These aren’t the kids I signed up for: the lived experience of general education, early childhood preservice teachers in classrooms for children with special needs


Source: Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 42:1, 1-19

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The rationale behind this study was to examine if preservice teachers (PSTs) feel more prepared when they are provided with explicit experiences in and exposure to students with diverse needs.
This includes being exposed to strategies they otherwise wouldn’t, get to practice, such as the use of picture communication systems and assistive technology devices (picture to voice, FM systems, etc).
The authors’ approach was to identify and define
(i) PST’s attitudes toward students with disabilities;
(ii) how PSTs develop their attitudes and beliefs about inclusion; and,
(iii) what experiences help PSTs become successful in teaching in inclusive settings.
With this in mind, they pose the following question:
What is the lived experience of early childhood general education PSTs in a special education setting for young children with disabilities?

Design rationale
To address their research question, within an ecological framework, they chose to use a phenomenological approach.
This approach attempts to understand lived experiences with a sense of newness to elicit rich and descriptive data (Anderson & Spencer, 2002).
Semi-structured interviews and observations were used to understand early childhood general education PSTs experience within an inclusive special education field placement. Using a phenomenological approach within an ecological framework helps address the uniqueness and complexity of understanding the lived experiences of early childhood general education PSTs placed in a setting for children with disabilities.
This rationale, within the context of teacher preparation allowed the authors to understand the experiences and perceptions of PSTs in one early childhood teacher preparation program as well as to contribute to the literature that informs the efforts to reduce the research-to-practice gap related to increasing special education opportunities for pre-service preparation in early childhood general education teacher preparation programs.

Research context
Fairisle School is a public school for children aged three to 21 who are identified as having cognitive disabilities.
The school is located within a large school system that includes both urban and suburban areas.
Classrooms are divided by groupings focused on the age level of the children rather than traditional grade designations.
The participants in this study were placed in the three inclusive classrooms.
The three PSTs who chose to participate indicated a desire to participate and that they were interested in learning more about special education.
The early field requirement included as the focal experience in this case study was the second of a series of four practica the PSTs complete while enrolled in the 36 credit, early childhood, general education program.
All courses in the program have performance-based assignments that must be carried out in the field placement.
These include developing and implementing comprehensive lesson plans with differentiation, parent interviews, and child case studies.

Data collection
To provide a thorough depiction of the PST’s experiences, interviews and observations served as the primary data sources.
Phenomenological interviews and observations were conducted with each PST (n = 3), as both are considered foundational qualitative data analysis methods (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992; Glesne & Peshkin, 1992; Graue & Walsh, 1998).
Both data sources (interviews and observations) were analyzed to determine if there were similarities and/or differences between the PSTs.
Data were collected over a semester, while the PSTs were completing an early field experience course that requires them to complete 72 hours of assisting, leading activities, and working with small groups over a period of three and a half months. The PSTs were given flexibility in determining their schedules as long as it was approved by the mentor teacher.


The three main themes which emerged

Theme 1: anxiety
In initial interviews, all three PSTs expressed excitement about including students with disabilities in the classroom but concerns about being successful in their meeting the needs of the children they were teaching and their own university coursework expectations.
Observations of each PST, and interview data, all indicate positive growth in PST confidence related to teaching and ability to include students with disabilities in meaningful instructional tasks.
By the end of the semester, PST impressions about their abilities to include students with severe disabilities shifted to more favorable.
The participants were more comfortable with unique characteristics (e.g., children who used feeding tubes, were non-verbal, etc.) and they did not consider students with severe disabilities as being out of the ordinary.

Theme 2: gaining pedagogical knowledge related to children with disabilities
The PSTs in this study observed and participated in instruction that included differentiation of the school system preschool/pre-kindergarten curriculum.
The PSTs in this study observed and participated in modifying objectives for children with different types of special needs while also adhering to the grade-appropriate curricular topics.
All of the participants in this study noted an increase in their ability to differentiate lessons to meet the needs of children with severe disabilities and to incorporate universal design for learning (UDL).
Lesson plan analysis demonstrated the use of visual supports, assistive technology, and modified content.
While other early childhood teacher preparation programs may vary in access to high quality special education field experiences, the implications of this study may be applied to any placement that provides PSTs with an opportunity to be mentored by a special education teacher.
When PSTs are able to practice and observe quality instruction for children with disabilities and other special needs PST’s ability to teach each and every child grows.
As the semester progressed, all three PSTs noted their increased abilities in meeting the needs of all the children in the classroom.
As the PSTs progressed throughout the semester they were able to not only observe differentiated instruction, they were able to implement and practice it.
Observation of modifications and accommodations such as assistive technology were routinely used and all of the PSTs shared their excitement about being able to observe and implement strategies that would not have otherwise been a part of the university’s teacher education program.

Theme 3: learning from a strong mentor
When asked about what made their experience valuable, all three PSTs described having a strong mentor teacher in the classroom who modeled effective teaching, differentiated instruction, and who knows the children.
The PSTs in the study also noted that their mentor teachers modeled effective coteaching and that they felt more prepared to engage in classrooms with multiple professionals.
This new found knowledge included managing multiple professionals in effective collaborations.

Implications for early childhood teacher education
The participants (three PSTs) are diverse in educational background and experience with young children with and without disabilities, and their placements varied.
As more programs implement this type of experience to early childhood general education teacher preparation programs, researchers may want to focus on the benefits and weaknesses of different settings (e.g., special education settings that include children without disabilities versus those that do not).
This study expanded the types of required experiences that early childhood PSTs have as a part of their preparation.
Future studies should expand on the pedagogical knowledge needed and combined field placements that specifically support students in teaching and supporting students with severe disabilities.

Anderson, E. H., & Spencer, M. H. (2002). Cognitive representations of AIDS: A phenomenological study. Qualitative Health Research, 12(10), 1338–1352.
Bogdan, R. C., & Biklen, S. K. (1992). Qualitative research for education: An introduction to theory and methods. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Glesne, C., & Peshkin, A. (1992). Becoming qualitative researchers: An introduction. White Plains, NY: Longman.
Graue, M. E., & Walsh, D. J. (1998). Studying children in context: Theories, methods, and ethics. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage publications. 

Updated: Jun. 09, 2021


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