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Making the Body Ready for School: ADHD and Early Schooling in the Era of Accountability

by Kyunghwa Lee - 2017

Background: Although concerns about unintended negative consequences of standards-based accountability (SBA) reform for children’s socioemotional development have been raised, few studies have systematically examined early childhood teachers’ perceptions of and practices for children’s behavior and bodies under such policy. This study was conducted against the backdrop of the intersection of the accountability policy and the increasing prevalence of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) among children, including preschoolers.

Purpose: The study investigated how early childhood teachers’ perspectives of and practices for the behavior and bodies of children considered at risk of being identified with ADHD later in schooling were related to the increasing concern over school readiness under SBA reform.

Research Design: Data for a qualitative case study were generated through multiple methods, including video-recorded observations in two African-American children’s pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classrooms, interviews with their teachers, and artifact collection.

Results:The focal children’s teachers appropriated the authoritative discourses of ADHD and readiness for school to perceive the children’s bodies as uncontrollable and unready for school. The teachers taught the children a variety of bodily techniques to enculturate them in public school and to develop docile student bodies. Keeping their authoritative practices intact, the teachers hardly incorporated the children’s areas of strengths into the curriculum and instruction. School was introduced to the children as a carnivalesqueless place, and both SBA reform and ADHD contributed to disembodiment in the public early childhood education settings.

Conclusions: This study suggests the need for reframing the notion of school readiness; bringing teachers’ folk theories about children’s behavior and bodies to their critical awareness; and intentionally balancing serious, rigid parts of the daily classroom routine with relaxed, pleasurable moments.

Through a qualitative case study (Stake, 1995; Yin, 1989) on pre-kindergarten (pre-k) and kindergarten teachers’ perceptions of and practices for two African-American children considered at-risk of being identified with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) later in schooling, this research examines early educators’ expectations for children’s behavior in relation to school readiness emphasized under standards-based accountability (SBA) reform (Brown, 2007). Drawing upon theoretical concepts proposed by Mauss (1935/1973), Foucault (1977), and Bakhtin (1981, 1984), this study investigates issues related to children’s bodies in early schooling under the new accountability policy and explores implications for early childhood practice and teacher education.


After the United States Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001 to mandate that states supported by Title 1 funding should annually demonstrate their third through eighth graders’ improved performance on state standardized tests in reading and mathematics, President Bush’s administration announced in 2002 the Good Start, Grow Smart (GSGS) initiative to improve children’s academic performance and increase accountability in programs serving 3 to 5-year olds (Brown, 2007). This “accountability shovedown” (Hatch, 2002) encouraged each state to develop early learning standards for preschool education aligned with the state’s K–12 standards, and, by 2005, 49 states developed the early learning standards (Scott-Little, Lesko, Martella, & Milburn, 2007).

Expectations of SBA reform in the field of early childhood education (ECE) were extended through the Obama administration’s Race to the Top, a competitive grant program for K–12 education reform, which was initiated as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and expanded to preschool education through the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) in 2011. By 2013, 20 states received RTT-ELC grants that focused on several key areas of reform, including defining high-quality, accountable programs by creating a state-tiered quality rating system; developing common state standards and assessments measuring child outcomes; establishing common state standards for teachers; and measuring outcomes and progress to inform instruction and to assess children’s readiness for successful learning in elementary school (Administration for Children & Families, 2016). The administration also launched the Common Core State Standards (Common Core) initiative in 2009 to develop common standards in English language arts/literacy and mathematics in grades K–12. By 2013, 45 states had committed to adopting the Common Core (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010). Because this initiative includes grades K–3, which overlap with ECE serving children from birth through third grade, and because this initiative like other education reforms could potentially impact preschool education, the field has been vigilant for intended and unintended consequences that the adoption of the Common Core brings for the education of children in their early years (National Association for the Education of Young Children [NAEYC], 2012).

EC educators and professional organizations recognize that SBA reform might potentially contribute to building a coherent high-quality educational system by connecting ECE with primary grades and beyond (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009; NAEYC, 2012). Nevertheless, many have shared their concerns about unintended negative consequences that the SBA movement may bring for young children and their teachers (e.g., Brown, 2007; Hatch, 2002; Hatch & Benner, 2010; Kagan & Scott-Little, 2004; NAEYC, 2012; NAEYC & the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education [NAECS/SDE], 2003, 2009).

The major concerns about SBA reform expressed by EC educators and professional organizations have centered on the narrowing of curriculum, instructional approaches, and assessment methods. These concerns reflect discrepancies between core ideas promoted in the field and what has been demanded by SBA reform. For instance, EC educators have worried that, unlike the field’s emphasis on the whole child, SBA reform focuses on two content domains, reading and math, and neglects children’s social and emotional development (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009; Kagan & Scott-Little, 2004). Researchers have also noted that the SBA reform leads teachers to become “deskilled” (Shepard, 1999) by having to “use highly prescriptive curricula geared to new state standards and linked to standardized tests” and by having children “spend far more time being taught and tested on literacy and math skills than they do learning through play and exploration, exercising their bodies, and using their imaginations” (Miller & Almon, 2009, p. 11). In addition, EC professional organizations have been apprehensive about the overreliance on standardized testing as the primary measure of both child outcomes and program effectiveness and cautioned that assessment results should not be used for classifying or punishing young children whose development is uneven and varied (NAEYC, 2012; NAEYC & NAECS/SDE, 2003, 2009).

Furthermore, given that many ECE programs are privately run and that the accountability pressure is particularly pertinent to public programs, such as Head Start and pre-k, serving large numbers of children from low-income families and racially and linguistically diverse communities, educators are concerned about unequal educational experiences provided for children in two divided systems (Brown, 2007; Kagan & Scott-Little, 2004). Scholars also point out that meanings of readiness have been narrowed. Although various stakeholders define the notion of readiness differently (Brown, 2013; Graue, 1993, 2006; Kagan, 1990; Scott-Little, Kagan, & Frelow, 2006), in publicly funded ECE programs under the Bush administration’s GSGS initiative, “readiness [meant] being prepared to meet the academic expectations that evolved out of NCLB” (Brown, 2007, p. 638). Through a content analysis of 46 early learning standards, Scott-Little et al. (2006) also found that school readiness is defined as “specific sets of skills and knowledge that contribute to children’s later success in school” (p. 163). These researchers revealed that, among five domains of readiness defined by the National Education Goals Panel and Goal I Technical Planning Group (NEGP, 1995), standards developed by states emphasize language and cognitive domains more than physical health and motor development, socioemotional development, and approaches toward learning.

As shown, discussions about the impact of SBA reform on ECE have centered on cognitive and academic domains of children’s development whether demanded by policy makers for improved performance or critiqued by EC educators and professional organizations due to the narrow focus. However, researchers (e.g., Lin, Lawrence, & Gorrell, 2003) have found that many kindergarten teachers are concerned more about children’s nondisruptive social behavior than about academic performance. In Brown’s (2013) study, ECE stakeholders viewed school readiness through two domains, including socialization and academics. When reviewing what was considered to be the socialization part of school readiness, one notices that EC stakeholders expressed their expectations for children’s behavior, such as “[walking] down the hall,” “not [pushing] each other,” and learning “how to raise your hand,” and that these behaviors were understood as part of “children’s social and emotional development for future learning in elementary school” (p. 562). Nonetheless, few studies have systematically examined how teachers equate their expectations for children’s behavior with the social and emotional development domain of school readiness, and what impact SBA reform has on teachers’ perceptions of and practices for children’s behavior and bodies, particularly in public ECE settings. Studying these issues warrants attention, as teachers’ beliefs about readiness influence their recommendations for school entry, educational programming, retention, and referral to special education (Graue, 1993; Kagan, 1990). In particular, Harry and Klingner (2014) pointed out that African-American children are “at the highest risk of receiving a disability label” (p. 2). Discussing cultural hegemony in schools where “middle-class Anglo American culture was the normal currency of classrooms” (p. 51), these researchers noted teachers’ bias against behavior and interaction styles of children of color that could put these children at a disadvantage. Artiles (2011) also argued how “the racialization of disabilities” has become “a potential source of inequities” (p. 431) throughout the history of U.S. education. Considering this concern about the disproportionality of children of color in special education programs, examining teachers’ perspectives of children’s behavior and bodies is critical to promoting equity in education.

