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Embedding Strategy Helps Preschool Special Needs Children Develop Their Social Skills

Article about Marisa Macy's research on embedding social goals for preschool children

macy_sml.jpgby Joe Savrock (December 2008)

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Embedding social goals into the routine activities of preschoolers with special-needs can be an effective intervention that improves children’s social competency, according to the results of a study conducted by a Penn State researcher and her colleague.

Marisa Macy, assistant professor of special education, teamed with Diane Bricker, a researcher at the University of Oregon, to determine whether embedding learning opportunities into daily classroom routines has an effect on children’s acquisition of targeted social goals. Their study is presented in an article titled “Embedding Individualized Social Goals into Routine Activities in Inclusive Early Childhood Classrooms,” which appeared recently in the academic journal Early Child Development and Care.

Embedding is a process of addressing children’s target goals. “The process expands, modifies, or is integral to an activity or event in a meaningful way,” explains Macy. “For instance, teachers can embed learning opportunities during routine activities to target children’s learning goals and objectives.”

Macy adds that, “during a routine event like arrival or departure, a teacher might embed opportunities to address various goals—like greetings, conversational rules such as eye contact, or dressing or undressing.” 

Other examples of embedded opportunities prompt children to open or close doors, find their name or picture on a cubby, handle belongings, take turns during shared activities, and initiate and maintain communicative exchanges with peers.

In their study, Macy and Bricker employed the embedding strategy aimed at improving the social development of three preschool boys, each with a documented social emotional delay related to peer interaction (for example, not sharing toys or other objects with classmates). Two of the boys were age 4 and one was 5. They were enrolled in separate inclusive preschool classes.

The study was divided into a pre-baseline phase, a baseline phase, and an intervention phase.


Pre-Baseline Phase

During this phase, the researchers assigned a student teacher to work one-on-one with each the three children. The researchers trained the three student teachers on the aspects of the embedding procedure. The student teachers then consulted with on-site professionals and with the parents of the three children to obtain background information.

Baseline Phase

The second phase of the study was used to set a baseline—the student teachers observed the behavior of the three children as they interacted with peers, but no interventions were employed. The student teachers recorded the children’s correct and incorrect responses to various situations. An example of a child’s correct response was taking a turn in class conversation; an incorrect response, for example, was ignoring a peer during a shared play session. The student teachers then administered the Assessment, Evaluation, and Programming System (AEPS), a criterion-referenced tool that is used to evaluate skills and abilities of young children who are at risk for disabilities.

Intervention Phase

In this final phase, the student teachers embedded learning opportunities into routine class activities. Examples of embedded opportunities were making a comment, providing a prompt, or allowing a child to choose a play activity. Interventions were employed at least 10 times during each classroom session. The intervention period varied in the three cases, ranging from six to ten weeks. Again, the AEPS was administered to assess the children’s responses.

The researchers compared the number of correct responses recorded during the baseline AEPS with those collected during the second AEPS. All three children showed significant improvement on their targeted social goals as a result of the interventions. The percentage of improvement for the three boys ranged from nearly 20 percent to more than 41 percent. They also exhibited improvement in their overall social skill development.

“Preschool children with developmental delays are often taught in inclusive early childhood settings where they must receive specially designed intervention to address their unique needs,” notes Macy. “Our student teachers implemented a naturalistic intervention approach that can be used with limited resources, can involve families, and expands on children’s motivations. This study demonstrated how opportunities to address children’s social goals can be embedded into routine classroom activities to improve child outcomes in inclusive placements.”