Peer interaction in preschool: Necessary, but not sufficient : The influence of social interaction on the link between behavior difficulties and engagement among children with and without need of special support

Sammanfattning: The overall aim of this thesis is to enhance knowledge regarding engagement among children with and without need of special support due to behavior difficulties. The influence of social interaction as well as the provision of special support in Swedish preschool were investigated. Specifically, the aim was to explore children’s engagement at the nodal point between environmental factors, children’s behavior and characteristics, peer-to-child interaction and teacher responsiveness, both in a cross-sectional perspective and over time. In addition, predictive factors for special support were explored.A prospective longitudinal survey design with three data points was used, with both quantitative and qualitative data. The sample consisted of 829 children, 425 boys and 394 girls (10 missing) from 92 preschool units in six municipalities in Sweden. The children participated in at least one wave of data collection. The preschool staff rated the children’s engagement, behavior difficulties, and the provision of special support. Both cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses were conducted. For the cross-sectional analyses 663 children participated, and for the longitudinal analyses, 203 children participated. For the cross-sectional analyses logistics regression and content analyses as well as mediation analyses were used, meanwhile, structural equation models were used for longitudinal analyses, that is, growth curve model with multivariate analyses as well as autoregressive, cross-lagged panel analyses.Overall, children with high levels of hyperactive behavior were less engaged in everyday activities in preschool. In addition, the peer-to-child interaction and teacher responsiveness were rated lower for these children, both in current time and longitudinally. Children’s hyperactive behavior had more negative influence on their core engagement (e.g. attentional behavior and persistence behavior), compared to their developmental engagement, (e.g.problem solving, involvement in complex rule-based play, more common for older preschoolers). The levels of social interaction explained a large percent of the negative effect between hyperactive behavior and engagement. Peer-to-child interaction explained between 56-78 percent, whereas teacher responsiveness explained between 33-34 percent.Over time, the level of hyperactive behavior decreased more dramatically for girls than for boys. However, boys who became more engaged, showed less hyperactive behavior over time. The majority (63%) of the children displaying behavior difficulties (BD) did not receive special support on top of what was provided to all children in the classroom. No support was related to children being a second language learner in Swedish (EL2) or BDs that did not disturb the peer group or the teachers. Children more often received special support if the staff perceived the child’s behavior difficulties as disruptive in preschool activities or among peers. The most common type of support, mentioned by the staff, was paying attention to the child’s negative behavior, achieved by at least one member of the staff staying close to the child. Other examples of attention to the child’s negative behavior involved the preschool staff providing special support by paying attention to critical situations, by teacher’s proximity to the children, or by distracting the child from situations that could trigger negative behavior. Distractions were used more often for children with high engagement and BD.Concerning directional and transactional paths, children’s core engagement was a significant predictor for both peer-to-child interaction and teacher responsiveness. That is, high levels of core engagement at T1 predicted both types of social interaction at T2, which in turn predicted children’s levels of core engagement at T3. Children’s hyperactive behavior did not predict lower ratings in social interactions in preschool over time, whereas, high ratings in peer-to-child interactions and teacher responsiveness were significant predictors for decreased hyperactive behavior over time. Once again, social interactions were important factors for promoting a decrease in children’s hyperactive behavior. Children with high levels of core engagement were more likely to be met by teacher responsiveness and positive peer-to-child interactions over time.Several statistical relations exist between children’s engagement, BD, social interactions and special support in preschool settings. This thesis shows that perceived negative behaviors such as BD can co-exist with more positively perceived behaviors or characteristics, such as engagement. However, this research shows that well-functioning peer-to-child interaction and teacher interactions improve child engagement for children with hyperactive behavior, special support is not always provided and seldom focused on improving children’s engagement. In order to improve engagement among children in need of special support due to BD, it is necessary to consider both hyperactive behavior and engagement as well as the influence of social interactions. Teacher responsiveness and peer-to-child interaction may work as supportive factors for children with hyperactive behavior to help sustain attention and stay actively engaged in the activities. Preschool teachers need to self-reflect on their organization, planning ofeveryday activities and how to design special support that consider individual children’s needs for improving their engagement.