Exploration of agency in preschool children with disabilities

Pfeifer, Teresa
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The purpose of this line of research was to describe how agency is manifested in preschool children with disabilities, and to analyze how manifestations of agency are influenced by natural environmental contexts of home, therapy settings, and peer settings. An additional purpose was to describe an eleven week parent-oriented intervention based on the construct of agency and document changes in parents and children that occurred during the course of this intervention.

Three related studies addressed these issues. Three studies were conducted using naturalistic methods of field observation and ethnography. The first study included six children with disabilities and their families. The participants were observed a minimum of five times and no more than nine times in home, therapy settings, and peer settings. The data from Study One were used to analyze children with disabilities in terms of occupational roles and as active participants in different environments. Study Two was a secondary analysis of the data gathered in Study One. The data were examined with a focus on the environmental settings. The researcher analyzed themes of agency or active participation across settings. Additionally, the data were used to examine aspects or qualities of different settings that enhance agency. These qualities may be in the social, cultural, and physical environment that each setting offers. Study Three examined an ongoing parent-oriented treatment setting that utilized the construct of agency and the environment as treatment modalities for children with disabilities. The data analysis revealed aspects of treatment, such as parent education, complexity of play objects, and environmental elements such as peer interaction and classroom routines, that help produce change and lasting adaptation in children with disabilities.

The potential significance of these studies is twofold. The first is the addition of basic knowledge to the field of occupational therapy about agency, a theoretical construct. The information gathered from this research will add to the knowledge base of the profession by moving the construct of agency from the philosophical to the practical. The practical knowledge is expected to include ways of observing agency as it is manifested in different roles, activities, and environments of children with disabilities. The second area of potential significance is learning to view therapy with children differently and children with disabilities as action agents. It is hoped that the results of these studies will help practitioners view children with disabilities in ecologically valid domains. The results indicate that children with disabilities have a variety of behaviors that indicate their active involvement with the environment that is not reflected in standard assessments. These may be related to functional activities required in the roles and in the environments in which they participate.

Health and environmental sciences, Developmental psychology, Special education, Preschool education