Recent studies have shown an association between the increased prevalence of ADHD among children and educational policy emphasizing academic performance and accountability (Hinshaw & Scheffler, 2014; Schneider & Eisenberg, 2006). Therefore, this study is designed to help understand this connection by examining pre-k and kindergarten teachers’ perceptions of and practices employed for managing the behavior and bodies of two children who were considered at-risk of being identified with ADHD. Through this research, I investigated how the teachers’ perspectives and practices were related to the increasing concern over school readiness under SBA reform. A summary of the trends in the diagnosis and medication treatment of ADHD among children and their intersection with SBA reform is presented next.


ADHD is “one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood” in the United States (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2015), and the percentage of school-aged children and adolescents, ages 4 to 17 years, diagnosed with ADHD continues to grow. In recent years, one in nine children and adolescents have been diagnosed with ADHD, and approximately 70% of those currently diagnosed with ADHD take medication for treatment (Visser et al., 2014). In particular, the fact that the prevalence of ADHD among school-aged children and adolescents increased 22% between 2003 and 2007 (CDC, 2010; Visser et al., 2014), the first four years after the implementation of the NCLB Act, has raised concerns about the relationship between the ADHD diagnosis and education policy (Koerth-Baker, 2013).

The impact of education policy on the prevalence of ADHD was evident in Hinshaw and Scheffler’s (2014) study, in which they examined why the southern U.S. tends to have the highest rates of both diagnoses and medication treatment compared to western states. These researchers considered differences in demographics, healthcare policies and providers, and cultural values and standards for behavior to identify a key factor contributing to the geographic variation. Their study results showed that “consequential accountability” policies (p. 77) in education correlated with state differences. For example, the research team found that 15 out of 17 southern states already had accountability laws prior to the NCLB Act. Additionally, focusing on the National Survey of Children’s Health data collected in 2003 and 2007, the researchers revealed that the prevalence of ADHD among children from low-income families in states without previous accountability policies rose by 53% when the NCLB began, compared to a 4% increase among their peers from affluent families living in the same states. This difference by socioeconomic class was not observable in the states where accountability policies had already existed prior to the NCLB mandate. Hinshaw and Scheffler argued that “the push for performance matters” (p. 80). According to these researchers,

Accountability encourages schools to place children with ADHD in special education classes for two reasons: (1) such children are afforded more services, which might raise their test scores; and (2) in at least some areas, they do not have to be “counted” in the district’s overall test score average. (p. 79)

As SBA reform continues to reign, the prevalence of ADHD among children increased by 16% from 2007 to 2011, and the total increase was 42% from 2003 to 2011 (Visser et al., 2014). These trends have led clinical researchers (e.g., Visser et al., 2014) to acknowledge educational policies as one of the “contextual factors” influencing ADHD diagnoses.

The intersections of SBA reform and the increased prevalence of ADHD are also critical to the field of ECE, as children aged 4 to 10 years old diagnosed with the disorder increased by 16% from 2003 to 2007 (CDC, 2010) and by 17% from 2007 to 2011 with a total increase of 35% from 2003 to 2011 (Visser et al., 2014). In particular, a recent study led by researchers at the CDC (Visser et al., 2016) noted that approximately one third of children with ADHD received the diagnosis before they reached 6 years old, and that half of the children considered to have severe ADHD received the diagnosis by age 4. Although teachers do not diagnose a child with ADHD, many studies showed that teachers tend to be the first ones who notice behaviors associated with ADHD in their classrooms and play a key role in making the initial referral (Sax & Kautz, 2003; Snider, Busch, & Arrowood, 2003; Snider, Frankenberger, & Aspensen, 2000). In Frankenberger, Farmer, Parker, and Cermak’s (2001) study, school psychologists reported that classroom teachers initiated the referral process approximately 77% of the time. Given that pre-k and kindergarten teachers are the ones who first view children outside their home and in a classroom, their perceptions of children’s behavior can be critical to the initial referral.

Considering the increased diagnosis and medication treatment for ADHD among young children, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP, 2011) has expanded the age range of its latest guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD by including recommendations for children aged 4 to 5 years old, unlike previous guidelines that started from age 6. The updated AAP guidelines recommend “behavior therapy as the first line of treatment” (p. 1008) for preschoolers due to serious adverse effects experienced by 3 to 5 year olds treated with ADHD medications, including “appetite suppression and sleep problems, . . . upper abdominal pain (‘stomach ache’), emotional outbursts, irritability, lack of alertness, repetitive behaviors and thoughts, social withdrawal, and irritability when the medication wears off” (Visser et al., 2016, p. 444). These children also experience lower growth rates in their height and weight, compared to their peers who do not take such medications (Visser et al., 2016). Despite these negative effects on children’s health, recent studies have revealed that medication treatment is still more common than behavior therapy for young children diagnosed with ADHD (Visser et al., 2015, 2016). This study is carried out against this backdrop of increased diagnosis and medication treatment of ADHD among children, including preschoolers, with SBA reform as a contextual factor associated with these trends.


Using a qualitative case study (Stake, 1995; Yin, 1989), I examined EC teachers’ perceptions of and pedagogical practices for two African-American boys, who were consistently characterized as “typical ADHD” children in both pre-k and kindergarten. The two boys were among four participant children in a larger study examining how young children either officially diagnosed with ADHD or suspected of having the disorder are perceived and function in school and exploring ways to effectively and meaningfully engage these children in ECE classrooms. The four children’s names were obtained from the director of a school district’s pre-k program in a southern state. All four children were African-American boys from low-income families.


As Stake (1995) articulated, “[case] study research is not sampling research” (p. 4). The goal of this study was “to expand and generalize theories (analytic generalization) and not to enumerate frequencies (statistical generalization)” (Yin, 1989, p. 21). In studying the perspectives and practices of the focal children’s teachers in their “ordinary” circumstances (Stake, 1995), my goal was to gain insight into the life of public pre-k and kindergarten classrooms under pressure to improve academic performance and accountability.  

In Pre-kindergarten

In April 2012, when I first met with the two focal children, Cody and Shantie,1 they had just turned five. They were enrolled in the same pre-k classroom of 20 children, including 11 African-American, five European-American, three Latino-American, and one biracial Asian and European-American. According to the classroom’s lead teacher, Heather, nearly all of the children were from low-income families and qualified for free and reduced-price meals. Because the classroom had six children who initially came with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) requiring collaboration between ECE teachers and special education (SPED) teachers, it was called a “collab” classroom. The class had three teachers, including Heather, a European-American lead teacher; Katie, a European-American SPED teacher, who worked in this classroom for two days a week and every other Friday; and Jada, an African-American assistant teacher. On the days when Katie was unavailable, a SPED assistant teacher joined the class. For Heather and Katie, this was their first full year of teaching.

According to Heather, neither Cody nor Shantie initially came with IEPs, but the two children’s behavioral issues were noticeable from the beginning of the school year. Heather talked about Cody’s behavioral challenges with his mother during the first parent-teacher conference in the fall and enrolled him in the Response to Intervention (RTI) process. Although Cody moved to Tier 3 of RTI, requiring intensive individualized interventions, he did not qualify for SPED services in the subsequent evaluation in spring. While Cody stayed in Heather’s room during the full day throughout the school year, this was not the case for Shantie. Heather explained that Shantie’s behavior issue was very apparent from the first week of the school year and that “the [SPED] teacher was spending a lot more time with him than on her six [IEP students] that she was supposed to be focusing on.” Shantie quickly moved to Tier 3 of RTI and qualified for SPED services under the category of Significant Developmental Delay (SDD) and received an IEP. The state Department of Education (DOE) website explains that SDD is used for 3 to 9-year-olds and for the children showing a delay in “adaptive behavior, cognition, communication, motor development or emotional development to the extent that, if not provided with special intervention, the delay may adversely affect a child’s educational performance in age-appropriate activities.” A SPED teacher in Cody’s kindergarten class explained that the children under the category of SDD are “retested before their ninth birthday, and the diagnosis has to change” to, for example, emotional behavioral disorder (EBD), learning disability, or other health impairment (OHI) including ADHD.

