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Troubling Messages: Agency and Learning in the Early Schooling Experiences of Children of Latinx Immigrants

by Jennifer Keys Adair, Kiyomi Sánchez-Suzuki Colegrove & Molly McManus - 2018

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 Latinx 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 Latinx with 85% of its population self-identifying as Latinx 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 Latinx immigrants used agency in their learning. The film was used to elicit perspectives on how much control young children of Latinx 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.

Early childhood education in the United States is currently suspended between two epistemological understandings of young children. The first is that young children learn through dynamic experiences in which they are able to create and experiment (Engel, 2009; Genishi & Dyson, 2015; Gopnik, Meltzoff, & Kuhl, 1999; Rogoff, Najafi, & Mejía-Arauz, 2014). The second is that young children’s emerging literacy and math skills require formal instruction and assessments to ensure future academic success (Duncan, et al., 2007; Lonigan, Allan, & Lerner, 2011; Quirk, Nylund-Gibson, & Furlong, 2013). Both ideas are legitimate. Yet research at the intersection of both of these ideas across the fields of early childhood education, developmental psychology, bilingual education, and child development finds that it is difficult if not impossible to be responsive to children’s discovery, creativity, and ideas and still prioritize the assessment of academic skills at early ages (Brown, 2009; Brown, Weber, & Yoon, 2015; Goldstein, 2007; Graue, 2008). One reason that balancing standardization and assessments with dynamic and discovery-oriented practices is difficult is that there are different allowances for what we refer to here as children’s agency. The study we detail suggests that allowances for agency in learning may be more informed by how educators think about children’s families and what kinds of assumptions they make about children’s capabilities and potential than by concrete understandings of pedagogy, child development, or epistemology. This means that the presence or absence of children’s agency in classrooms may be more of a function of discrimination, and would require a different approach than best-practices training.

This article is based on transcript data from video-cued, ethnographic focus groups within one well-performing school district in Texas that serves mostly Latinx immigrant families. We collected data with district- and school-level administrators, pre-kindergarten (pre-K) through third-grade teachers, and first-grade, bilingual students. We conducted focus groups using a film of Latinx children at a different school exhibiting a lot of agency in their learning in order to elicit discussion around how much control children should have over what and how they learn. Scenes in the film included children moving around the classroom without permission, helping classmates, making decisions about how and where to work, and directing some of the instruction. We then compared how administrators, teachers, and children evaluated the practices and behavior in the film. With the help of developmental economics to focus our attention on agency and a socio-cultural approach to the data, we try to make sense of why educators and children had such different responses to children using their agency in their learning. We introduce the terms agency diffusion and deficit infusion to track how ideas about agency and learning deteriorated from superintendent to child.


Over the past 40 years, scholars intersecting early childhood education, sociology, anthropology, developmental psychology, and neuroscience have documented how children learn through exploration, discovery, initiative, and other elements of agency (Fuller, 2007; Ogbu, 1981; Rogoff, 1994; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). In early childhood education, agency is typically conceptualized as the ability to act—something children have but cannot always use because of political, social, economic, cultural, or physical restraints (Reese, Kroesen, & Gallimore, 2000). Many early childhood scholars see children as co-constructive agents in the communities and countries where they live with an ability to influence the world around them (Arzubiaga, Noguerón, & Sullivan, 2009; Mitchell, 2010; Phillips, 2010). While there is disagreement about the amount of power children should have over their own lives, there is general agreement that children have the right and capacity to address their own and their community’s needs (Alderson, 2008; Lansdown, 2005; Mac Naughton, Hughes, & Smith, 2008).

Critical early childhood scholars warn that because of increasingly narrow and strict learning environments, children increasingly can only use their agency to act or resist adult control (Corsaro, 2005; Doucet, 2011). Resistance, however, is still evidence that children are sophisticated and intelligent players even in adult-controlled worlds (Madrid & Dunn-Kenney, 2010; Markström, 2011). Early childhood work in STEM and literacy have argued for more agentive spaces for children to develop a range of capabilities while learning the basics of reading, writing, and numbers (Inan, Trundle, & Kantor, 2010; Jirout & Zimmerman, 2015; Katz & Chard, 2000; Wohlwend & Peppler, 2015). Sociologists and anthropologists of education in U.S. and international contexts also position children as agents, making a collective empirical case that young children create peer cultures (Corsaro & Eder, 1990; Crosnoe, 2005b; Kyratzis, 2004) and can reflect and participate in meaning-making within larger communities and societies (Gutiérrez, BaquedanoLópez, & Tejeda, 1999; Tobin, 2005). There is continued concern that access to agency in schools and programs remains disproportionately lacking for young students from Native American (McCarty, Wallace, Lynch, & Benally, 1991), African American (Dumas & Nelson, 2016; Howard, 2013; Noguera, 2003), Latinx (Adair, 2015a; Crosnoe, 2005a; Mercado & Moll, 2000), and Black immigrant (Doucet, 2011; Capps & Fix, 2012) communities.

Developmental psychology does not commonly use the term agency. However, there is a strong body of work outlining the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical need for children, especially through the age of 8, to learn via decision-making, discovery-oriented processes that include a range of choices and opportunities to follow their interests (Jacobs & Klaczynski, 2006). Much of this work includes concepts related to agency, such as self-regulation (Blair & Razza, 2007; Bodrova & Leong, 2006), self-expression (Baraldi, 2008), self-efficacy (Bandura, Barbaranelli, Caprara, & Pastorelli, 2001; Liew, McTigue, Barrois, & Hughes, 2008), autonomy (Kamii, 1984, 1991; Reeve, 2009), and motivation (DeCuir-Gunby & Schutz, 2016; Eccles & Wigfield, 2002; Graham, in press; Weiner, 2010). Similarly, cognitive neuroscientists concerned with early development argue that the early years are an irreplaceable period of time in development when children need space and time to develop complex cognitive skills (Diamond, 2002; Farah et al., 2006; Lawson & Ruff, 2004).

Collectively these concepts and approaches make a case for children having time and space to act for themselves and one another. Children’s being able to influence what is going on in their classrooms is a requirement for most if not all of these important developmental elements because they require that children learn through their experiences rather than be told exactly what to do. Rather than focus on one skill, we are interested here in better understanding the concept of agency as an inherent tool that children can use to master the range of developmental skills listed above.


