For children who are refugees, education can help prevent exploitation and offer significant psychosocial protections, particularly for children with disabilities (CWD). Mainstreaming is generally considered a best practice for CWD, but may not always be immediately feasible given limited resources and infrastructure in refugee camps. Specific schools for CWD may provide much needed specialized services, such as early childhood interventions and individualized case management, that students might not otherwise receive. The purpose of this study is to examine the extent to which school setting (special needs vs. mainstream) is associated with changes in CWD’s prosocial behaviors and overall difficulties over time, accounting for disability severity.
In Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, researchers collected two waves of data in 2019 and 2021 (2.5 years apart) for students enrolled in special needs schools (n=78) or who transitioned from special needs into mainstream schools (n=51). Measures included the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ), and Washington Group Short Set on Functioning (WG-SS) to determine disability severity. Bivariate analyses compared covariates of interest between special needs schools and mainstream classrooms. Covariates included gender (0=male, 1=female), disability status (0=no severe disability, 1=severe disability), age (in years), type of school setting (0=special needs, 1=mainstream), and time (0= Wave 1, 1= Wave 2). Two linear regression models were run with robust standard errors, one with prosocial scores as dependent variable and the other with total difficulties score as dependent variable. Interaction effects between time (Wave 1 and Wave 2) and school setting were included in the models to test whether outcomes changed over time based on setting.
In both models, interactions between time and school setting were significant (p<.01 for prosocial scores, p<.05 for total difficulties scores). Average prosocial scores decreased between Wave 1 and Wave 2 (p<.01), but scores in special needs schools decreased at a lower rate (p<.001). In addition, while average total difficulties decreased over time (p<0.001), scores from children in special needs schools decreased at a faster rate (p<.01), also indicating potential protective factors. Neither severity of disability nor gender significantly predicted change in prosocial or difficulties scores.
Conclusion and Implications
Results suggest that special needs schools are both serving a higher need population than mainstream schools, and are providing a beneficial environment for CWD. By Wave 2, children in special needs classrooms were statistically equivalent to mainstream students in both prosocial and total difficulties scores. These findings suggest that special needs classrooms provide some protection for children’s functioning over time compared to mainstream classrooms. Further study as to the most effective components of special needs classrooms can provide insight as to what may be implemented into mainstream settings, such as smaller teacher-student ratios, specialized teacher training, a sense of community for students who all experience some form of disability, peer and adult acceptance, and the ability to ease into specialized school environments before moving into mainstream schools.