Background/Context: Early childhood education in the United States is currently suspended between the belief that young children learn through dynamic experiences in which they are able to create and experiment, and the belief that young children’s emerging literacy and math skills require formal instruction and assessments to ensure future academic success. This balance is difficult because each approach requires different allowances for children’s agency.
Purpose/Objective: This study investigates how district administrators, school administrators, pre-K–3 teachers, and bilingual first graders within a school district serving Latina/o immigrant families think about the role of agency in early learning.
Setting: Data was collected in Lasso ISD and El Naranjo Elementary School, located on the U.S./Mexico border.
Population/Participants: Lasso ISD is predominantly Latina/o with 85% of its population self-identifying as Latina/o and experiencing financial stress. Over 35% of children at El Naranjo are labeled as English Language Learners. We interviewed five administrators, nine teachers, and 24 children.
Research Design: The research method used is a variation of multivocal, video-cued ethnography (VCE). Following VCE’s pattern of data collection, we made a film of a typical day in a first-grade classroom where children of Latina/o immigrants used agency in their learning. The film was used to elicit perspectives on how much control young children of Latina/o immigrants should have over their learning in the early years. Focus group data was analyzed comparatively across participant groups and district hierarchies.
Findings: The data reveals an inverse relationship—termed agency diffusion and deficit infusion—between participants’ ideas about the amount of agency students should be afforded in the classroom and the deficit ideas they articulate about children of immigrants and their families. Our findings suggest that even in supportive, academically successful districts, deficit thinking at any level can justify narrow, rote types of instruction that ultimately impact the types of messages young children receive about learning and being a learner.
Conclusions/Recommendations: Pre-service and experienced teachers may need help with discriminatory, deficit attitudes toward the families they serve as well as pedagogical skills to offer more agency to children, in the culturally relevant forms that make sense in the classroom. In developing guidelines and policies at school, district, state, and federal levels, agency should be a necessary component of classrooms considered (and labeled) as high quality. Children’s perspectives are important ways to determine whether policies and practices are really effective.