With the identification of SDD, Shantie spent 2 hours each day in a separate, “self-contained” SPED classroom beginning in February 2012. This SPED class was led by Claire, a European-American SPED teacher. The classroom also had two to three assistant teachers and a student teacher majoring in SPED at a neighboring university. In addition to Shantie and another African-American girl who spent part of her time in that classroom, the SPED class had eight children, including five African-American boys, one European-American boy, one Latino-American boy, and one Asian-American girl, who were eligible for full-time services. All of these children were 4 to 5 years old and had a variety of diagnoses, such as SDD, Autism spectrum, Down Syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.

In Kindergarten

When the 2012–2013 school year began, Cody and Shantie were enrolled in kindergarten in the same school district, but in two very different settings. Cody, who was still at Tier 3 of RTI, was enrolled in a kindergarten classroom at Jefferson Elementary School. According to Jefferson’s 2012 report, the school served 420 students comprised of “47% African-American students, 45% Hispanic students, 5% white students and 3% multi-racial students.” As a Title I school, Jefferson had 97% of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals. Cody’s classroom had 20 children, including 16 African-American, three Latino-American, and one biracial Black and Latino. All 20 children were eligible for free and reduced-price meals. Like his pre-k class, Cody’s kindergarten was a “collab” class where three teachers collaborated, including an Asian-American lead teacher, Jane; a European-American SPED teacher, Carrie, who spent about 2 hours each morning in this classroom; and an African-American assistant teacher, Mary. In this class, Carrie worked with four African-American boys with IEPs; three of them had SDD and one had OHI related to ADHD. Although Cody was not officially diagnosed, Carrie also worked with him and other children needing extra help in reading, writing, and math. Jane had taught for 12 years, but this was her first time working with a collaborative class.

Meanwhile, Shantie, who qualified for SPED services for SDD in Spring 2012, was placed in a “self-contained” SPED class at Highbridge Elementary School. According to Highbridge’s 2012 report, the school served 530 students comprised of “40% African-American, 37% White, 14% Hispanic, 6% Multi-racial, and 4% Asian.” Highbridge was designated as a Title I Distinguished School due to the students’ excellent academic performance despite economic challenges that many families experienced. Shantie’s SPED class was for a small group of children in grades K–1 and was led by a European-American SPED teacher, Kathy, who had 22 years of teaching experience at the time. According to Kathy, the school district began this “county-wide classroom for very young children with serious behavior problems” about 2 years ago. She explained that her class was “the last place” in regular public schools for those young children “whose behavior was so disruptive.” If their behavior did not show improvement, they would eventually be placed in “a [K–12] psycho-educational center” run by a regional educational service agency. Although some children at Tier 3 of the RTI process can be placed in Kathy’s room for a short period of time, “generally [the children in her class] are Tier 4 [and] . . . are already eligible for special education services.” The classroom also had two assistant teachers. At the beginning of the school year, the class started with three African-American boys, including Shantie. The other two boys came from the same pre-k program that Shantie attended.2 By the end of the school year, the class had four additional students. The children were 6 to 8 years old, and all but one European-American girl with OHI (for a visual-sensory motor integration processing disorder) were boys. Except for this girl and a European-American boy, the other five students were African-American. According to Kathy’s assessment, all six boys demonstrated “aggressive” and “explosive” behavior, although specific diagnoses were different: four were labeled as SDD and two were already diagnosed with EBD. From October 2012, Shantie was sent to a collaborative kindergarten classroom for special classes (e.g., music, PE, art) and then gradually spent an additional hour each morning in that class working with a SPED teacher, Amanda. Kathy expanded Shantie’s time in the collaborative class by having him stay there from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. from mid-November 2012. However, this attempt was successful only “one day a week,” and Shantie “would be sent back” to the SPED classroom for the remaining days of the week due to his behaviors.


The strength of the case study is “its ability to deal with a full variety of evidence” (Yin, 1989, p. 20). In this study, I generated data consisting of video-recorded observations, teacher interviews, and artifacts to pose three research questions: (a) How do the focal children’s teachers characterize the children’s behavior and bodies? (b) What educational experiences do the teachers provide for the focal children? (c) How are the teachers’ perspectives of and practices for the focal children related to the concern over school readiness under SBA reform?


Although Cody and Shantie were placed in the same pre-k class, activities in which both of these children participated were not necessarily the same (i.e., Shantie spent 2 hours a day in the SPED class). To be able to observe both of these children carefully, I worked with two graduate students, who helped video record each child. During video recording, I often directed the graduate student videographers to record from particular angles and places while writing field notes about contextual information that could not be captured fully on video. When the two children were in two different places, each videographer followed her focal child while I alternated between the two children during each visit. We visited these children’s pre-k class weekly, spending two half days and two full days from mid-April to mid-May 2012. We collected a total of 36 hours of video recordings, including 19 hours on Cody and 17 hours on Shantie. When these children moved to kindergarten, I continued to work with a graduate student videographer throughout the school year of 2012–2013.3 We started visiting each child’s kindergarten class monthly beginning in August 2012 and were able to video record Shantie from mid-September and Cody from the beginning of October after receiving permission from all of their classmates’ parents, as required by their schools. Except for November 2012 and May 2013 when we spent half a day in each classroom, we recorded the focal children’s full day activities throughout the school year to see how they functioned at different times and places in their school environment. By the end of the school year, we collected approximately 50 hours of video recordings on each child (a total of 100 hours).


To understand teachers’ perspectives on Cody and Shantie, I interviewed both ECE teachers and SPED teachers who worked closely with each child. In pre-k, individual interviews were conducted once with the ECE teacher, Heather, in May 2012 and the SPED teacher, Katie, in April 2012 to talk about Cody and Shantie. A group interview was also conducted once in May 2012 with all the staff in the SPED class, including the lead SPED teacher, Claire; two assistant teachers; and a student teacher, who worked with Shantie. Each interview lasted about 1 hour, and a total of 3 hours of audio-recorded interview data were collected and transcribed. In kindergarten, Cody’s classroom teacher, Jane, was interviewed twice: once in October 2012 and again in May 2013. Although the first interview conducted in her classroom was done in English, the second interview, which took place at a cafe, was conducted in Korean, both Jane’s and my first language. I also interviewed Cody’s SPED teacher, Carrie, in June 2013. Similarly, I interviewed the lead teacher of Shantie’s SPED class, Kathy, twice: once in January 2013 and again in August 2013. I also talked with Amanda, a SPED teacher who worked closely with Shantie in the collaborative class, in May 2013. Each interview with the kindergarten teachers ranged from 30 minutes to 2 hours, and a total of eight and a half hours of audio-recorded interview data were collected and transcribed.


In both pre-k and kindergarten, I used a digital camera to take pictures of announcements, rules, schedules, and written memos displayed on bulletin boards, hallways, bookshelves, walls, and doors of each room and around the school building. These pictures as artifacts were used to understand what each class and school communicated to children, families, and visitors. The digital camera was also used to document children’s work samples in progress and after completion as well as to take pictures of toys, books, and other materials frequently used by the children and their teachers for instruction and play time.


I followed traditional qualitative data analysis methods (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992; Glesne & Peshkin, 1992; Graue & Walsh, 1998). I read and reread interview transcripts and field notes to identify themes emerging from the data by considering the local and larger contexts in which the children and their teachers were situated (Erickson, 1986). For video data, due to the sizable amount (over 200 hours) collected for the larger study involving four children, I worked with five graduate students for initial logging and microanalysis of the data (Graue & Walsh, 1998) around three topics that were identified from the review of field notes: the participating children’s engagement in the daily routines and curriculum, their interactions with teachers and peers, and teacher directions related to body control. To analyze each topic, we conducted what Smagorinsky (2008) called “collaborative coding.” Unlike the way interrater reliability is pursued, we worked together throughout the coding process to discuss each video segment before deciding how to code it. We “[reached] agreement on each code through collaborative discussion rather than independent corroboration” (p. 401). We also used the qualitative video analysis software Transana for coding the videos while recording codes with video running times and analytic memos in Excel spreadsheets. To identify patterns and “breaks in patterns” (Graue & Walsh, 1998, p. 163) in the children’s engagement, we paid particular attention to time, place, people, materials, and directions involved in each event in which the children participated.

