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Justice for Young Children: (Re)Considering the Role of the Research Community

By: Mariana Souto-Manning

Blog post first featured on Foundation for Child Development‘s Social Justice for Young Children Conversation Series.

A vast body of research shows that children of Color withstand harm in schools via policies and practices specifically designed to protect White interests. Black preschoolers are suspended and disciplined at racially disproportionate rates, for example. Grossly inequitable outcome patterns in education continue to be situated as neutral.

The dominant historical narrative of early childhood education, which purports that the field has 1800s “European roots,” ignores millennia of early care and education practices in Black, Indigenous, and other communities of Color, and situates practitioners of Color outside this narrow history of the field. This power dynamic has consistently centered and advanced the interests of Whiteness, subjugating the practices and expertise of communities, learners, and practitioners of Color — generation after generation.

Today, “good programs” and “good schools” are seen as those predominantly serving White and wealthy children.

This racialized conceptualization of “quality” tells the early childhood education workforce, no matter their identity, that to engage in quality teaching they must perform Whiteness. Such racialized concepts and norms can compromise children’s self-actualization and identity development, as well as their academic gains.

The research community can play a pivotal role in understanding the complex factors and systemic inequities that contribute to such social inequalities.

To interrupt our role as researchers in the re-production of White supremacy, we need to take a proactive stance in the reconceptualization of “quality” and other normalized practices and concepts in early childhood education.

We may believe we are pursuing justice; however, researchers, policymakers, and practitioners sometimes enact harm in the pursuit of justice.

As we identify and seek to interrupt injustices and foster justice for young children, we must identify harms in and by early childhood education, asking:

  • What harms have been caused?
  • What obligations do we have?
  • How might we put things right in early education?
  • How do we repair harms?

Addressing these questions requires inquiring into histories, race, justice, and language.

What Harms Have Been Caused?

Racism is ingrained and pervasive. The dehumanization and exclusion of Black, Indigenous, and other children of Color from U.S. sites and systems of schooling has a long history, being precedented by national and regional histories of dehumanization, erasure, colonialism, imperialism, and chattel slavery. Claims of racialized intellectual capacity “emerged in the founding years of the American Statistical Society, when fraudulent 1840 census data on alleged rates of insanity among slaves versus free Blacks were used to argue that slavery was beneficial to their health,” Oxford noted. Preposterous constructions followed from their imagining that White people are smarter than Black people.

Children, mirroring society, have developed racist conceptualizations of intelligence, along with beauty and goodness. When presented with a Black doll and a White doll, for example, both White and Black children ages 3 – 5 identified the White doll as being smarter, prettier, and good while identifying the Black doll as not being smart, as being ugly and bad. These findings unveil the deeply harmful racism societally imposed onto young children, including that Black children too often internalize an idea of self as inferior.

In early childhood education and research, Whiteness continues to be centered, as Harris explained in her article, as “the settled expectations of relative White privilege [serve] as a legitimate and natural baseline.” In what is categorized as different within and across racial identities, White is the “norm.”

Assistencialist, savioristic, and reparative measures sought to fix children whose families and communities were deemed inept to raise them to become successful in school and productive citizens of society. Language presents just one example of this “fixing.”

Anti-Black linguistic racism is pervasive in early childhood education and research. Examples of the harms enacted by seeking to fix children include racist, dehumanizing, and violent practices onto Black, Indigenous, and other children of Color. Here are some examples of this harm:

These cause injustice and continue to harm children in covert ways. For example, children who are not familiar with indirect language indexing politeness may think that a request — for example, Would you like to clean up?—as a question to be answered. When the preferred response is not given by children over time, they can end up being constructed as having behavior problems or as being troublemakers. Teachers then see the children differently, expecting them to misbehave. This has been shown to result in school suspensions and expulsions.

Terms such as “academic language” obscure the racialization of language and privilege the maintenance of Whiteness as norm. Instead of seeking to remedy children whose communicative practices and norms do not align with “academic language,” how might we rethink our research, defining reading, writing, and talk more expansively and inclusively so as not to purport that the practices and norms of communities of Color are inferior or wrong? Without such a redefinition, children are seen as being behind and in need of remediation.

While calling White ways of communicating “academic” may seem to move language practices away from race, “covering” racialized practices by other names is a notable pattern in the long history of racist ideas in the United States.

