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A naturalistic study of the relation between preschool setting events and peer interaction in four activity contexts

A naturalistic study of the relation between preschool setting events and peer interaction in four activity contexts
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  Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 1, 141-153 (1986) A Naturalistic Study of the Relation between Preschool Setting Events and Peer Interaction in Four Activity Contexts Mark S. Innocenti Joseph J. Stowitschek Sarah Rule John Killoran Sebastian Striefel Utah State University Craig Bowel/ Developmental Day Schools, Inc. The effect of preschool environmental factors, or “setting events,” on peer interaction has received little attention from investigators studying factors related to social competence. In this study, peer interactions and aspects of three setting events (teacher behavior, material use, and peer presence) were observed in four preschool activity contexts. Data on the frequency of occurrence of interaction and occurrence of specific setting event measures within activity contexts were obtained, and empirical probabilities were determined. Results indicate that the behavior of the preschool teacher is a potent setting event with regard to peer interaction. Teacher interaction with a child, in any activity context, retarded peer interaction by that child. The setting events of material use and peer presence had little effect on peer interaction. Results are discussed in terms of how teachers can alter their behavior to promote peer interaction. Research regarding social competence has sought to identify variables asso- ciated with peer interaction. Among the variables currently identified are toys (Hendrickson, Strain, Tremblay, & Shores, 1981; Quilitch, Christopher- This research was supported under Grant #GGO8100249 from Special Education Programs, United States Department of Education. No official endorsemenl should be inferred. The authors would like IO acknowledge (he teachers and staff of the following day care centers and preschools for their cooperation and support in conducting this study: ABC Day- care; Children’s House; “ D” Play School; Developmenlal Day Schools, Inc.; and the Joy School. Correspondence and requests for reprints should be addressed IO Mark S. Innocenti, Devel- opmental Center for Handicapped Persons, Utah State University, Logan, UT, 84322. 141  142 Innocenti, Stowitschek, Rule, Killoran, Striefel, and Boswell son, & Risley, 1977; Quilitch & Risley, 1973) and some particular, identifi- able child behaviors such as sharing and play organizing (Greenwood, Todd, Hops, & Walker, 1982; Tremblay, Strain, Hendrickson, & Shores, 1980, 1981). These studies are important because hey suggest strategies for in- creasing children’s social interaction. The demonstration that particular child behaviors are associated with high probabilities of reciprocal inter- action between children (Tremblay et al., 1981) has led to the development of teaching materials to promote these behaviors (Day, Powell, & Stowit- schek, 1980). Although these developments n research and instruction are promising, our knowledge is far from complete. As Hops (1983) has pointed out, other variables that may affect social interaction also merit investigation. Devel- opmental research suggests hat many environmental variables may affect social interaction (cf. Hartup, 1983). Such environmental variables merit in- vestigation from a social competence, n addition to a normative, perspec- tive. These environmental variables or conditions also can be referred to as “setting events” (Kantor, 1959; Mischel, 1968). A setting event is an en- vironmental condition (e.g., stimulus or stimulus-response nteraction) that influences the function of other stimulus-response nteractions. In a review of the literature, Mischel (1968) presented evidence that behavior tends to be a function of the specific situation(s) (i.e., setting events) n which it oc- curs. Educators who have investigated the effects of setting events on chil- dren’s academic and behavioral performance have found that variables such as a number of students in a classroom, type of activity, and other aspects of the classroom environment can affect student behavior and academic performance (Doyle, 1979, 1981; Weinstein, 1979). Walker and Rankin (1983) have examined teacher standards and expectations as they relate to the functioning of children in classrooms, inferring that these factors influ- ence teacher behavior toward children and suggesting that these setting events be considered when mainstreaming handicapped children. It seems clear, then, that setting events can influence children’s classroom behavior. In a preschool, any of a number of different setting events may be func- tioning when children interact. The format in which the interaction occurs, the way the teacher is behaving toward the children or a specific child, the materials in use, or the physical location of a child relative to his or her peers all may be considered setting events that can affect peer interaction. These variables can be easily measured and manipulated. If the setting events reliably associated with peer interaction were known, remediation strategies or children with a low level of peer nteraction could focus on en- suring that these setting events are present n the environment, either alone or in combination with interventions to increase specific skills. The purpose of the present study was to determine what relations were evident between selected setting events and preschoolers’ peer interaction.  Peer Interaction and Setting Events 143 Specific aspects of the setting events of teacher behavior, material use, and peer presence were defined and observed simultaneously with peer inter- action in four preschool classroom activity contexts. METHOD Subjects and Settings Fifty-three children from six day care and preschool programs participated. Children ranged in age from 3 to 5 years, with the majority being 4 years of age. The 26 male and 27 female participants were elatively equally distributed by sex and age at each setting. Children represented a broad range of socio- economic backgrounds, from lower to upper middle income families. Parental permission request etters were sent to the parents of all children at each school. Teachers at each school were given a list of children who had parental permission to be involved in the study and were asked to list, in rank order, the names of each child, from lowest to highest, according to the child’s level of social interaction with peers. Teachers were provided with examples of positive peer social interactions to help structure their judgments, a procedure that has been found to result in accurate rankings (Greenwood, Walker, Todd, & Hops, 1978). From this list, the five lowest and five highest interactors at each school were selected for observation. The total number of subjects was reduced by attrition but was equally distributed across programs. The six day