For this study, we approached agency as the ability for students to influence or make decisions about how and what they learn so as to expand their capabilities (see Adair, 2014). This definition builds upon the work of Muhbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen, who, as international development economists, argued that agency is a necessary component of development (Sen & Anand, 1994; ul Haq, 2003). Although ul Haq and Sen were focused on the development of nations and challenging governments to think about people’s everyday agency rather than just GDP to determine whether a country was developing economically, their ideas apply to the development and learning of young children. Instead of marking academic success merely by benchmark scores and test readiness (Duncan et al., 2007; Welsh, Nix, Blair, Bierman, & Nelson, 2010), our definition brings attention to agency as being necessary to expanding capabilities and a marker of whether development is happening successfully in classrooms. Agency is positioned not just as a possible element of development, but rather a prerequisite. Agency allows children to draw upon their funds of knowledge and connect with their heritages and communities (González, 2005). We have tested this hypothesis in other studies (see Adair, 2014; Adair & Colegrove, 2014; Colegrove & Adair, 2014) by spending two years filming classrooms where teachers use a range of curricula, teaching approaches, and materials meant to give children more control over how and what they learn. We have filmed and tracked not only the acts of agency, but also the types of skills they learn through these experiences. For example, in a classroom that we filmed (Colegrove & Adair, 2014), students were able to choose their project topics, partners, where they worked, and what materials they used. We saw children design projects, handle peer feedback, sketch ideas, make collective decisions that involved different opinions, experience failure and the need to change their minds and start over, as well as acquire new content from their topics that ranged from plant classification to volcanoes to how rainbows appear. This did not mean that children were disrespectful or saw themselves and the teachers as equals. Instead they assumed that their use of agency would be supported each day in their learning, and they initiated many activities because of this assurance.


Our comparative analysis within one school district assumes that ideas about learning, early childhood, development, and specifically agency are not natural but rather an outcome of socio-cultural constructions of learning. Rogoff’s (1990, 2003) work with Mayan communities is particularly helpful because she demonstrates that during early childhood, children begin to develop and practice the skills and capabilities that will enable them to exhibit competence in their cultural communities. Gutiérrez and Rogoff (2003) refer to these varied “ways of engaging in activities stemming from observing and other-wise participating in cultural practices” as repertoires of practice. Urrieta’s (2013) work with indigenous Mexican communities describes early learning as a process where children observe community practices and participate when they are ready. There is little separation of children and adult spaces, and so children can watch and make decisions about when they should enter and participate. Children’s observations of and experiences with learning are what help them understand how learning works and what it means to be a successful learner in their home, community, or classroom.

The socio-cultural construction of learning is also a fluid, organizing process that is embedded, as González (2010) writes, “within historically embedded contexts of power” (p. S252). In many cases, ideas about learning are co-constructed with dominant forces that often push marginalized communities to adapt to the ways of the dominant group (González, 2004; Gutiérrez & Rogoff, 2003) or make do with a lesser version of education (see Valdés, 1996; Valenzuela, 1999). Our awareness of the element of power meant that, in our study, we tried to make sense of teachers’ ideas about children not as truth but as socio-cultural constructs that can represent or be subject to larger political motives of maintaining dominant control (Gonzáles, 2010; see also 2004). In this sense, how children are labeled and perceived as learners illuminates dominant constructions of children—not so much about what the children are truly capable of in terms of their learning. The children in our study helped us understand the system that they are a part of and over which they often have very little control.


The research method used for this analysis and the larger Agency and Young Children study is a variation of multivocal, video-cued ethnography (VCE) developed by Tobin and colleagues in the Preschool in Three Cultures study, and further developed in the Preschool in the Three Cultures Revisited (Tobin, 1989, 2009) and Children Crossing Borders (Tobin, Arzubiaga, & Adair, 2013) studies. The ethnographic classification of the method includes attention to cultural groups or groups with shared meanings, as well as positioning the participants as experts on their lives and on how they view complex, educational concepts such as agency. VCE honors the ethnographic tradition of spending time with communities and learning from them, yet collapses time and space by using a film to represent a day in a classroom and then sharing that video to elicit responses from a variety of groups in different sites over months and years. Following VCE’s pattern of data collection, we spent weeks in a first-grade classroom that had routine examples of children influencing and making decisions about their learning. We filmed five consecutive days of school to capture different types of agency in multiple subject areas. Eventually we edited together a 20-minute film that showed one full day of school. After the teacher in the film, as well as the children and their parents, approved the film as a typical representation of their classroom, we used the film as a cue for focus group interviews with superintendents, principals, teachers, and first graders at a variety of school and district sites.


One of the districts that watched and responded to the film was Lasso Independent School District (LISD). This district, located on the U.S./Mexico border, was selected for interviews and focus groups because of its demographics and academic record. LISD, as well as the town of Lasso, is predominantly Latinx, with 85% of its population self-identifying as Hispanic or Latinx (U.S. Census, 2014). LISD was compelling for the study because it is considered an academically successful model on the U.S. border, and in our larger work with immigrant communities and early childhood education, most of the schools and school districts struggled academically in terms of state standardized test rankings. LISD had strong bilingual and parent engagement programs. Each school had a parent support specialist as well as a range of welcoming infrastructure elements such as a parents’ room for workshops, activities, and meetings. Our connection with and entry into LISD came through the district parent engagement administrator, who heard one of the authors explaining the project during a workshop on Latinx parent involvement. With her superintendent’s support, she invited our team to collect data in her district, including the school where she works, El Naranjo Elementary. The school serves 1,100 of the district’s students, the majority of whom are bilingual Spanish speakers. The school is large, with six to nine classrooms per grade and (like all of the districts in the AYC study) serves many families (87%) experiencing financial stress. Over 35% of children at El Naranjo are labeled as English Language Learners. Their test scores, like the district overall, met or exceeded expectations for 12 of the last 13 years.

Participants at LISD included five administrators, nine teachers, and 24 children. While not part of this particular analysis, we also conducted focus groups with 20 of the children’s parents. The administrator focus group at the district level included the superintendent, district parent coordinator, and director of curriculum, and was conducted in English at their request, with occasional Spanish words. The administrator focus group at the school level included the principal and curriculum director, and was conducted in English because the principal was not a Spanish speaker. We conducted two teacher focus groups in English that included nine pre-K–3 teachers, eight of whom taught in Spanish/English bilingual classrooms and self-identified as bilinguals. One group had three pre-K teachers and the other had six K–3 teachers. We also conducted eight focus group interviews with first graders from two bilingual classrooms. All of the children we interviewed chose to speak in Spanish. There were three to four children in each group, and each group included both girls and boys. Teachers determined the groups as an attempt to ensure children’s participation and comfort.