For this article, I re-reviewed the field notes involving the two focal children, Cody and Shantie, along with the transcripts of interviews with their teachers. I reread analytic memos on the video recordings (a total of 136 hours) from these children’s classrooms, giving particular attention to the memos on the daily routines and teacher directions regarding body control. While engaging in internal coding to identify issues emerging from these texts, I simultaneously used external coding (Graue & Walsh, 1998) by drawing upon a range of theoretical concepts, including Bakhtin’s (1981, 1984) dialogism and carnivalesque, Foucault’s (1977) docile bodies, and Mauss’s (1935/1973) techniques of the body, all of which are explained further in the results section. I categorized artifacts based on themes and, whenever necessary, reviewed the video clips again during the processes of data analysis and writing.


Data analysis revealed the teachers’ characterization of the focal children as unruly and unready for school, a variety of bodily techniques taught as a core curriculum, and the introduction of school as a carnivalesqueless place to the children. I present each finding next.


According to Bakhtin (1981), our individual narration is composed of words that are “half-ours and half-someone else’s” (p. 344) and infused with “the authoritative word [religious, political, moral; the word of a father, of adults and of teachers, etc.]” and “the internally persuasive word” not recognized in society (p. 342). Appropriating the authoritative discourse of ADHD promoted by the clinical field, Cody and Shantie’s teachers perceived each child’s behavior and body as neither controllable nor ready for school. In particular, all the teachers pointed out difficulty in focusing and sitting still during the instructional time as the two boys’ behavioral characteristics (see Table 1).

Table 1. Teachers’ Characterization of the Focal Children’s Behavior






(PreK-ECE teacher)

just extra wiggly; during whole group I try to call on him a little bit more to keep him engaged; focusing is hard for him.



(PreK-SPED teacher)

gets easily distracted; can’t really focus in on the instructional setting and what we’re doing.



(K-ECE teacher)

can’t focus; can’t sit still even for one minute; he writes whatever comes to his mind because he can’t sit still.



(K-SPED teacher)

didn’t have the ability to sit and listen and absorb the information.



(PreK-ECE teacher)

we tried attention vests for a little while; you can’t get him to do much work for us.



(PreK-SPED teacher)

would spend maybe 30 seconds sitting on the rug with the large group; doing anything but listening to the teacher or sitting in a large group activity.



(PreK-SCSPED teacher)

typical children at this age in pre-k in May would be able to sit and attend up to 20 minutes on the rug or more, or 15 minutes in a small group and at this time I don’t see that his skills are there yet.



(K-SCSPED teacher)

has a very hard time being still; demonstrates an inability to focus.



(K-SPED teacher)

attention span is too short; always has to be moving in some kind of way, whether his foot, his arm, his whole body; not be able to physically sit more than two minutes or attend for something more than two minutes.

Note. SCSPED stands for self-contained special education.

As shown, the teachers’ concern about the focal children’s lack of attention to the instructional activity was inseparable from their worry about these boys’ seemingly constantly moving bodies. Katie, a SPED teacher in pre-k, summarized her observation about these children: “I would say that Shantie and Cody are probably the two most hyperactive” (4/19/2012).

These children’s moving bodies were often understood as a manifestation of their impulsivity. This perception was particularly strong among Shantie’s teachers, as three of his five teachers shared opinions which were quite similar to what the SPED class teacher in pre-k said: “He’s a little impulsive. When he thinks something, he does it. There’s not a lot of stopping and thinking. . . . He doesn’t regulate himself very well” (Claire, 5/1/2012). Cody’s SPED teacher in kindergarten also commented: “He has the impulsivity. . . . If he has a thought in his head, he’s gotta act on it” (Carrie, 6/20/2013).

Being able to sit sill, listen, and follow the teacher’s directions were regarded as important indicators of school readiness: “Just certain school readiness skills, sitting and attending and listening, are pretty delayed with [Shantie]” (Claire, 5/1/2012). Such behavior was treated as a prerequisite for the children’s engagement in academic activities: “Cody was unable to access the curriculum because he didn’t have the ability to sit and listen and absorb the information” (Carrie, 6/20/2013). Lacking such behavior was considered a hindrance to both the child’s own and his classmates’ learning: “[They] are very significant behaviors that cause a distraction to his learning and to the other peers in the classroom as well” (Katie, 4/19/2012).

The teachers’ characterization of the focal children’s behavior as inattentive, hyperactive, impulsive, and a hindrance to academic learning had a close resemblance to the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA, 2013) definition of ADHD:

ADHD is . . . defined by impairing levels of inattention, disorganization, and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity. Inattention and disorganization entail inability to stay on task, seeming not to listen . . . at levels that are inconsistent with age or developmental level. Hyperactivity-impulsivity entails overactivity, fidgeting, inability to stay seated, intruding into other people’s activities, and inability to wait—symptoms that are excessive for age or developmental level. (2013, p. 32)

The APA affirms that “ADHD is associated with reduced school performance and academic attainment” (p. 63). Appropriating this authoritative discourse presented as the scientific truth (Bakhtin, 1981) by such an influential organization as the APA, the teachers characterized the behavior of Cody and Shantie as “typical ADHD.”

At the same time, the teachers expressed their concern about the two boys’ lack of maturity. The SPED class teacher at pre-k commented on Shantie: “Some things are a little immature in terms of . . . sharing, working out conflicts, and things like that” (Claire, 5/1/2012). The SPED teacher in the collaborative kindergarten class also described his difficulty in “picking up on social cues” (Amanda, 5/14/2013). Similarly, the SPED class teacher in kindergarten, Kathy, related Shantie’s enjoyment of rough and tumble play to his lack of understanding of other people’s feelings. Suspecting that Shantie might have ADHD combined with Autism, Kathy also linked these characteristics to his late birthday:

He plays very rough and tumble with other kids, and he hits them. And they might cry, and he is completely caught up in . . . the joy of playing rough. . . . He has a very difficult time reading another person’s facial expression and understanding their feelings. . . . He is the youngest child in the classroom. . . . He will be six in March, so he’s very young for his grade. (Kathy, 1/8/2013)

Even though Shantie was “on grade level” academically in kindergarten, due to the perceived social and chronological immaturity, he was regarded as a candidate for retention:

He is very small in stature. And [in addition] to being physically immature, because of the things we just discussed, he is somewhat socially immature. So, I think retention might benefit him socially and academically, especially if we see those [academic] content gaps at the end of first grade. (Kathy, 8/5/2013)

Unlike Shantie, Cody was considered capable of reading social cues. Carrie, Cody’s SPED teacher in kindergarten, thought that this might be the reason why he did not qualify for SDD: “[Cody] understood how to have that reciprocal conversation, relationship with another student. So that is where those adaptive skills for [SDD], I don’t think, are there, ‘cause he is able to understand the social cues” (6/20/2013). Instead, Cody’s teachers worried about his emotional fragility and delayed academic performance, as shared by Cody’s pre-k teacher:

He cries a lot instead of using his words to tell people what’s the matter. . . . I’m not all over him making his self-esteem go down, because he does get his feelings hurt very easily. . . . By the end of the year, we ask our kids to know 21 uppercase letters, and most of my kids know all of them. But probably, January or February he still knew zero. (Heather, 5/2/2012)

With his mother’s involvement at home, Cody was able to recognize 10 uppercase letters, write some letters, and scribble his name at the end. Yet, handwriting continued to be an issue:

Now today at Writer’s Workshop he pretended like he could not [write letters]. I pulled out his work from yesterday and I said, “Look! You made these letters yesterday. . . . You need to write me these letters.” After crying for about five minutes, he did it. (Heather, 5/2/2012)

Cody’s crying was a shared area of concern for kindergarten teachers: “He was a little bit less mature, which is when we saw the temper-tantrums and crying, when he didn’t get what he wanted” (Carrie, 6/20/2013). However, Cody’s slow academic progress in general and his struggle with handwriting in particular was the key issue to the collaborative class teacher:

The major problem is . . . handwriting. . . . And his hand coordination . . . is so bad, we have to find a way [to improve it]. . . . When I [give him] all kinds of tests, he’s insufficient in [academic] progress. . . . When it comes to math, writing, and reading . . . he is at the bottom of the students in my class. (Jane, 10/25/2012)

Due to the emotional immaturity and delayed progress in academic areas, Cody was identified as a child needing retention in kindergarten from early on. When I talked with Jane again after the school year, she confirmed: “[Cody] will be retained . . . in another room” next year (5/30/2013).

