualistic condition engaged in parallel play, M = 7.91, significantly more than the nondisabled students in the cooperative condition, M = .70, t(64) = -2.77, p [is less than] .01.

Nondisabled students in the two conditions were significantly different relative to 2 of the 13 (15%) behaviors that could be analyzed during free play, with students in the individualistic condition having significantly more intervals where no vocalizations occurred, M = 76.28, than students in the cooperative condition, M = 50.98 t(61) = -3.08, p [is less than] .01. Nondisabled students in the cooperative condition made significantly more comments to the special education students during free play, M = 38.15, than did the nondisabled students in the individualistic condition, M = 15.46, t(49.1) = 2.89, p [is less than] .01. Though the treatment effect on parallel play observed during the structured activity sessions did not generalize to the free play sessions, it appears that the effect of treatment had some bearing on the frequency of vocalizations that occurred during free play sessions. For the nondisabled students, in all three instances where there were significant differences, these differences favored the cooperative approach. These results are found in Table 3.

Results Involving Special Education Students

Of the nine variables analyzed for the students with disabilities, five significant differences emerged (55%). The disabled students in the individualistic condition expressed significantly more neutral affect, M = 91.76, than the disabled students in the cooperative condition, M = 79.22, t(117.0) = -3.56, p [is less than] .001. Similarly, disabled students in the cooperative condition expressed significantly more positive facial affect, M = 10.86, than the disabled students in the individualistic condition, M = 4.83, t(117.0) = 2.26, p [is less than] .05.

Parallel play was significantly higher for the students in the individualistic condition, M = 9.68, than for the students in the cooperative condition, M = 1.91, t(82.1) = -2.67, p [is less than] .01. Correspondingly, cooperative play levels were significantly higher for the disabled students in the cooperative condition, M = 63.34, than for the students in the individualistic condition, M = 52.51, t(117.0) = 1.98, p [is less than] .05. Finally, students with disabilities in the individualistic condition had significantly more intervals where no vocalizations occurred, M = 80.86, than students in the cooperative condition, M = 71.42, t(117.0) = -2.02, p [is less than] .05.

No significant differences emerged relative to the 10 social interacion behaviors examined in the free play generalization settings, indicating that differences that existed when treatment conditions were imposed did not generalize for students with disabilities. Table 4 summarizes those data. Again, when significant differences existed, the cooperative approach was more favorable in fostering positive social interaction behaviors on the part of students with disabilities toward nondisabled students.


Limitations of the Study

The small sample size of 16 children, the heterogeneity of the group of children with severe disabilities, and the fact that both the schools and districts had historically encouraged the children's acceptance of one another (although this process was informal), all limit the extent to which these results could be generalized to other groups of children elsewhere without systematic replication.

A final caveat needs mentioning. These results should be interpreted within the context of the study; that is, when the purpose of the intervention is to promote social interactions, the cooperative approach is more favorable. The effect of these two approaches in other instructional contexts would have to be investigated.

Group Analysis for Regular Education and

Special Education Students During

Structured Activity Sessions

For more than half the variables tested, students with disabilities in the cooperative condition responded more favorably to the treatment than did students in the individualistic condition, as evidenced by their higher levels of social interaction during the activity sessions.

Given that there was no emphasis placed on scial skill instruction of the students with disabilities in the present study, it is encouraging to note the difference in social interactions between the two groups. Results from this study offer exciting possibilities for structuring integrated activities to foster social skill development of students with disabilities. Because there was no actual social skills instruction, it appears that the mere presence of the cooperative structure is associated with more positive social interactions on the part of the students with disabilities (e.g., positive affect, cooperative play). These results support the findings of researchers who have demonstrated that trained, nondisabled peers can facilitate the development of certain social interaction behaviors that may be best learned from other children, as opposed to adults (Brinker, 1985; Meyer et al., 1986).

Of the 18 variables analyzed relative to the structured activity sessions for both the disabled and nondisabled students, six significant differences emerged. One would expect only one significant difference by chance alone based on the number of comparisons made. Those differences that did emerge favored a cooperative goal-structured approach over an individualistic goal-structured approach (Johnson, R., et al., 1979; Putnam et al., 1989; Rynders et al., 1980).

Generalization to Free Play Setting

In the free play setting, regular education students in the cooperative condition had fewer intervals where no vocalizations occurred and made more comments to the special education students than did students in the individualistic condition. There were no significant differences among the comparisons made for the students with disabilities.

Based on the 23 statistical comparisons, one would expect one significant difference by chance occurrence alone. Since only two significant differences emerged, there is evidence that for the nondisabled students, there was minimal generalization of the treatment results to unstructured free play settings.

The lack of generalization for the students with disabilities in the present study may be attributable to the fact that no specific efforts were implemented to prmote generalization. Learners with severe disabilities are said to have difficulty generalizing acquired skills to other settings for persons (Coon, Vogelsberg, & Williams, 1981; Horner, Bellamy, & Colvin, 1984; Stokes & Baer, 1977). Therefore,use of techniques such as teacher modeling and monitoring might produce different outcomes.

Implications for Planning Future Peer

Integration Programs

When planning a similar peer integration program, teachers should consider the difficulty of the cooperatively structured task given to students. According to clinical observations made by one special education teacher in the study, tasks should easily be within the realm of the nondisabled youngsters so that they do not have difficulty figuring out the task.

Because thsi was a research project, students operated under fairly rigid procedural constraints during the structured activity sessions; for instance, they were assigned a particular indoor activity, and they always worked with the same partner. Future peer integration efforts should focus on more normalized efforts to support interactions between nondisabled and disabled learners. Students could be allowed to select an activity from among several choices, bring in preferred toys from home to play with, work not only with their partners, but pair up with another group of students, or change partners if they so desire. Of paramount importance is that in addition to structured interaction sessions, opportunities be provided throughout the day at natural times for social interactions to occur between nondisabled and disabled learners. Several authors have discussed these natural opportunities for interaction, including arrival and dismissal times, lunch time, recess, and assembly periods (Meyer & Kishi, 1985; Stainback & Stainback, 1985). All these efforts would help to realize the true benefits of full integration.


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Stainback, S., & Stainback, W. (1985). Assessing oppurtunities for interaction. In S. Stainback & W. Stainback (Eds.), Integration of students with severe handicaps into regular schools (pp. 29-33). Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children.

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Voeltz, L. M., & Brennan, J. (1984). Analysis of interactions between non-handicapped and severely handicapped peers using multiple measures. In J. M. Berg (Ed.), Perspectives and progress in mental retardation, Volume I: Social, psychological and educational aspects (pp. 61-72). Baltimore: University Park Press.

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JOANNE EICHINGER is Assistant Professor, Advanced Studies Department, School of Education, California State University at San Bernardino.
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Author:Eichinger, Joanne
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Feb 1, 1990
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