Agency, Capability and Young Children of Immigrants in U.S. Schools: Applying Human Development Principles to First Grade

Adair, Jennifer Keys (2014). 'Agency, Capability and Young Children of Immigrants in U.S. Schools: Applying Human Development Principles to First Grade' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

     This essay explores how the concept of 'agency' as conceptualized from the lens of human development might be used to inspire a new way of thinking about early childhood education that is focused on expanding children's capabilities. The purpose is to focus stakeholders' attention to improving the learning experiences of young children of immigrants, and to focus more on what young children are able to do and become, rather than what they produce or will produce on narrow scope testing. While there are multiple types of agency that can be associated with early schooling including parental, teacher and institutional types of agency, this essay focuses on student agency, or the agency children might use in their learning.

     Specifically, this paper outlines how the concept of 'agency' in its relation to capability expansion might be used as a tool for improving the educational experiences of young children in the early grades, particularly children from immigrant and other often marginalized communities. Agency in the context of early learning is conceptualized as being able to influence what is learned and make decisions about how something is learned in order to expand capabilities. This conceptualization of agency draws upon an interdisciplinary set of concepts from early childhood education, developmental psychology, sociology, anthropology and neuroscience that are then connected to theories of human development from the work of Sen and ul Haq, also known as the Capabilities Approach.

     To clarify how agency might be used to improve the educational experiences of children of immigrants, this paper draws upon data from the multivocal, videocued Agency and Young Children study to explore three central principles from Sen and ul Haq's work in human development. First, when individuals and groups use their agency, their capabilities expand. And when capabilities expand (again for the individual or group) there is greater agency. When children have time, space and opportunities to experiment and discover, their capability to communicate, make decisions, problem solve and make connections expands as well. And when their capabilities expand they can use their agency in more diverse ways, influencing more of what they do. Second, agency and an emphasis on expanding capabilities require movement away from single indicator systems. In early childhood education, there is an increasing emphasis on benchmark scores as indicators of children's progress and capabilities. These indicators mean that children could score well on math and reading scores and still be unskilled in a range of higher level thinking skills or multidimensional development areas. And it means that children could score low on benchmarks and be considered incapable of higher level thinking skills. Both are dangerous in an educational system marked by the prevalence of deficit thinking towards marginalized children and other injustices. Third, agency as well as desired capabilities are culturally varied and require voice and empowerment from communities. Collectively, these principles and their accompanying examples highlight how the concept of agency as a means to expand capabilities can help parents, teachers, administrators and policymakers assess learning environments with more attention to agency and children's capabilities, rather than only efforts to prepare children for the knowledge and skills tested in higher elementary grades.

     Data that showcases the application of the capabilities approach to early childhood education comes from the Agency and Young Children study, a two-year project of ethnographic fieldwork in two first grade classrooms serving mostly Latino children of immigrants. Focus group interviews using the video cued ethnographic method (more commonly known as the Preschool in Three Cultures method) with the parents, teachers and children involved in the study are also included as supporting explanations and examples. Other data includes over 100 hours of video and audio capturing classroom activities and interactions as well as work samples and pictures, usually accompanied by teacher and student explanations/clarifications.

     The presentation will highlight the intersection of early childhood theories and the capabilities approach specifically in relation to the learning experiences and trajectories of young children from marginalized backgrounds in the U.S. The presentation will be of interest to educational researchers, policymakers and leaders working on early childhood issues globally, particularly those concerned with not only access but the types of early learning experiences provided for young children living in poverty or other marginalized contexts.

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