In this discussion about the two boys’ immaturity and their need for retention, the teachers adopted the authoritative discourse of “readiness for school” (Kagan, 1990; Scott-Little et al., 2006). This dominant discourse conceptualizes school readiness “within the child” and as “a fixed or prerequisite set of physical, intellectual and/or social skills needed in order for children to be able to fulfill the requirements of the school environment” (Scott-Little et al., 2006, p. 154). Scott-Little et al. (2006) explained that this conceptualization of school readiness has led to “the advent of early learning standards” (p. 155). Appropriating this authoritative conceptualization of school readiness, the teachers thought that the focal children were not ready for successful functioning in school because they were not equipped to regulate their behavior, mature enough to manage their emotions and peer relations, or capable of demonstrating the hand-eye coordination for writing and the mastery of early literacy (i.e., letter recognition).


Reflecting their concern for behavioral regulation as a prerequisite for academic learning and performance, the teachers taught the focal children and their classmates a variety of bodily techniques. At pre-k, such bodily techniques were taught through the routine instruction and reminder of body control. As shown in Figure 1, the program-wide rules, “the three R’s,” occupied the front wall of each classroom.

Figure 1. Program-wide rules, “the three R’s,” displayed on the front wall of the focal children’s pre-k classroom.


For each of the three R’s, each class had slightly different subrules combined with words and drawings of corresponding body parts. The following are the wordings of the three R’s and sub-rules displayed in the collaborative class:

Be Ready to Learn: eyes on the teacher, listening ears, be ready

Be Responsible for Myself: still body, clean up

Be Respectful to Others: hands and feet to yourself

Most subrules in the SPED class were the same as those in the collaborative class except for replacing “be ready” with “still body” for the first R and adding “quiet mouth” to the last R.

Compared to the collaborative class, the SPED class displayed more rules and reminders. For example, several copies of the first R and its subrules along with some other reminders (e.g., sit, quiet, and hands in lap) were posted on various places, including the walls, shelves, doors, and boards placed next to tables, a time-out chair, and the rug, in the classroom (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Rules displayed on a door and a wall of the SPED classroom in pre-k.


The SPED class also had a couple of additional rules for body control. For example, as presented in Figure 2, Small Group Rules included “raise hand and participate,” “eyes on teacher,” “use your listening ears,” and “sit up in my chair.” A poster displayed next to the small group rules stated, “you’re ready when eyes on teachers, listen, body still.” All these rules were presented with corresponding pictures highlighting particular body parts. In addition, the teachers carried a set of laminated rules about the body as visual reminders to show to children.

Similarly, Shantie’s SPED class in kindergarten was full of the rules and reminders of body control. A series of colorful posters of rules and reminders, such as Listening, Following Instructions, Saying You’re Sorry, Asking for What You Want, with their respective subrules presented with words and pictures dominated the front wall around the Smart Board. All the subrules began with a direction, “look at the person,” and a picture of eyes. Rules and reminders (e.g., “listen,” “follow adult directions”) were also found in other parts of the room. As shown in Figure 3, one of the posters was titled Whole Body Listening!

Figure 3. A poster displayed on a wall of the SPED classroom in Shantie’s kindergarten.


This poster emphasized listening “with [the] entire body” and presented what each body part, including eyes, ears, mouth, hands, feet, body, brain, and heart, should do during listening.

Unlike the two pre-k classes and Shantie’s SPED class in kindergarten, no such rules with explicit statements about the body were posted in Cody’s kindergarten classroom. Nonetheless, order and compliance were still emphasized and practiced. For example, this elementary school had a school-wide behavior management system for which each class used a tall colorful stick with children’s names on clothespins clipped across it (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. A tall colorful stick with children’s names on clothespins used as a school-wide behavior management system in Cody’s kindergarten class.


The stick was painted with blue, orange, green, yellow, and red from top to bottom, and the teacher carried it wherever her students went, such as hallways, the cafeteria, or special classes. Cody’s kindergarten teacher, Jane, had training in Montessori methods and often expressed her disagreement with the use of external rewards and punishments: “Special education in the U.S. is based on behaviorism. . . . I have a different philosophy. Montessori said that . . . you [should] respect the child. Once experiencing the inner discipline and joy, children will behave” (5/30/2013). Nevertheless, she found herself resorting to using the behavior management stick:

Vignette (Observation, 1/22/2013)

Each child in Jane’s class is busy making “a 100 hat” with a yellow stripe of paper divided into 10 columns. The child should fill each column by drawing 10 objects (e.g., stars) of his or her choice. Cody sits at a table with three classmates, while Jane and her assistant teacher help children at other tables. Jane announces, “Once you’re done, I’m going to take a test of counting to [100]. 10, 20, 30, you have to know how to count.” Cody imitates counting in a high-pitched voice: “1, 2, 3, . . . 10.” Jane calls out, “Cody, just use your voice.” Cody looks down and scribbles on the first column. Then he stands up and points to a marker in front of Labron sitting at a corner of the table. Cody asks, “Can I get that red?” Jakayla, sitting next to Cody, picks up the red marker and puts it in a container of markers for him. Cody puts his hands in the container and begins rhythmically chanting, “Oh get that baby, get get that baby.” He beats the marker on his one hand and continues, “Oh get that baby, get get that baby.” Jane raises her voice, “Stop that baby voice! I do not want to hear that baby voice, that mumbling voice!” Pointing to the stick placed next to the Smart Board, she orders him, “Go put your name down.” Cody walks slowly to go to move his name clothespin from green to yellow.

In both pre-k and kindergarten, the teachers gave the focal children and their classmates many verbal directions in explicit bodily terms, such as “quiet mouth,” “sit on your bottom,” “eyes on the teacher,” “hands in the lap,” “put your arms by your side,” “hands down,” “get your body ready,” and “walking feet.” In addition, the teachers used particular phrases to teach children about proper postures for their bodies. For example, the teachers said, “criss-cross applesauce,” to have children sit with their legs crossed on the rug during the large group time. A variation of phrases and postures for walking was taught and practiced at schools to encourage children to walk down the hallway in a single and quiet line. For instance, discussing an upcoming field trip to a kindergarten class in an elementary school, Heather taught her class about walking with “hips and lips” (i.e., with one hand on lips and the other hand on hips) in the hallway “to practice acting like a kindergartener” (Observation, 4/19/2012). In kindergarten, Cody and Shantie learned with their classmates to walk with “bubbles and duck tails” (i.e., mouth closed with cheeks blown up like a bubble and hands behind backs) in the hallway.

Although no special verbal phrases were taught, the SPED class teachers in both pre-k and kindergarten drilled Shantie and his classmates to stay in a line and walk quietly in the hallway. For instance, in order to get his 20-minute recess, Shantie had to spend about 10 minutes to show his ability to walk in the hallway to a pre-k behavioral specialist, who insisted, “First, you have to show me you can walk to the room. Then, you go outside. If not, no recess” (4/27/2012). He and his SPED classmates in kindergarten also experienced a cancellation of recess due to their failed demonstration of such orderly behavior, which resulted in working on a series of worksheets on math for more than 80 straight minutes (Observation, 12/18/2012).

Introducing the notion of “techniques of the body,” Mauss (1935/1973) articulated how “[each] society has its own special habits [for the body]” (pp. 71–72). Illustrating examples of different ways of moving, using, and caring for the body (e.g., marching styles of armies in different nations), he argued that the way we use and move our bodies is not just the natural effects of biological and physical characteristics, but is often the results of training and education in each society. He claimed that techniques of the body are “moral and intellectual symbols” (p. 76) that reflect cultural values and practices. The variety of techniques of the body taught by the teachers revealed the great emphasis placed upon order and compliance in their pre-k and kindergarten class. As illustrated in “the three R’s” in pre-k and special phrases used for sitting and walking, the focal children and their classmates had to learn particular norms and ways to talk about and use their bodies for their socialization in these public ECE settings.