care or preschool programs were located in urban areas of northern Utah. Two of these programs were half day and focused on child enrichment, two were full day and also focused on child enrichment, and two were full day with a preacademic component in addition to child enrich- ment activities. Five of these programs were privately owned; the sixth (a half-day program) was affiliated with a local university. Behavioral Measure The behavioral measure for this study was an observation procedure de- signed o obtain concurrent information regarding selected preschool setting events and children’s social interaction with peers n four different activity contexts. Four groups of observation categories were used; three pertained to setting events, and the fourth concerned children’s social interaction with peers. The setting events were (a) teacher nteractions with children, (b) type of material in use, and (c) peer presence. Four categories of teacher behavior were observed. These categories at- tempted to describe general ypes of teacher behavior that may occur in con- junction with peer nteraction. Specifically, the following teacher behaviors were observed: 1. Groups. Teacher verbalizations to direct a group to engage n some behavior, to decrease a behavior, to call attention to an ongoing ac-  144 2. 3. 4. Innocenti, Stowitschek, Rule, Killoran, Striefel, and Boswell tivity, or to provide direct instruction during an activity when a sub- ject was participating in the group. Directed. Teacher verbalizations or motor behavior specifically direct- ing the subject to engage n, or decrease, behaviors related to instruc- tion or general class activity, including specific questions, prompts, or reprimands. “Small talk” with the subject was included in this category; behaviors related to peer interactions were not. Interaction. Teacher behavior directed toward the subject to prompt him or her to engage n an interaction with peers or teacher praise for ongoing peer interactions. No teacher presence. No engagement n verbal or motor behavior directed toward the subject or group in which the subject was a parti- cipant. The materials in use by the children also were observed as a setting event. Materials were coded as being (a) individual use, (b) multiple use, or (c) ab- sent (no materials in use by the subject). Observers were given a list of sam- ple materials for each category. Materials encountered that were not on the list were coded according to the intended use of the material. Individual-use materials included such articles as a puzzle, book, crayon and paper, and lunch items. Multiple-use materials included items conducive to sharing, as identified by Hendrickson and others (1981), and outdoor apparatus. Mate- rial use was coded as “absent” when the teacher controlled the material (e.g., reading a book, presenting numbers) or when the children were inter- acting while no materials were present. The third setting event observed was related to peer presence. Three cate- gories were observed: 1. Proximity. One or more children within an imaginary circle with a 4-ft radius around the subject. 2. Orientation. Eye contact between he subject and a peer in proximity (eye contact was defined as the observer’s being able to draw an imag- inary straight line from the center of the subject’s pupils to the center of the peer’s pupils). 3. Alone. No children in proximity to the subject. The definition for interaction was adapted from a definition by Strain, Shores, and Kerr (1976). Specifically, interaction was coded as being either positive or negative and as being either initiated by the target child or recip- rocated (e.g., in response o another initiation). These behaviors were oper- ationally defined as follows: 1. Positive responses. Overt verbal and/or gestural acts of cooperation and compliance, including touch with hand(s), hugs, waves, kisses, and mutual play with an object. 2. Negative responses. Hits, kicks, bites, or vocalizations such as “stupid” or “you dummy.” 3. Initiation. Any time the subject began an interaction, either verbally or motorically, with another child or children.  Peer Interaction and Setting Events 145 4. Reciprocalion. A response made by the subject, directed toward a peer, after having received an initiation from that peer. To distinguish between initiations and reciprocations, a convention was adopted to code an initiation when 3 or more s elapsed between interaction episodes (e.g., initiation/reciprocation/initiation). In addition to being in- cluded in the four categories described above, interaction was coded as con- tinuous when an interaction begun in one interval continued into subsequent intervals. A final category of interaction scored was the absence of any in- teraction during a given interval. Observation Procedures Each subject was observed on eight separate occasions, termed “rounds,” in each of four activity contexts. A round was 5 min in length and was divided into 10-s intervals. Observations were conducted over a 3-month period, with approximately one round being completed each week. Peer interaction was observed continuously. More than one category of interaction could be recorded during an interval, and any category (e.g., a positive initiation) could be scored more than one time during an interval. (However, such multiple scoring occurred infrequently.) The three other measurement categories, the setting events, were observed according to a time-sampling procedure. At the beginning of the interval, an audible cue sounded through an earphone connected to a tape recorder. The observer recorded teacher behavior, material use, and peer presence mea- sures when the cue sounded. Only one category could be scored for the teacher behavior and material measures. The peer presence measures of proximity and orientation could be scored simultaneously. The four activity contexts identified for observation were free play, snack/ lunch, teacher-directed individual activity, and teacher-directed group ac- tivity. Activities observed were program specific, but can be characterized as follows: 1. Freeplay. The teacher was primarily an observer to prevent problems but did not otherwise engage in group activities with children. 2. Snack/lunch. The teacher’s role was similar to that adopted during free play except that the children were consuming food. 3. Teacher-directed individual acfivily. The children were engaged in an individual activity while the teacher served as tutor, moving from child to child to provide assistance or praise. Small group and table activities such as art, structured games, and paperwork related to numbers, letters, or shapes were included in this context. 4. Teacher-direc/ed group aclivify. The teacher provided direct instruc- tion to a group of children at one time. Examples included reading stories, conducting “morning circle,” and teaching new concepts. Some overlap in activity contexts could and did occur. For an observation to be included as an example of an activity context, the ongoing activity
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