We began the focus groups by briefly outlining the project and explaining that the film was not a best-practices film they might watch at a training or workshop; it was merely a tool to get us all talking. We then showed the 17-minute film of Ms. Bailey’s first-grade classroom at a public pre-K–5 Texas school. Most of the children in the film were children of Latinx immigrants from Mexico, the majority of whom speak a combination of Spanish and English at home. The film shows children arriving and leaving the classroom, moving around without asking a teacher, choosing where and what to read, solving problems, asking one another questions, working on projects, helping classmates with their work, and having class discussions led by the children. Interviewers began the discussion by asking two open-ended questions, “What did you think about the classroom?” and “What stood out to you as you watched?” followed by the question, “Is this what you expected to see?” We used follow-up questions to encourage participant feedback on particular scenes, each of which dealt with children using their agency in different ways with different results. These scenes were meant to tease out what types and how much agency participants thought was best for classroom-based learning. Participants were asked about scenes where they saw (1) children getting out of their seat to help another child who was calling out for help with numbers, (2) children choosing where and with whom to read or work on letters, (3) the teacher trying to get children to initiate solving their conflicts on their own, (4) children leading class discussions about topics they choose, and (5) children moving around the classroom and asking the teacher questions without raising their hand. These questions prompted discussions about what kinds of control children should have over their learning, and what kinds/quantities might be too much for children’s early learning experiences. When participants were shy or hesitant, interviewers specifically invited them to share their thoughts about a particular scene. This strategy was effective in helping give participants concrete, visual things to respond to during the focus groups, and made sure that all the voices were being heard as much as possible. While all of the adult focus group interviews flowed in different directions, they followed the same set of guiding protocol questions.

The focus group protocol with children was slightly different from those done with adults. When we met with the bilingual first-grade students, we showed them four scenes from the film instead of the whole 20-minute video. The first scene began with a whole-class math discussion led by the teacher and continued with small groups of children working on different math activities. The second scene was the boy helping the girl figure out how to write the number 21—the same scene that the district officials praised and teachers said was possible in their classrooms as well. The third scene showed children during literacy time reading in pairs or alone in different parts of the room. Some laid down on pillows on the floor and others read out loud to friends or themselves. If there was time left over, we would typically share a fourth scene that shows children outside with clipboards, sitting in front of a real tow truck taking notes. In that fourth scene, children in the film listened to the tow truck driver explain the physics of a towing crane, and eventually asked him various questions about how tow trucks lift cars.

Children’s interview questions were also simplified. (See Appendix A for a complete list of questions for educators and children.) Teacher and administrator focus groups lasted 1–1.5 hours and were completed during the school day through release time provided by substitutes. Focus groups with the children typically lasted 15–20 minutes and were conducted during the regular school day in a room down the hall from their classrooms.


The focus group interviews with administrators, teachers, and children were transcribed and manually coded for a comparative, hierarchical analysis. First-grader focus group interviews were translated from Spanish to English by one of the authors who is a native Spanish speaker. Transcripts were then read in full according to participant groups so that administrators, teachers, and children could be seen as groups, rather than as individuals. We searched and compiled a list of how each group answered each question. Then we specifically coded transcripts to identity what participants said about each scene using a synonym list. It is important to point out here that the participants did not use the word “agency” to describe children influencing or making decisions about their learning. Anticipating that agency would not be referenced as a common word, we made a synonym list to account for ways in which teachers, administrators, and children might reference something under our conceptualization of agency. The list included references to choice, freedom, decision-making, acts without adult permission, ownership over the space, control, and children changing the teacher’s mind about something, as well as comments about regulation, obedience, and initiative. After coding, we tracked how each participant group referenced agency (again in a number of possible ways that did not include the actual word “agency”) in their own classrooms and schools. Next, we compared responses across participant groups. Because we used the film as a common stimulus for each participant group, we were able to compare responses to specific scenes as well as responses to specific interview questions across groups.

The remainder of this article focuses on the stark differences between how the first graders and their teachers and administrators responded to children using their agency (or acts that could be categorized as agentive) at school. We begin with the ideas about agency and learning shared by the administrators and continue to the teachers and children.


Lasso ISD district administrators responded quickly and positively to the film during our focus group, more so than any other group we interviewed. They thought that the practices prepared children to be creative leaders, not just task-oriented workers. Responding to a question about whether the practices in the film made sense for his students, the superintendent objected to the question, explaining,

You have to culture this kind of creativity in the students and this kind of risk taking so that way they can go out there and be the free thinkers and creators that we are going to need. A lot of these kids are going to have jobs that don’t exist. If they can’t go into a job that does exist then they are going to have to go and create a job and make something to be successful at. They are totally capable.

Although children are capable, the superintendent explains that classrooms and schools have to provide the environments that support creativity, risk taking, and freethinking. He insists that such a skillset is not taught directly, but allowed to develop through particular environments and relationships.

Lasso’s curriculum director, also present, agreed by appreciating that the children in the film were “allowed a lot of opportunity for critical thinking and resourcefulness.” He pointed out many times when the teacher allowed for students to make choices.

I think also [there was] very important communicating with each other, giving them choices. That was a word that she used for not only selecting the partners but how do you want to learn? What do you want to use in your learning?

The district administrators thought that being free to communicate and choosing partners helped children to be creative decision-makers. They singled out a scene in the film where one student notices another struggling to figure out what the number 21 looks like. She is trying to write the date in her journal. He walks over to her and points out the number on a poster at the front of the room. When that doesn’t help, he invites the girl to follow him to the front to look at the calendar. There, he counts from 11 all the way to the number 20, and then the girl realizes that the next number is 21. She excitedly runs back to her seat to write it down. They were impressed because the boy “took it upon himself to go and explain.” They felt both that the children were capable of creative, decision-making academic experiences and that such learning was imperative for future job opportunities.

Children resolving conflict without the teachers was another important aspect of agency that the district referenced. The superintendent especially appreciated a part in the film where two boys are asked to resolve a conflict on their own without the teacher, commenting:

So that conflict resolution was the best approach to take because if the teacher had gone in there and said, “OK, stop, you can’t, don’t be arguing,” or whatever, you know they wouldn’t have felt any self-satisfaction, which is extremely important for them to be able to continue with their activities in the classroom.

Having time and space to work through conflict, according to district administrators, also helped children feel good about themselves, which in turn helps them to do better at school.

Lasso district administrators appreciated many aspects of agency, including initiative, problem solving, conflict resolution, creativity, risk taking, freethinking, making decisions, and expression. These elements signified, to the district, that children could influence and make decisions about their learning. Administrators explained that they were trying, with some success, to help teachers support children’s discovery and decision-making as they saw in the film: “Our new classrooms are like that. There is collaboration and a lot of interaction amongst the students themselves where the teacher just facilitates and monitors.” The district administrators’ efforts to increase children’s use of agency in their learning followed their stated belief that children in their district were meant to be leaders and would need to be creative because their jobs had probably not been invented yet. The district administrators positioned teachers as a deciding factor in whether children were being taught to learn through teacher’s instruction or whether children learned to follow their own interests and ideas with the facilitation and support of their teacher.  


The school principal and the school curriculum director responded somewhat less positively to the video than the administrators. They told us that the classroom in the film looked similar to those at El Naranjo:

It’s a typical thing when you see that. The centers and the small group instruction by the teacher, kids learning to deal with each other . . . the way she presented the lessons and working with the kids and the kids working independently.

The visual of the classroom and the independent work and small groups seemed familiar to them. School administrators pointed out that some of their classrooms were “just as noisy and active” as the one in the film. They explained that the teachers had a lot of autonomy at El Naranjo. In our observations at the school, we noticed the same thing. For example, the district and the school did not have or enforce adopted curricula for any subject. Teachers could choose their own literacy curriculum, math instruction, and science activities.