While teaching techniques of the body, the teachers not only enculturated the focal children and their classmates in public school but also engaged in what Foucault (1977) called “the body politic,” which is “a set of material elements and techniques that serve as . . . supports for the power and knowledge relations that invest human bodies and subjugate them by turning them into objects of knowledge” (p. 28). The characterization of the focal children’s behavior as ADHD as well as differential placements (i.e., a collaborative class and a SPED class rather than a regular class) and treatments (e.g., frequent verbal and visual reminders of rules, repeated practices for compliance) aimed to develop “docile bodies” (p. 138).

The focal children and their classmates were constantly monitored through a variety of behavior management systems, including a school-wide method that allowed public monitoring of each child’s level of compliance (e.g., being able to see the positions of all children’s name clothespins on a color-coded stick carried with each class everywhere in the school building). Such disciplinary systems have been criticized as external rewards and punishments that do not promote intrinsic motivation (Kohn, 1993/1999). Yet, as Bentham’s Panopticon disciplined inmates through its architectural design (Foucault, 1977), putting a child’s behavior and body under constant surveillance could lead the child to internalize the disciplinary gaze and become what Foucault (1977) called “the principle of his own subjection” (p. 203). Such a child could develop into “the disciplined subject” (Rafalovich, 2001, p. 384) who regulates his or her own behavior and body for obedience. The emphasis on docile bodies for school readiness under the pressure of performance and accountability seemed to turn public ECE settings into a particular place where children should use each body part in a prescribed manner (e.g., eyes on teachers; hands in lap; mouth quiet) in order to be perceived as normal and ready student bodies.


The authoritative discourses of ADHD and readiness for school as well as the priority given to instructing children in techniques of the body for compliance were also reflected in the teacher-reported interventions and modifications provided to the focal children (see Table 2).

Table 2. Teacher-Reported Interventions and Modifications Provided for the Focal Children





Heather and Katie in the Collaborative Class

Using “a First and Then board”: First, do your work (e.g., sitting on the rug for 5 minutes) and then, get a reward (e.g., getting 10 minutes of extra computer time).

Giving “extra praise”

“Calling on him a little bit more”

Sending home “a bunch of worksheets to work on” the alphabet and the name writing

Heather and Katie in the Collaborative Class

Trying “attention vests”

Sitting “in [a teacher’s] lap” during the large group time; keeping “one on one adult support at all times”

Rubbing his body “in a downward way to get all the wiggles out”

Ignoring “the screaming just [to] get him to the rug”

Letting him “hold sensory items to keep him on the rug”

Using the “First and Then board”

Getting on the computer “first thing in the morning”

“Simplifying his tasks”; giving “quicker tasks”

Claire in the SPED Class

Behavior reinforcement by using “a lot of visuals” (e.g., picture cards of rules) and “a timer” (e.g., the First and Then)


Jane in the Collaborative Class

Getting “one on one help” from a SPED teacher and a mentor from America Reads in the areas of “numbers, alphabets, sight words, reading”

Getting “a lot of [peer] partner help” in reading and writing at the end of the year

Carrie, the SPED teacher

“Putting the Theraband on the bottom of his chair in whole group and [letting him kick] the band”

Using “a lot of manipulatives”

“Chunking his work”

Allowing him “to get up and move”

Coupling his behavior with “a token economy”

Giving him “the responsibility” to help teachers

Kathy in the SPED Class

Speech therapy for “articulation”

Limiting “unstructured time,” including “free [play] time”

Keeping activities “in the 10 minute time range”

Not having him “get on the computer at all to start”

Ignoring or remaining “flat emotionally with his tantrum”

“Holding him in his chair” with the teacher’s arms to calm him

Amanda in the Collaborative Class

Consistent use of the “token board” brought from the SPED class

Reminding him of the class routine (e.g., activities, a place for personal belongings, seating arrangement)

Keeping “an adult proximity” for attention to abstract contents

Having him join specials, writing, science/social studies, recess

As summarized in Table 2, utilizing a variety of tools (e.g., attention vests, Theraband), reward systems (e.g., a First and Then board, a token economy), human resources, and verbal and nonverbal strategies, the teachers’ interventions largely focused on disciplining the two boys’ bodies. Modifications in curriculum and instruction centered on having the children practice discrete contents and skills (e.g., alphabet and name writing, numbers, reading) and setting up structures to minimize distraction (e.g., giving “quicker tasks,” limiting “unstructured time”).

Clearly, accountability policies were associated with the teachers’ rigid expectations for behavior and the regimented curriculum, as they worked in a state requiring standardized tests on reading, English language arts, and mathematics for all children in grades 1 through 8 by the A+ Education Reform Act of 2000.4 Thus, their state was one of the 15 southern states with accountability policies before the NCLB mandate (Hinshaw & Scheffler, 2014). Up until the state’s DOE decided not to administer standardized testing in grades 1–2 due to financial constraints in spring 2013 and spring 2014, their state was one of three states requiring a standardized, paper and pencil test for first graders and one of six states mandating such testing for second graders as annual accountability procedures (Dresden & Flanders, 2009).

Not surprisingly and as discussed in much literature (e.g., Copple & Bredekamp, 2009; Hatch, 2002; Kagan & Scott-Little, 2004; Miller & Almon, 2009), the three subject areas on the state standardized tests received the most attention among academic contents in the focal children’s classes. Specifically, although observations done in pre-k at the end of the school year may not accurately represent the daily routine as the teachers replaced some of the regular activities such as PE with special events (e.g., a pizza party), two aspects of the pre-k collaborative class schedules were noteworthy: First, in this classroom free play was called “work time,” not even choice time or center time, terms used in many other preschool classrooms. Although this difference reflects the program’s adoption of the High/Scope curriculum that has planning time, work time, and recall time as key components of the daily routine (Weikart & Schweinhart, 2005), the class schedules also included a “writer’s workshop” and a “math workshop.” The names of these activities signaled that this class was not a place for play, but a site for serious work and intensive academic learning. Second, even if the lead teacher, Heather, replaced some regular activities with special end-of-year events, her class regularly spent 20–40 minutes on the writer’s workshop every day. Besides, as the children arrived in the morning, they had to trace and copy their names printed on paper, or “write some words” before the morning meeting. As in many ECE classrooms, the morning meeting included listening to a story read by a teacher or played on the Smart Board and practicing counting through the calendar activity (Katz & Chard, 2000). Additionally, math workshops gave the children more opportunities to practice counting and one-to-one correspondence skills. Thus, literacy and math were the two most regularly taught academic subjects.

Schedules of the focal children’s kindergarten classes were quite similar to each other, and the attention given to reading, writing, and math became more formalized, compared to pre-k. Both children’s classes allotted 50–55 minutes per day to each of these subjects. When adding up other enrichment activities for these contents (e.g., “Extended Learning Time” for math and reading), the two classes spent an approximate total of 185 minutes (45% of Shantie’s SPED class schedule) to 230 minutes (55% of Cody’s collaborative class schedule) out of 415 minutes (from 7:40 a.m. to 2:35 p.m.) each day for these subjects. Many other parts of the daily routine were also connected to these contents, including the calendar activity involving practices for math concepts and skills (e.g., numbers, sequences, patterns) during the morning meeting in both classes. However, the two classes allotted only 45–55 minutes to social studies or science, 30–50 minutes to a special activity (e.g., PE, art, music), and 30 minutes to recess each day, totaling about 105 minutes (25%) in Cody’s class and 135 minutes (33%) in Shantie’s class. Although listed as a routine activity, as the practices for walking in the hallway discussed earlier showed, to Shantie and his SPED classmates in both pre-k and kindergarten, recess was presented as a privilege to earn at times. Meanwhile, in the two kindergarten classes, free play or center time was no longer a routine activity and was available only when outdoor play was not possible. As shown in Table 2, Shantie’s SPED class teacher thought that the “limited unstructured time” would be helpful for Shantie by allowing him to have “very little time . . . to . . . engage in inappropriate behavior . . . [such as] a fantasy role-playing usually involving superheroes” (Kathy, 8/5/2013).

Across all the settings, the content areas were delivered mainly by the teacher’s verbal directions or through presentations on the Smart Board. Seat-work for paper and pencil tasks was a prevalent mode of acquiring and demonstrating concepts and skills. In these circumstances, the two boys were perceived as troubled children who could not handle instructions due to their behavior and their lack of “fundamental” content and skills (Carrie, 6/20/2013). Nearly all of the teachers’ discussions about these children focused on their areas of weakness. However, when asked about each child’s strength, the teachers were able to identify what is presented in Table 3.