What Obligations Do We Have?

Early childhood researchers, in any given study, often adopt one of three conceptualizations of what justice is: justice aligned with English common law, criminal justice, or restorative justice.

The notion of justice aligned with English common Law, which focuses on the protection of property and entitlements and prioritizes intent, is rooted in the White dominant culture. It can be understood as an enactment of White people and their traditions, attitudes, and practices, which have been normalized and came to define what is standard within the context of the United States.

Criminal justice conceptualizes crime as a violation of the state, and such violations create guilt. From this perspective, justice is predicated on the state determining who is guilty or is to blame and consequentially imposes pain and punishment. The focus of criminal justice is ensuring that offenders get what they deserve.

Restorative justice conceptualizes crime as a violation of people and social obligations (for example, housing, food, and safety). These violations create obligations to right wrongs. Justice is thus negotiated by and involves victims, offenders, and community members working to put things right. The central focus is to repair harm.

A number of studies have employed criminal justice, seeking to tame children so that they can better behave in classrooms. Research studies have denounced how early literacy routines in classrooms are enforced by “carceral logics.” This may come to life as teachers — who may feel surveilled in how and what they teach, how they are labeled (developing, accomplished) — act in ways consistent with heightened surveillance (what and how children read), labeling (at-risk, below-level), and punishment to discipline children’s reading, writing, and talk (anticipating mistakes, deeming stories to be contextually inappropriate for using English and Spanish) as well as their behaviors (excluding a child from read-alouds because they are moving and using their voices to engage with the story being read, seeing such behaviors as deviant instead of as signs of engagement).

Researchers must question conventional methodologies and adopt fresh approaches rooted in expansive and restorative understandings of justice, a humanistic approach to healing by righting wrongs.

Rather than document and keep injustices in place, as conventional methodologies often do, restorative justice can address harms caused for millennia.

Research has also shown restorative justice in practice, such as in a preschool classroom where a new child was seen as threatening by other 3- and 4-year-olds. Yamilet (the teacher) skillfully worked to intervene, bringing the community together to address the harm RJ (the new child) was experiencing. In a restorative circle, using a toy plastic microphone as a talking piece, Yamilet welcomed RJ to the classroom community, saying: “Welcome to our community, RJ. It’s great to have you here. I feel like I don’t always know how to communicate with you yet, but I am learning. I hope you will help me.”

She passed the mic to RJ, who was seated next to her. RJ said: “Okay. But sometimes I get so angry I don’t know what to say. In my old classroom, Ms. White yelled at me, “Stop! Get out!” She grabbed my arm and got me out. It hurt. So when I get angry, I throw my shoe. Then no one hurt me.” RJ had thrown his shoe the day before and ended up hurting Yamilet physically when she tried to mediate a conflict. Because Yamilet’s practice was rooted in restorative justice, instead of punishing RJ, she sought to learn the harms RJ had experienced, aiming to right wrongs.

The microphone reached Juan, a child who had communicated his fear of RJ, telling his mother that RJ was “big and scary.” Juan realized the impact of RJ’s prior experiences with teachers on his behavior, saying, “My teacher never hurt me.” Marcus shared: “When the police stop my daddy. My daddy said it’s cuz [they] must think he scary jus cuz he a Black man.” This led 3- and 4-year-olds to the troubling stereotype of seeing Black boys and Black men as threatening.

Yamilet created a space where this stereotype could be brought to the fore, giving students an opportunity to identify the harms caused by this stereotype, discuss their obligations, commit to right wrongs, and repair harms in their preschool.

To begin to challenge existing paradigms, researchers must collaborate with and learn from historically silenced and marginalized communities. The book Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom shows one path.

How Might We Put Things Right In Early Education?

Early childhood educators and researchers have an obligation to learn from young children who are Black, Indigenous, and of Color, as well as from their families, and communities to move toward justice. This might entail:

  • eliminating practices that silence, isolate, marginalize and invalidate Black, Indigenous, and other persons of Color and communities in early childhood education research, policy, and practice;
  • ensuring that early childhood education sustains the full humanity of minoritized individuals and communities, upending Whiteness as its moral compass;
  • debunking racist myths that inform early childhood education policies, research, and practices (for example, the neutrality and validity of standardized tests);
  • centering racialized and minoritized histories, ways and systems of knowing, values, voices, and cultural practices in early childhood research — for example, prioritizing interdependence, familism, and collaboration over independence, individualism, and competition; and
  • cultivating opportunities and spaces where racialized and minoritized young children, families and communities experience joy, happiness, care, justice, and affirmation — for example, affirming curricula for healing, learning, and growing developed by educators and researchers in collaboration with communities, families, and young children.