The principal and the curriculum specialist thought children also needed to have some influence and make some choices at school. They, like the district administrators, thought that having choices would help prepare children for their future jobs. However, children also needed limits. They explained:

I think you do need a little bit [of choice] though a lot is teacher directed. Give them a choice of maybe of what kind of activity they want to do. Maybe give them a list, especially your upper grades, these are some ideas of what you can do. . . . And as long as the child is going to [do] what the teacher wants, the child can do it his way, but a little bit more open.

On this viewpoint, children should have choices, but only if they ultimately choose to do what the teacher wants. The teachers told us that for the sake of academic progress and developmentally appropriate learning environments, choices should be limited to a predetermined list of activities. Rather than allowing students to play a role in directing their own learning and developing skills through collaboration and interaction as the district administrators advocated, the school administrators wanted students to make choices within the confines of the lessons that the teacher has already planned and the classroom structures that were already in place. They told us that students’ making choices about their learning was more appropriate for students in older grades, not necessarily first grade, because older students had learned what teachers expect, how they should behave, and the general expectations for learning at school.



When the pre-K, first-, second-, and third-grade teachers watched the film, their initial reactions were positive. They pointed out parts of the film they liked, and which represented what they tried to do in their own classrooms. The teachers we interviewed liked the scene where the boy helps the girl figure out how to write the number 21, as did the district administrators. They explained that encouraging children to help one another, the use of small-group instruction, centers and general student interactions were similar to their own classrooms.

As the interview continued, however, the teachers’ responses to the film became much more critical. They felt that the teacher in the film was disorganized and unable to control the classroom. Many said it bothered them that the teacher did not insist on getting every student’s attention before beginning an activity, having a discussion, or continuing with a read-aloud book. One teacher explained:

Pretty much when she was talking, whether it was about the accident or it was about Sophie, not everybody was on task or paying attention to what she was saying. It seemed like it was normal though. It seemed like it was normal and that it was OK. It didn’t bother the teacher.

We asked the teachers how they knew whether children in the film were paying attention to the teacher. Many responded that children show they are paying attention when they are quiet and looking at the teacher. Most teachers disapproved of Ms. Bailey’s classroom management, though one teacher disagreed and explained to us that some children can be moving around and still paying attention:

It depends on who you are as a teacher. Some of us don’t like the chaos and we want the structure and the organization. Some of us are OK with the noise. We can work with it and it doesn’t bother us. But it’s everybody’s individual choice I think.

Teachers seemed to feel that classroom management should be left to individual teacher preferences. They told us that early schooling has to do with training. Children need to be trained on how to behave, how to read, and how to use tools, technology, and materials. “The first six weeks are pure training,” one teacher explained, “because they’re Kinder.” After they are trained, the students in their classrooms can have more choices, but in very limited form. Another teacher said:

I still don’t give them a lot of free choices yet because there’s a lot of training and they still won’t do what they’re supposed to; most of them will, but later on. I’ll give them more freedom, but as long as they’re getting everything done.

Nearly all the teachers we interviewed agreed that it was important for children to learn to be independent, but there was a great deal of training that needed to occur before children could learn to be independent.

Once children are independent they can handle more choice-making in their learning. When we asked how much control the children should have over their learning, one teacher responded:

How much control should they have? Well they should have a little bit of liberty but not too much that they’re not going to be able to learn. I mean we have our objectives to follow. Those are very important.

Because teachers had objectives to follow and children could not be trusted (because they were not yet trained), their choices needed to be limited. Some teachers offered students a choice of where to sit on the carpet, what center they wanted to go to on Fun Friday, or what book they wanted to read when they were not in leveled reading groups. Teachers generally agreed that choices, freedom, liberty—all elements connected to agency—were only appropriate when children had proven their ability to be obedient and were ready academically to meet the requirements of school. Otherwise, the elements of agency could be obstacles to learning.


As the source of ideas about the educational agency of Latinx immigrants’ young children moved from district administrators to school administrators to teachers, support for children’s agency narrowed and lessened. This finding follows a pattern we are referring to as agency diffusion.



The superintendent told us that students should be allowed a lot of agency in their classrooms because they needed to develop leadership, critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, initiative, resourcefulness, and the ability to collaborate and communicate. To support students in the acquisition of these skills, district administrators described ideal teachers as being those that could step back and act as facilitators and allow children the space and freedom to interact.

School administrators agreed that children needed to collaborate and use initiative in their learning. They thought children needed to discuss and make some limited choices, yet they worried that young children in particular were not always ready for these choices. Alternatively, they believed older children could handle more agency. They also thought that some of their teachers were not effectively trained to offer a wide range of choices to young children. In addition, they expressed concern that a broad range of choices or any consistent use of agency would not work for the bilingual students at their school, primarily because they lacked vocabulary.

Teachers did not see agency as an important part of early schooling. Direct instruction played a primary role in training young children to be successful at school. While they told us that their classrooms looked like the one in the film, they offered a narrower set of choices only when children demonstrated that they could work obediently.

Claims about the amount of agency that young children of Latinx immigrants should have in their learning became more modest from the superintendent to the school administrators to the classroom teachers. Figure 1 illustrates the directionality of their perspectives on agency, from a high allowance of agency to a low or minimal allowance for agency.

Figure 1: Agency diffusion


Agency diffusion is meant to represent how ideas shifted from superintendent to teacher along a district hierarchy. It starts with a superintendent who thought children in his district needed agentive and dynamic learning experiences in order to become leaders, and ends with teachers who thought young children needed to be trained and can handle only a small amount of agency as long as they were obedient. The remainder of this article tries to make sense of this finding. Our data suggest that administrators’ and teachers’ ideas about agency and learning had a lot to do with children’s families and whether the educators believed that the families could help the children succeed.


In the following section, we explore the ways in which the educator participants at Lasso ISD spoke about the immigrant communities they served. In this discussion we will highlight another pattern we found across the district hierarchy that we call deficit infusion. We found that while ideas about agency and learning narrowed from superintendent to teacher, ideas about children and families shifted as well. First, we explore how each participant group spoke about immigrant families and try to make sense of how deficit ideas increased from superintendent to teacher. Then, we explore how children responded to the film and what their ideas suggest about the presence of agency diffusion and deficit infusion in their schools and districts.


Lasso ISD administrators were positive, enthusiastic, and, unlike other administrators in our study, only used positive ways of talking about the families and immigrant community in the district and town. Superintendent Gomez spoke proudly of the children:

We are looking at these little kids, we know they’re going to be our future leaders, and we know that they are going to change the world. So we want to make sure that they have all the resources available to them. . . . These are our innovators, and we have to culture that.