Table 3. Focal Children’s Strength and Interest Identified by Their Teachers


Heather (Pre-K ECE teacher)

Interested in the computer

Good at the sports type; very fast


Jane (K-ECE teacher)

Bright orally

Knows a lot of vocabulary and participates well in topics related to social studies; social studies and science in progress at grade level

Listens well to a big book and good comprehension; an “auditory learner”

Carrie (K-SPED teacher)

Enjoys a story; able to answer explicit questions about what’s read

Works well with a peer tutor

Able to use manipulatives to explain his thinking


Heather (Pre-K ECE teacher)

Talented with the computer

“Good leadership abilities” (e.g., being in control of the class and choosing people)

Claire (Pre-K SPED class teacher):

Talented on the computer, knows how to operate it

Physically gifted and coordinated

Good pretend play skills; wants to be social

Adaptive and good cognition in life skills (i.e., what you do in a certain situation)

Understands a story read to him


Kathy (K-SPED class teacher)

“Hyper-focused” on the computer, independent writing, and math, when his focus doesn’t have to be divided into “his paper, the teacher, comments from other students”

Handles the rules and turn-taking well, “if he was in charge”

Very positive; curious; wants to please teachers

Likes people, remembers the people he’s met, “often interacts with others appropriately,” and “does understand their feelings”

Reading above grade level; math at grade level; “not compromised academically”

Amanda (K-SPED teacher in the collaborative class)

Social studies and science at grade level versus language arts at mid-kindergarten level, “not a ready first grader”

As shown, each child had unique talents described by his teachers. The two boys also had some common areas of interest and strength, such as operating and playing on the computer, being physically fast and coordinated, enjoying and understanding a story read to them, participating and performing well in social studies and science, and wanting to play and work with peers. However, except for allowing the children to use the computer as a reward for compliant behavior, and aside from Carrie’s brief remark on using manipulatives for her work with Cody, the teachers’ modifications, as summarized in Table 2, hardly tapped into the children’s strengths. With the exception of Shantie’s performance in reading and math, most areas in which these children were talented resided notably outside the contents of the state’s standardized tests and were thus considered secondary parts of the daily routine.

Without intervention, the trajectory of the focal children’s learning and performance in school was perceived to be doomed to failure. As discussed earlier, Cody’s slow academic progress and his struggle with handwriting led his kindergarten teachers to consider him a child at great risk of academic failure: “[Cody] is not going to meet standards. And he’s going to be set up for failure academically because . . . school gets harder” (Carrie, 6/20/2013). Cody’s collaborative class teacher elaborated:

I think he won’t be able to graduate high school. According to research, if a child falls behind in reading in grade 1, he’ll be forever behind. Cody is behind even in kindergarten. That’s why I work so hard for my class to read well. . . . I think those kids at the level of the second semester of first grade [above reading level 8 by the end of kindergarten], they’re likely to be successful. . . . But kids at the reading levels of 6, 7, and 8 might fall behind, if their first grade teachers don’t try really hard. Then, those kids will fall behind in reading again in grade 3 and won’t pass the CRCT. It’s a miserable reality. That’s why education in pre-k, kindergarten, first grade, and second grade is most important. Kids who are successful in those grades can manage. (Jane, 5/30/2013)

Here, Jane cited “research,” such as the study by Hernandez (2012), which reported how children in poverty who struggle with reading by the end of third grade are in “double jeopardy” of becoming high school dropouts. For her classroom children, who were mostly from low-income families, even meeting grade-level standards in kindergarten was not enough to ensure passing the state standardized tests without their future grade teachers’ great effort. Thus, Cody, a child in poverty who read below grade level in kindergarten, was seen as a candidate for leaving high school without a diploma. Similarly, Shantie’s SPED class teacher in kindergarten shared:

[Children with ADHD] have gaps of things that they missed because they were hard for them to attend to, or conceptually they were hard for that person to access, or because behaviorally they were in trouble in the hallway and missing content. . . . I think . . . the cost in these gaps is tremendous as they grow older. (Kathy, 8/5/2013)

Although Shantie “was not compromised academically” and even read “above grade level” in kindergarten, Kathy was not optimistic about his future: “I worry about . . . him being removed from the classroom because of behavior and missing out on the learning environment because of the behavior that he presents” (8/5/2013). These teachers viewed each of the boys as being caught in the vicious cycle of behavioral issues leading to academic gaps and failure.

All the teachers were aware that the focal children’s mothers were “hesitant” and “refused” to consider medication for their child’s behavior. The teachers echoed that prescribing medication is “a parental decision” (Amanda, 5/14/2013) and that they should try “all those [other] things [than medication] first” (Kathy, 8/5/2013). Nonetheless, when asked their opinions about medication treatment, the teachers responded positively because medication “would help [Cody] with his executive functions” (Carrie, 6/20/2013) and “would increase [Shantie’s] ability to focus” (Kathy, 8/5/2013). However controversial this treatment is for young children, to these teachers, medication was a necessary last resort that could break the vicious cycle initiated by behavioral issues and save the children from academic failure.

As Cody’s kindergarten teacher articulated, school readiness under SBA reform seems to push the EC teacher to move beyond helping children meet grade level standards and toward preparing them for getting ahead. To prevent children, particularly those in poverty, from falling behind in future grades, they need to get several steps ahead at each grade level. As such, SBA reform further fosters “the future orientation” in educational practice (Conklin, 2010) rather than being “responsive” to children here and now (Graue, 2010). Such policy promotes “binary division and branding” (Foucault, 1977, p. 199) from the beginning of schooling, and anyone deviating from norms and standards can be classified as delayed, abnormal, and at-risk for failure.

In his study on a fourth grader with ADHD, Brown (2005) pointed out that the child’s teachers “confined themselves to the authoritative discourses of schooling, [ADHD], ‘at-risk’, and salvation” and that “any action by [the child] that resided outside the bounds of these discourses was read by his teachers as an act of misbehavior caused by his [ADHD]” (p. 122). Similarly, Cody and Shantie’s teachers were constrained by these authoritative discourses and perceived any behaviors that did not facilitate readiness for standardized testing in future grades as signs of ADHD, immaturity, and potential academic failure. To these teachers, the label of ADHD, SPED placements and services, retention, and medication treatment were preventive measures to save the children from failing in school. In these authoritative discourses, a child was “never a subject in communication” (Foucault, 1977, p. 200), and the teachers’ authoritative practices were hardly infused with the child’s “internally persuasive” (Bakhtin, 1981) areas of interest and strength to develop dialogic pedagogy.

Analyzing works by a sixteenth century French writer, Rabelais, Bakhtin (1984) discussed carnivals in medieval Europe, which were filled with “folk humor” reflecting popular culture, and which coexisted with serious religious and feudal culture. The carnival temporarily suspended “the established order; . . all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions” (p. 10). Carnival festivities treated the body as “an all-people’s character” (p. 19) rather than individualizing it. The mind-body connection was clear in this tradition, which features "the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract; it is a transfer to the material level, to the sphere of earth and body in their indissoluble unity” (pp. 19–20). Bakhtin reminded us that this tradition and its spirit, the carnivalesque, have been lost in our modern, capitalist society.

The disappearance of the carnivalesque was manifested in the focal children’s public ECE classrooms where they had few breaks from rules and structure; their bodily demonstrations and movements were perceived as a sign of a disorder; and their sense of humor, fantasy, and rough-and-tumble play inspired by popular culture were viewed as inappropriate and immature. Contrary to the world of carnival in which “the bodily element is deeply positive” (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 19), the body in school is condemned as a distraction and noise that need to be controlled and silenced. No longer appreciated as the symbol of birth and growth (Bakhtin, 1984), the lower parts of the body have to be separated from the brain for learning in school.5 SBA reform has certainly exacerbated disembodied learning in ECE settings. However, as Tobin (2004) reminded us, “the trends that are contributing to disembodiment in [ECE] settings are symptoms of the prevailing, internally persuasive logic and discourses of our times” (p. 124). Thus, SBA reform and ADHD are symptoms of our carnivalesqueless society that feeds off the development of the disembodied mind or what Foucault (1977) called “the [non-corporal] modern ‘soul’” (p. 29) by disciplining the body.


