Engagement Across School Contexts: How Children Interact with Peers on the Playground and in the Classroom
Objectives: The present study sought to explore the social engagement states of elementary school-aged children with ASD during recess play times and during classroom small group activities.
Methods: The data were drawn from a larger pilot study that sought to understand an adaptive playground intervention for children with ASD. Participants included 26 children with ASD (80.6% male) aged 5-12 years who were ethnically diverse (51.6% Hispanic or Latino) and from eight different elementary schools from a large urban school district in the USA. Children were included in general education classrooms for a portion of their day and fell within the typical range of intellectual functioning (≥ 70). Each child’s playground engagement with peers was rated by a reliable observer blinded to treatment condition using the Playground Observation of Peer Engagement (POPE; Kasari, Rotheram-Fuller, & Locke, 2005), a measure of children’s peer engagement during a ten-minute period. Children’s peer engagement was also observed in the classroom during a small group activity and coded using the same interval engagement coding system as the POPE. Both measures categorize the child’s behavior into four engagement states: solitary, parallel, parallel aware, and jointly engaged or in games with rules.
Results: Descriptive statistics were analyzed to explore the engagement states of children with ASD across playground and classroom observations. Within the classroom, children were solitary 10.5%, parallel 52%, parallel aware 33.3%, and jointly engaged 4.2% of the time. Fifteen classroom observations occurred during small group activities, usually arts and crafts and math, in which the children were mostly parallel aware. On the playground, children spent 30% of their time solitary, 18.2% parallel, 25.3% parallel aware, and 26.5% jointly engaged with peers. Qualitative notes from the POPEs detailed that jointly engagement with peers occurred during structured games with rules, usually facilitated by a paraprofessional aide.
Conclusions: Results highlight that the engagement level with peers vary across school contexts for children with ASD. Although studies have measured social skills engagement within the classroom (Sparapani et al., 2015) and on the playground (Kretzmann et al., 2015), it is important to consider engagement across both settings since they both offer critical information about the child’s social functioning. Results may inform school-based social skills treatment interventions.