Superintendent Gomez was not overly idealistic. He acknowledged that families in the district faced challenges such as poverty, fear of deportation, lack of formal education, and substandard housing.

We have a lot of kids that live in substandard housing, dirt floors, cardboard walls, parents who have to have five, six, seven blankets just to keep warm because they can’t afford to use the propane because they need it for cooking. So this is the kind of kids that we have.

While he acknowledged students’ and families’ need for support and resources, he knew they were capable of success and innovation in both school and life. His emphasis on the positive contributions of Latinx immigrant families contributed to a seemingly positive context of reception (Portes & Rumbaut, 2006) for them. Yet he also acknowledged that not everyone in his district saw children or families the same as he did. Moving the district from rigid learning to more creative, risk-taking learning was difficult for some to accept. He explained:

I am not going to allow anybody to do anything to hurt kids or hold them back. We are going to make every student successful for their entire life until the day that they decide to retire is the goal.  

The superintendent and district officials told us that students in their district should not be denied anything based on who they are or what struggles their families faced financially or culturally.


The principal explained that the district was working toward “meeting the needs of the learners in the new millennium.” Yet, both administrators doubted the capacity of the children, particularly bilingual children, to handle agentive practices that were shown in the film. One common rationale for the doubt was the students’ “low vocabulary.” The curriculum specialist thought the students in the film were more advanced than the bilingual students at El Naranjo, commenting:

I could see that the language of [the students in the film] was very developed. The way they were interacting, the vocabulary they were using, which is something in our typical classroom bilingual classroom, you know, it’s not that level of vocabulary they use.

She continued by explaining that the bilingual students needed “a lot of vocabulary, a lot of centers” in order to help them think, express themselves, and improve their vocabulary skills. Helping children learn more vocabulary was necessary to “bring them up from the bottom.” Both administrators told us that children came from families that could not provide the cognitive skills children need to start school. Besides children not having enough vocabulary, school administrators worried that the level of agency in the film would not work for the classrooms at their school because that level of choice was not appropriate for younger grades or for children who have not learned to think sophisticatedly enough yet. They also thought that it was hard to learn how to adopt the practices in the film because teachers at their school were all trained to teach in a more prescriptive way.

As part of explaining why children at their school might not be ready for the practices in the film, school administrators tried to explain to us how unprepared some parents were to help their children. They saw parents as being unable and/or unwilling to help their children. For example, when asked how they decide whether to place kindergarteners in Spanish or English classrooms, the principal responded, “If they are new to us and they are weak in both, we’ll put them in English.” When we asked if the parents resisted such a policy, they replied as follows:

Curriculum specialist: A little bit, but no. Or the most part, [for] those kids they don’t. Because they haven’t been helping them anyways.

Interviewer: Helping them like in the language?

Principal: Helping them with anything. So we figure, you know, that we got them [so] we might as well put them in English and really push them there.

Curriculum specialist: I think once we explain to the parents, “Your child is weak in both, and here in the U.S. we really want them to develop English,” it’s going to be harder for us to develop the Spanish.

Both the principal and the curriculum specialist seemed to think that many of the parents at their school did not help their children or care what happened to them at school. As a result of these deficit perceptions of the parents, they decided on English as the language of instruction.1 As researchers, we were surprised to hear about this approach from the school administrators. The district administrators had been realistic about families’ struggles, but positive in their ideas about them and the children. The school was known for high levels of parent engagement. However, the school administrators tried to help us understand why the practices would not work by explaining the deficit of the children and their families.


Teachers expressed deep concern about children not being prepared for school because of migrant parents who do not offer the types of experiences that prepare children for school, and families that did not teach children basic academic skills such as using the computer and holding a pencil. They believed bilingual children come from homes where parents cannot offer even the most basic of counting and reading skills, and where parents are not equipped to prepare children for more agentive learning experiences. When we asked them why they did not believe children were ready for choices in their learning, they echoed the explanation of their principal: The children in their classrooms have far less vocabulary than the students in the film, and so they could not handle the same types of practices. One teacher commented:

They haven’t had the vocabulary with mom and dad, and maybe they’re migrant workers

and they don’t have the time to sit down and say let’s count here you know cheerios or whatever, so you have to bring those experiences to them.

Teachers agreed that it was their job to bring specific academic experiences into the classroom to help children make up for the vocabulary they are missing. Teachers felt that many parents of bilingual children were unable to give their children the experiences they needed to perform well in school. “Some of our students who are recently from Mexico, they can’t even move the mouse around, you know,” one teacher commented while others nodded in agreement. One teacher compared her experience with parents while teaching at a school up north (i.e., further from the border) to her experience with parents at El Naranjo:

When I was up [north], my parents were always like, how can I help my child, what can I

do for my child? And they were always willing to help. . . and I’m thinking parents you know told [their kids] we’re here for this and this is what we’re here for: to learn. And then I come over here and I have to call parents, and I have to bring them in, you know, I need help with your child. And it’s like the opposite.

Another teacher added, “They don’t value the education.” When asked why she thought this difference exists, a third teacher said, “I think it’s the attitude that is here.”

The teachers also worried about their students learning English. One teacher explained that teaching her students English was urgent “because of the testing, the testing is all in English. By third grade, they need to be fluent in English so they can take the test in English.” El Naranjo told us that they were trying to get children ready for the test performance expectations in third through fifth grade.


While the district did not blame or reference immigrant families in explaining why actions related to agency should be limited in learning, the school administrators and teachers did. Figure 2 shows the directionality of deficit language dramatically increasing from superintendent to classroom teacher, again along the district hierarchy.

Figure 2. Deficit infusion


With the superintendent, ideas started out positive about young Latinx children of immigrants and their families. He acknowledged family struggles but felt they had no bearing on the kinds of learning experiences children should be offered. School administrators worried that students’ lack of vocabulary and their inability to think well enough prohibited them from engaging in more complicated learning experiences. Teachers saw children from immigrant parents entering school with a lack of experiences that teachers needed to then provide.

When teachers and administrators held deficit views toward students and their families, they did not report offering much opportunity for young children to use their agency in classrooms or at school generally. As allowances for agency decreased, deficit ways of speaking about families increased. Figure 3 illustrates the inverted relationship between agency diffusion and deficit infusion.

Figure 3: Inversion relationship between agency and deficit comments in LISD


Participants in this study suggest that deficit ideas can prevent teachers from offering learning experiences that support agency, and ultimately prevent children from developing and demonstrating a broad range of capabilities. When students are not provided the opportunity to show what they are able to do, teacher and administrator deficit beliefs about students seem justified. These beliefs and practices create a cycle in which deficit thinking limits student agency, and then children cannot demonstrate what they know and can do, which in turn perpetuates more deficit thinking. The troubling consequences of agency diffusion and deficit infusion processes start in early childhood education, and can best be seen by examining how the young children from El Naranjo responded to the film.