Although concerns about negative impacts of SBA reform on young children’s social and emotional development have been raised, few studies have systematically examined EC teachers’ perceptions of and practices for children’s behavior and bodies under such policy. The intersection of the accountability policy and the increased diagnosis and medication treatment of ADHD among children provided a unique context for this study. Findings revealed that the focal children’s teachers appropriated the authoritative discourses of ADHD and readiness for school to perceive the children’s behavior and bodies as uncontrollable and unready for school. The teachers taught the children a variety of bodily techniques to enculturate them in public ECE settings that emphasize order and compliance and to develop docile student bodies through constant monitoring. Keeping their authoritative practices intact, the teachers hardly tapped into the children’s areas of interest and strength for curriculum and instruction. School was introduced to the children as a carnivalesqueless place, and both SBA reform and ADHD perpetuated disembodiment in these public ECE settings. The findings of this study provide the following implications for early childhood practice and teacher education.

First, the study calls for a challenge to the dominant view of readiness conceptualized as being within the child. In particular, this study shows that the notion of school readiness cannot be fully understood without considering teachers’ expectations for children’s behavior and the way they treat children’s bodies. Although children’s moving bodies have been traditionally perceived as a disruption in school (Bresler, 2004), the accountability policy further encourages teachers to elevate compliance to a key indicator of school readiness. This perception promotes the discipline of young children’s bodies, binary classification of normal and abnormal, and differential treatment and placement from the start of children’s schooling. This study also discloses how teachers, particularly those working with children of color from low-income families, are under pressure to prepare children to not only meet grade level standards but also exceed those standards in order to be successful in standardized testing in future grades. To help teachers shift their attention from these future-oriented practices and concerns to children in the present moment (Conklin, 2010) and to avoid teachers’ involvement in unintended exclusionary practices, school readiness needs to be reframed. Other scholars have also proposed seeing readiness beyond individual characteristics and biological maturation (Graue, 1993, 2006, 2010; Kagan, 1990; Meisels, 1999; Scott-Little et al., 2006). In particular, drawing on Bakhtinian notions of “answerability” (Bakhtin, 1993) and “addressivity” (Bakhtin, 1986), Graue (2006, 2010) suggests conceptualizing readiness as schools being ethically responsible and developmentally responsive to children. Building on this conceptualization, I argue that the school needs to be ready for all children through dialogic pedagogy recognizing not only the needs but also the strengths of each child.

Second, this study points to the importance of bringing the teacher’s “folk psychology and folk pedagogy” (Bruner, 1996) about children’s behavior and bodies to their awareness. Although the focal children’s teachers appropriated the authoritative discourse of ADHD promoted by the clinical field, many of their norms and rules for children’s behavior as well as the bodily techniques, including particular verbal phrases, that they taught reflected “implicit cultural beliefs and practices” (Hayashi & Tobin, 2015, p. 9). As Hayashi and Tobin (2015) explained, these beliefs and practices are not formally taught or written in any textbooks. Teachers can bring these taken-for-granted folk theories to their consciousness and reflection only “when pushed to do so” (p. 9). In the field of ECE, a group of researchers have examined how the bodies of children and teachers in daycare and preschool are disciplined and under surveillance (Johnson, 2000; Leavitt, 1994; Tobin, 1997). From an anthropological perspective, several researchers have also explored embodied teaching and learning in ECE settings in Japan and New Zealand (Ben-Ari, 1997; Burke & Duncan, 2015; Hayashi & Tobin, 2015). This study expanded upon these researchers’ efforts by focusing on EC teachers’ beliefs and practices for children’s behavior and bodies in public ECE settings, particularly in relation to the concern over school readiness under SBA reform. Ben-Ari (1997) proposed studying “early childhood socialization as a set of ‘body projects’” (p. 1). Making the implicit beliefs about and practices for children’s behavior and bodies explicit allows teachers to engage in dialogue around critical issues, such as unquestioned assumptions in those beliefs and practices; biases, misunderstandings, or lack of understandings about children’s behavior and bodies based on social class, gender, sexuality, and race; and the disproportionate representation of children of color in SPED placement due to their behavior (e.g., Artiles, 2011; Harry & Klingner, 2014). The fact that all participating children recommended by the teachers for this study were African-American boys from low-income families was not accidental, considering many documented accounts of the way these boys’ behavior and bodies are perceived negatively (e.g., Ferguson, 2001; Laura, 2014). Stobne, Brown, and Hinshaw (2010) also found that the prevalence of ADHD is observed more among children in poverty and those in schools with higher minority enrollment. Given that teachers play a key role in making the initial referral (Frankenberger et al., 2001), and that many children are diagnosed with ADHD before age 6 (Visser et al., 2016), helping EC teachers become aware of and critically examine their perceptions and practices for children’s behavior and bodies needs to be a significant part of teacher education.

Finally, the study urges finding a place to reinsert carnivalesque moments (Bakhtin, 1984) in the daily routine of early schooling. Such moments can vary in the forms and amounts of time spent in each classroom, including a clean up time (Oh, 2013), recess and break (Pellegrini & Bohn, 2005), rough-and-tumble and fantasy play (Katch, 2001; Paley, 2004; Pellegrini, 1998), a special project like children’s video production (Grace & Tobin, 1997), and momentary bending of classroom norms and the teacher’s instructional agenda (Brown, 2005). Each of these authors reminds us of the principle of a good daily schedule, which has a balance between “active and quiet times; large group activities, small group activities, and time to play alone or with others; indoor and outdoor playtimes; and time for children to select their own activities and time for teacher-directed activities” (Dodge & Colker, 1992, p. 35). Serious and rigid parts of the daily routine and curriculum need to be balanced by relaxed and pleasurable moments during which children’s bodily expressions as well as their sense of humor and action inspired by popular culture are sanctioned. Although challenging, intentionally and mindfully developing and inserting a ritual or a signature activity around the idea of the carnivalesque is much needed for children’s healthy and positive schooling experiences in the era of accountability. As Bakhtin (1984) explained, the carnivalesque routine is not just for children as it makes no division between children as performers and teachers as observers. Enjoying each other’s presence through carnivalesque moments, both teachers and children can build the school environment as an amicable place where everyone feels a sense of community, invigoration, and empowerment.


I am grateful to Eunji Cho, Su Yun Choi, Jaehee Kwon, Chang Liu, Rebecca Ann Smith, and Bing Xiao, who helped me with video recording as well as initial logging and analysis of the video data for the larger study. I also thank Cynthia B. Dillard, Joseph Tobin, anonymous reviewers, and the special issue editors, Sharon L. Nichols and Felicia Castro-Villarreal, for their insightful critiques of and comments on early versions of this article.


1. All names of people and places in this article are pseudonyms.

2. One boy attended the Head Start class where I observed another two children for the larger study. I met with the other child in Shantie’s SPED class in pre-k.

3. Except for February and April 2013, when I could not join the field work, the graduate student videographer and I visited each classroom together. In those two months, the videographer, who was very familiar with the children and video recording by that time, recorded each child.

4. According to the state DOE website, the standardized tests called the Criterion-Reference Competency Test (CRCT) were administered until the school year of 2013–2014 (a year after this study). Science and social studies were assessed only among students in grades three through eight. The CRCT has been replaced with the state Milestones Assessment System administered for students in grades three through high school since the school year of 2014–2015.

5. Indeed, Cody’s kindergarten teachers often told the class, “Kiss your brain,” as a compliment.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 119 Number 9, 2017, p. 1-38
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22037, Date Accessed: 1/21/2022 9:07:01 PM

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About the Author
  • Kyunghwa Lee
    University of Georgia
    E-mail Author
    KYUNGHWA LEE is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at The University of Georgia. She is interested in teachers’ cultural beliefs and practices as well as the role of instructional materials and children’s bodies in early schooling. Recent publications include: Cho, E., Lee, K., Cherniak, S., & Jung, S. (2017). "Heterogeneous associations of second-graders’ learning in robotics class" in Technology, Knowledge and Learning; and Lee, K. (2014). "Empathy and intersubjectivity in culture: From studies of young children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder" in Asia-Pacific Journal of Research in Early Childhood Education.
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