How Do We Repair Harms?

Center Intersectionally Minoritized Communities. Research has often centered the experiences and perspectives of individuals in positions of power and privilege, who serve as “observers” of the people they study, leaving the voices of communities unheard and their needs unmet. Research needs to be developed with communities of Color and other traditionally disinvested communities.

Research studies must be developed participatorily. Merely conducting research, documenting injustices and publishing findings, no matter the representation, is insufficient; researchers must also take an active role in disseminating their findings to policymakers, practitioners, and communities; advocating for policies and practices that can create meaningful change.

Principles of data justice require operating with consent and transparency, valuing community wisdom and history, and building community trust that leads to collaboration. By actively and participatorily collaborating, researchers can help translate findings into actionable policies and programs that promote justice and improve the lives of young children.

Adopt Assets-Based Approaches. Often, research projects take a deficit-based approach, focusing on the challenges and disadvantages faced by racialized and divested communities, informing solutions to injustices they experience. Young children are underestimated and pathologized, leading researchers to focus on fixing the child instead of addressing the systemic conditions that construct barriers to opportunities and equitable access.

Research has shown that these communities possess tremendous skills, assets and strengths that should be acknowledged and leveraged in and through education. Shifting to an assets-based approach leads researchers to challenge negative stereotypes and deficit narratives and contribute to promoting a more positive, empowering and just future for Black, Indigenous, and other young children of Color, their families, and communities.

Acknowledge Intersecting Systems of Inequity. The research community must understand that in/justice issues — and systems of oppression — are interconnected and cannot be addressed in isolation. Adopting an intersectional lens, researchers can consider the multiple layers and dimensions of oppression that children, families, and communities experience, developing research approaches that consider these intersecting factors.

Employ Interdisciplinary Approaches. Because justice is complex and multifaceted, it cannot be fully understood or addressed within the confines of a single discipline. Therefore, researchers must draw on various fields, combining education, sociology, psychology, and public health, for example, to gain a more holistic understanding of the factors influencing justice for young children. Such approaches will afford more robust solutions to ingrained injustices.

Toward More Just Futures

Pursuing justice for young children requires researchers to think and work differently.

Collaboratively, instead of individually, researchers should upend the longtime focus on fixing children as a solution to societal problems. Instead, the priority should be on suspending harms, righting wrongs, and fostering healing in and by research.

Researchers should work to bring together those victimized by research violations, offenders who enacted such violations (regardless of intent), and community members to whom researchers are answerable, and commit to working together to repair harm. This requires a renewed focus (on healing). It requires a reworked relationship with communities — a relationship that is rooted in respect and that acknowledges our interconnected responsibility to get at the root cause of injustices.

It is time for all members of the research community to embrace these necessary shifts and actively work toward a more equitable and just society for all children. Then we will better uphold the first principle of the National Association for the Education of Young Children Code of Ethical Conduct: “Above all, we shall not harm children. We shall not participate in practices that are emotionally damaging, physically harmful, disrespectful, degrading, dangerous, exploitative, or intimidating to children. This principle has precedence over all others.”

This is the fourth blog in the Foundation’s Social Justice for Young Children Conversation Series exploring what it means to pursue social justice for young children and their families.

About the Author

Mariana Souto-Manning, Ph.D., is President of Erikson Institute. She served as Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and held additional academic appointments at the University of Iceland and King’s College London. Committed to the pursuit of justice in early childhood teaching and teacher education, Souto-Manning’s research centers intersectionally minoritized people of Color. Souto-Manning has (co-)authored over 10 books, dozens of book chapters, and over 85 peer-reviewed articles. She has received several research awards, including the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Innovations in Research on Diversity in Teacher Education Award. In 2023, in honor of her exceptional contributions to, and excellence in, education research, Souto-Manning became an AERA Fellow.

portrait of Mariana Souto-Manning

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