The children we interviewed had a different response to the film than the groups of administrators and teachers. The first graders felt the classroom in the film was nothing like their own classrooms. They did point out similar materials that they had in their classroom, such as books, magnet letters, and the wall calendar. However, when we asked if there were any other similarities between their class and the one in the film, they said, “No,” “Nothing,” or “It’s not like our class.” One girl explained, “It looks different. Because we’re so much quieter.” The first graders thought that the children in the film were terribly behaved, actually. They told us the children in the film were “bad” and were not learning as they should be. “Learning is quiet,” they explained.


The first graders’ strongest reaction to each of the four scenes was that the students in the film were too loud. They said the students were “not following the rules.” When asked, “What are the rules?” one first grader replied, “Work quietly,” and when asked how their class sounds, most students used the word “quiet.” While watching, many of the children would exclaim to one another, “They are so loud!” “They are not following the rules,” or “Oh no, they are not raising their hands.”

Several students made comments indicating their teachers’ desire for and enforcement of quiet in the classroom. When asked if they need to be quiet to learn, a student responded, “You need to be quiet to enter class with Ms. Perez.” One girl pointed to another boy in the focus group and said, “He talks to friends and he gets in trouble.” After watching the scene that showed the students during math time, the following exchange took place:

Interviewer (I): So what is math like in your class? I’ve never seen it so can you describe it for me?

Student (S): She gives us math and then we do it quietly in the classroom.

I: So what were they doing here that was different than that?

S: Talking.

I: Who were they talking to?

S: Their friends.

I: So do you get to talk to your friends during math?

S: No.

I: Do you think it’s OK that they do that?

S: No.

I: You don’t? Why? Why isn’t it OK?

S: Because they’re not following the rules.


They told us that it is not following the rules to talk during math. We pointed out to the first graders that the kids in the film were talking about math. This did not sway them. The first graders watching the film continued to see the children as disobedient, loud, and not learning very well. When we pressed students to tell us why noise is bad or what is wrong with talking in class, one boy replied, “If you talk, your thoughts will leave your brain.”  


The first graders saw the children using a lot of their agency in their learning as terrible examples of learning because they did not wait for instruction or permission from the teacher. When children moved around the classroom to help someone or when they were in a section of the room without the teacher, these children were labeled as “bad.” Children were labeled “bad” for getting out of their chair or touching computer equipment. One first grader responded emphatically, “That kid is bad bad bad!” when he noticed a child in the film move the computer mouse for the person next to him. “Only the teacher is supposed to move the mouse!” he explained. In another example, during the third scene that shows a boy lying on the ground with a book during choice time, one of the first graders yelled out, “That boy needs to sit down!” We asked him to clarify: “He needs to sit down?” The boy responded and seemed concerned: “Yeah, you need to sit him down!” The first graders claimed that it is not OK to be out of your seat unless the teacher has given you permission. One student explained, “You need to raise your hand or you will be in trouble.”

Children were able to point out types of agency, but they did not think agency worked for learning. In fact, children pointed out many types of agency in the scenes they watched. They noticed that children could talk a lot. Children could move around and choose where they read. They could even read on the floor on their belly! They could help people without asking the teacher first. Yet, the children saw these uses of agency as terrible for learning. The first graders told us that the teacher decides what they are going to do and when, and that they need to ask permission to do something different. For example, one participant noticed that the students in the film got to choose their own books, but said that in her classroom, “The teachers tell us what book to take out.” They told us that sometimes they do make choices on their own. One student said, “[I] choose to listen to the teacher,” and another shared, “I choose to work.” The time when the first graders said they were allowed to influence and make decisions about their learning was on Fun Friday. “Oh, we get to have Fun Friday like play ABC bingo,” one first grader shared, and another student agreed, “The other teacher let us play hopscotch!”

Seeing aspects of agency as being terrible for learning does not mean that children did not want agency or could not appreciate being able to move. Their favorite learning activity was something they described as muscle math. In muscle math, they told us, students stood up and moved their bodies to depict different math concepts or problems. They excitedly demonstrated to us how to do muscle math and seemed to really like having the opportunity to move their bodies. They also wanted to help their friends, but they knew that their teachers would not approve. For example, after watching the number 21 scene, some first graders thought the students were being good and helpful; however, most children responded that the students were doing something bad. When asked if the boy helping the girl was an OK thing to do, one first grader gave a bit more detail: “No. Because only the teacher goes up.” We followed up by asking: “Can you do that in your class? Go to the front and help your friend?” and the first grader responded, “No, because our teacher gets mad.” Another child added: “The little kids went up to the front to teach the kid. That’s not right.” When the kids initiated help, ideas, or questions in the film, the first graders responded that they were not learning the way they should. In the final focus group, after hearing so many children talk negatively about the children in the film, we asked, “Who decides when you can help or when you can’t?” The students responded, “The teacher!”


Lasso district administrators believed that all young children, particularly those in their district, should use many aspects of agency to develop skills that prepare them for an idea-driven economy. They spoke positively about the children’s potential and capabilities. As interviews continued with school administrators and teachers, however, the positive understanding of children’s potential to use their agency and to become sophisticated learners deteriorated until the children themselves saw agency in any form as being contrary to learning. Figure 4 includes children’s perspectives along the LISD continuum in terms of agency diffusion in relation to deficit infusion.

Figure 4: Agency diffusion and deficit Infusion with children’s perspectives for LISD


Despite the district administrators’ positive perceptions of immigrant families and their desire for all children to use their agency in their learning to gain a wide range of capabilities, young children in our analysis of LISD saw learning as being an outcome of their obedience and following tasks.

The comparative analysis detailed here yielded three troubling findings. First, unlike their teachers and administrators, young children positioned elements of agency as having little or nothing to do with learning. Children in our study described learning as primarily a silent, still, and obedient experience. The second finding is that the closer teachers and administrators were to the everyday learning experiences of young children of Latinx immigrants, the more deficit their ideas were about the children and their families and the less they saw agency as an important part of learning. The third finding is that positive, agency-supportive district leaders did not necessarily translate to children seeing learning as a dynamic, agentive process. Children’s ideas about learning were much more aligned to their teachers’ ideas than their administrators’.


The socio-cultural process of becoming a school learner consists primarily of experiences with learning—what children are offered in terms of learning experiences as well as what they are not offered (Rogoff, Matusov, & White, 1996). Children’s ideas about learning are not biological or natural, nor are their schooling experiences. Rather, they are the result of powerful, socio-cultural constructions that many young children cannot influence except through their resistance. When children perceive school learning as a process controlled by adults who primarily require their obedience, this can and does significantly impact their identities as learners (Callahan & Obenchain, 2016; Crosnoe, 2006; Valencia & Black, 2002; Valencia & Solórzano, 1997; Valenzuela, 1999). And it can increase the perceived necessity for oppositional behavior in the early grades (Tyler, 2002) or later in schooling (Harris & Robinson, 2007).

Children are not receiving the same messages about learning. Some children in the United States (such as those in Ms. Bailey’s class) use and perceive their agency as an important, routine part of learning. They may attend project-based, Reggio Emilia, Montessori, and other agency-supportive early childhood and elementary programs where they experience learning as something they navigate, influence, and make decisions about along with the educators. Other children, including many Latinx children of immigrants, are often given schooling experiences that produce an understanding of learning as rote. Too often, they, like the children in our study, receive messages that learning is passive and obedient rather than a process that requires them to use their agency as a means to expand their capabilities.


Our study also offers evidence that teachers’ stated reluctance to support children’s use of agency in their learning may be connected to their views and assumptions about children’s families. When administrators and teachers operated with little or no deficit thinking about immigrant families, they seemed to position agency as more central to learning. When immigrant families were seen as deficient, however, it became easier for teachers and administrators to justify a narrow version of learning that emphasized obedience over agency. Efforts to transform routine educational experiences (Erickson, 1987) into those that help young children see learning as a dynamic, agentive process will require attention to the socio-cultural constructions that influence what learning experiences young children are offered. Addressing shifts in both pedagogy and deficit thinking requires undaunted teachers and administrators who (1) see young children from all families as needing to use their agency in order to learn and expand their capabilities, and (2) are willing to provide everyday routine opportunities for children to influence and make decisions about their learning. Decades of research offer many strategies for addressing deficit thinking, especially in early childhood education, including: the recruitment of teachers of color and/or bilingual teachers (Adair, Tobin, & Arzubiaga, 2011; Cheruvu, Souto-Manning, Lencl, & Chin-Calubaquib, 2015); community-oriented teacher education (Boyle-Baise, 2005); inclusion of anti-bias, multicultural and inclusion curriculum (Derman-Sparks & Edwards, 2010; Souto-Manning, 2013); development of meaningful, reciprocal relationships with parents and communities (Baquedano-López, Alexander, & Hernández, 2013; Lopez, Scribner, & Mahitivanichcha, 2001); and policies that increase the chances of racially and economically integrated schools (Frankenberg & Orfield, 2007; Ladson-Billings, 2004). Not allowing students, because of deficit thinking, to experience the agentive environments that produce the kinds of expanded capabilities we expect from highly successful people can rob children of what they need to do and be in order to live the lives they value.


Our findings come from the third phase of the video cued ethnographic method, which consists of interview and focus group data. We gained tremendous insight into how children think about learning through this process, as well as how their ideas about learning compare with those offered by the adults who make daily decisions about their learning experiences. Children’s views of learning are difficult to gather as data. Our sample was large for qualitative work; however, the fieldwork in this phase was still limited. Although we spent one to two days in the classrooms of the children we interviewed, we were unable to collect extensive data on actual teacher practices in the classroom to see whether children’s views of learning match their actual, routine learning experiences. We suspect they did, based on our minimal observations, but we are not sure.

We believe that more research using the video-cued approach to interview children would be helpful to understand how children from different backgrounds are experiencing the process of early learning. We think that children’s views can better be connected to actual practice (not just self-reporting of practices) in future studies. We hope that we, along with other researchers, will be able to compare children’s ideas about learning in different kinds of settings with varied access to agency. This will enable us to understand how connected children’s ideas about learning and agency are to their actual schooling experiences, and to compare access to agency in schooling among a variety of groups, communities, and nations.


Our data shows that when adults base pedagogical decisions on deficit ideas about families and communities, they may also offer narrowed, less agentive learning experiences. Our data also suggest that the presence of deficit assumptions and teachers’ use of those assumptions to make pedagogical decisions can result in the denial of learning experiences. That in turn sends a message to young children that learning is more about obedience and quiet, still bodies than active engagement or critical, creative, and extended thinking. This effect is possible even when district leadership has a positive view of immigrant families.

The role of deficit thinking in the conceptualization and integration of agency in learning implies that pre-service and experienced teachers may need help with discriminatory 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. Our findings suggest that even when teachers have agency to choose their pedagogical offerings to young children, deficit thinking can prevent teachers from offering their young students access to agency in their learning, all to the detriment of young children’s understanding of what learning really means and what kinds of learning will lead to success in an idea economy. Efforts toward supporting children’s agency in learning require cooperation between administrators and educators at district and school levels: A district’s vision for agency in learning or a superintendent’s positive view of families is not enough.

Our findings also imply that the use of agency as a principle for classroom practice must be balanced by a consideration of whether a classroom is high quality. Just as in the case of ul Haq and Sen’s critique of GDP being used as a sole indicator for a nation’s quality or development, it is also true that classrooms where children have little to no agency in their learning—and where teachers and administrators plan for children based on deficit ideas about their families and communities—can nonetheless be high-quality classrooms as long as children are at grade level for benchmark scores in literacy and math. Emphasizing testing as a sign of learning success means that teachers are rewarded for a score, not their treatment of children or what kinds of messages about learning children receive at school. Using the single-indicator system of testing may be limiting children’s experiences in early schooling when they are in a critical developmental period in need of multiple types of learning experiences. A single-indicator system without attention to agency in learning may also be sending troubling, hard-to-reverse messages about what it means to be a good learner; namely, that learning requires children’s obedience rather than their thoughtfulness, and their submission rather than their leadership.

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. Teachers in preparation programs and in-service teachers need help prioritizing learning experiences so they know how to provide opportunities for students to use their agency and expand their range of capabilities.  

By pointing out the troubling messages internalized by young children when their educators reported offering narrowed learning experiences justified by deficit thinking, this study also implies that children’s perspectives are important parts of determining whether policies and practices are really effective. If adults think that they are helping children be problem solvers, self-reliant learners, and critical thinkers, it is important to ask children how they understand learning. Such an inquiry into children’s perspectives can help gauge whether we are really offering young children the learning experiences that will lead to the qualities we would like them to have. As researchers and early childhood educators, we are deeply concerned that young children are receiving very different messages about learning depending on where they go to school and the demographics of their family, school, and community. What do we expect young, upper-class White children to say about the process and purpose of learning at school? Is it the same as what we would hope to hear from young children of Latinx immigrants? These questions of equality require attention to pedagogy and discrimination.


With increased assessment in early childhood education, particularly in schools serving children from marginalized children (in the case of LISD, Latinx children of immigrants), the process of limiting agency for the sake of learning is only becoming more acceptable. This limitation, along with deficit assumptions about children and their families, is problematic for an increasingly diverse and economically disadvantaged population of children entering school. A lack of agency for some means a disproportional and inequitable approach to schooling. Some children get to use their agency in everyday learning opportunities and so can expand a wide set of capabilities, while others cannot use their agency except in oppositional ways. It seems plausible that increasing agency in culturally relevant ways when children are young and sending messages about learning that include their own ideas and interests would make opposition less necessary. Instead of limiting agency with rationales based on deficit and discriminatory ideas of children and families, we hope that more schools and districts will take cultural and academic inventory of the kinds of agency that will allow children to realize the aspirations held for them by their communities and themselves.


Unfortunately, school personnel can wrongly assess ELLs as belonging in low linguistic abilities groups, where children are not fluent in any language. As a result, the ELLs are placed with teachers who have low expectations and offered remedial curriculum and school work (Valadez, MacSwan, & Martinez, 2000), and assigned to classes where the language of instruction is English due to test pressures (Palmer & Lynch, 2008).


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Table 1. Agency and Young Children Study Participants



# of district administrator participants

# of school administrator


# of teacher


# of first-grader participants

# of parent


% of Hispanic/Latino students

% free and reduced lunch

El Roble









Las Nueces









El Naranjo


















Las Rosas









Lasso School District




Central Independent District







South Independent District







Bay Area Community



16 (all Latinx












Table 2. LISD Participants

Lasso Independent School District


# of participants

# of focus groups

Spanish–English Bilingual







District Curriculum Director





District Parent Coordinator





El Naranjo Elementary School


# of participants

# of focus groups

Spanish–English Bilingual


School Administrators





Pre-K–3rd Teachers





First-Grade Students





First-Grade Parents












Math Scene

1.  Is this like your class?

2.  Do you think that the kids can learn without the teacher?

3.  What kinds of things can they learn?

Calendar (Number 21) Scene

1.  Is that correct?

2.  Are you allowed to do that in your classroom?

3.  Do you have the chance to help your friends in class? How?


Daily Five “Choice time” Scene

1.  What kinds of choices do you get to make in your class?

2.  What does your teacher get to decide in your class?

3.  What do you wish you could decide?

Tow Truck Scene

1.  Why do you think the tow truck guy was at the school?

2.  What do you think the students were learning about?

3.  What kinds of things would you like to learn about in your class?

4.  Do people ever come to your class?

5.  What kinds of people would you like to come?


1.  What did you think of this classroom? What did you like or not like? Would you change anything in this classroom?

2.  Were you surprised by anything you saw in the video? Is this similar or different from what your classroom is like?

3.  Did you feel like anything was missing from this classroom? Did you see something that you would want to do or wish you could do in your classroom?

4.  What type of environment was the teacher trying to create? What kinds of learning opportunities was the teacher trying to provide?

5.  What kinds of choices did you see kids making in this class? What examples did you see in the video of children following what they wanted to do?

6.  Let’s make a list of all the choices you see kids making in the video.

7.  Did you see students controlling or at least influencing what they learned about?

8.  How much should students be able to control or influence what they learn about, or how they learn something, when they are in early grades?

9.  What do you think kids are learning in this classroom? How do you know they are learning that?

10.  What should children be able to do when they are done with second grade?

11.  What do you think kids should be developing in early grades of school?

12.  Do you have the same priorities as the teacher in the video? The things that are important to the teacher, are they important to you too?

13.  Is this similar or different from when you were in early grades?

14.  What do you think of the educational system in the United States? Are aspects of it hard to accept or understand for the parents you work with?

15.  When parents have concerns or questions about school, whom do they go to for help?

16.  How do you communicate with parents at your school? What kinds of issues do you talk to parents about?

17.  What kinds of things do you ask parents about? What input do you welcome from parents?

18.  What are ways that parents help with their child’s education at your school?


1.  What did you think of the learning approaches?

2.  Is it what you expected?

3.  Are there examples in the film of things you really liked? Why did you like them?

4.  Are there examples in the film that you were really confused by or didn’t like? Why didn’t you like them?

5.  How does the learning look different from when or where you went to school?

6.  What should children be learning in first grade?

7.  What type of choices should kids have at school?

8.  How much should teachers try to help children follow their interests and passions?

9.  How does your child learn new skills or jobs at home?

10.  What kinds of things does your child like to learn about?



1.  What did you think about the classroom?

2.  What stood out to you as you watched?

3.  Is this what you expected to see?

4.  Is this what you would expect to see in your district schools?

5.  How is this similar or different from what you would see in your school or in your district schools?

6.  In what types of schools would you see similar classrooms? Why those types of schools? Why that school and not another? (District only)

7.  What worked for you? What didn’t work for you? Why? What practices in the video would be in your version of an exceptional classroom? Which ones would not?

8.  There is a lot of freedom in this classroom; what do you think about that? Do you think that affects how well children learn? How much influence do you think kids should have in a classroom?

9.  During the beginning when the kids want to talk about the car accident, what did you think about that?

10.  How much should kids’ interests influence what they learn about at school? Some teachers thought the kids were talking too much, and some teachers thought the kids had too much freedom; what do you think?

11.  I know you visit a lot of classrooms; how would you evaluate this one?

12.  How does this classroom model fit with your district guidelines for pedagogy and curriculum?

13.  Does this classroom model work to prepare students for testing?

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 6, 2018, p. 1-40
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22155, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 11:35:47 PM

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About the Author
  • Jennifer Adair
    The University of Texas at Austin
    E-mail Author
    JENNIFER KEYS ADAIR, PhD, is Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education at The University of Texas at Austin. Her work focuses on the connection between agency and discrimination in the early learning experiences of children of immigrants. As a young scholar fellow with the Foundation of Child Development and a major grant recipient of the Spencer Foundation, she is working with parents, teachers, administrators, and young children to improve the learning experiences of young children from marginalized communities. Her areas of expertise include early childhood education, immigrant parent engagement, project-based learning, and the importance of young children exploring racial and cultural differences. She has received many awards for her research and published findings in a wide range of journals including Harvard Educational Review, Teachers College Record, Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood Education, Young Children, Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education and Race, Ethnicity and Education.
  • Kiyomi Colegrove
    Texas State University
    E-mail Author
    KIYOMI SÁNCHEZ-SUZUKI COLEGROVE, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Bilingual Bicultural Education and Early Childhood Education at Texas State University. Her work centers on the curricular and pedagogical preferences of Latino immigrant parents and the relationship between home and school in the early grades. Using videocued ethnography, she studies how parents’ ideas, beliefs, and experiences compare across schools, communities and contexts. Her research privileges the voices and ideas of Latino immigrant parents and demonstrates ways in which administrators, teachers and policymakers can learn from and develop reciprocal relationships with immigrant families. Her areas of expertise include early childhood education, Latino immigrant parent engagement, and bilingual education. She has published findings in a range of journals including Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood Education and Asia-Pacific Journal of Research in Early Childhood Education.
  • Molly McManus
    The University of Texas at Austin
    E-mail Author
    MOLLY E. MCMANUS, MA, is a doctoral student of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research explores the ways that early childhood contexts affect schooling experiences and the development of young immigrant and otherwise marginalized children. She is also interested in the experiences of parents as they navigate complex sociocultural and bureaucratic systems to support the development, education, and well-being of their young children. Before her graduate studies, she worked as a Spanish–English bilingual second-grade teacher in Oakland, California.
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