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Adair, J.K. (2014) Agency and Expanding Capabilities in Early Grade Classrooms: What it could mean for young children. Harvard Educational Review 84(2), 217-241.

Summary: Meant for teachers, parents, policymakers and general public interested in educational issues, this article tries to clarify the concept of agency as a tool for improving the educational experiences of young children in the early grades. Agency is defined as the ability to influence what and how something is learned in order to expand capabilities. This definition draws upon economic theories of human development, agency, and capability as they might be applied to early learning in schools. An understanding of early childhood education aimed at expanding children’s capabilities stands in contrast to the currently prevalent emphasis on preparing children for the knowledge and skills tested in elementary grades. Through classroom-based examples of student agency and a call to bring cultural and varied perspectives into the discussion, I hope to encourage dynamic, agentic learning experiences for all children, not just those of privilege.

Do the children you know and love have agency in their learning?


Adair J.K. & Colegrove, K.S. (2014) Communal Agency and Social Development: Examples from First Grade Classrooms Serving Children of Immigrants. Asia-Pacific Journal of Research in Early Childhood Education 8(2), 69-91.

Summary: This article explores how children of Latino immigrants responded to a learning environment where they could influence how and what they learned. Using ethnographic data from the much larger Agency and Young Children project in the United States, this article describes how a particular six year old classroom serving mostly children of Latino immigrants responded in ways that not only increased content knowledge in subjects such as science and literacy but also increased the amount of shared or communal agency in the classroom, even affecting the development of social capabilities by the children and teacher alike. Using a conceptual framework borrowed from development economics and particularly the work on agency and capabilities by Amartya Sen this paper counters a strictly psychological, individualistic version of agency and instead conceptualizes agency as a means to building individual and communal capabilities.


Colegrove, K.S. & Adair, J.K. (2014) Countering Deficit Thinking: Agency, Capabilities and the Early Learning Experiences of Children of Latina/o Immigrants. Contemporary Issues In Early Childhood 15(2), 122-135.

Summary: This article documents what happened in a first grade classroom when young Latina/o children of immigrants had consistent classroom-based opportunities to use their agency in their learning. Applying theoretical constructs from development economics to data from the Agency and Young Children ethnographic project, we explore three forms of agency that young children in Ms Bailey's class used so often that it became routine and normal to see on an everyday basis. These forms of agency include (1) initiating projects, (2) designing projects and (3) pursuing inquiry through questions. With each form of agency, we point out the types of capabilities that were possible because of children being able to use that particular form. We then discuss how these forms of agency debunk some of the deficit discourses that are used to justify the current narrowing of curriculum for young children from marginalized communities, specifically Latina/o children of immigrants..


Tobin, J., Arzubiaga, A. & Adair, J.K. (2013). Children Crossing Borders: Immigrant Parent and Teacher Perspectives on Preschool. New York: Russell Sage.

Summary: In many school districts in America, the majority of students in preschools are children of recent immigrants. For both immigrant families and educators, the changing composition of preschool classes presents new and sometimes divisive questions about educational instruction, cultural norms and academic priorities. Drawing from an innovative study of preschools across the nation, Children Crossing Borders provides the first systematic comparison of the beliefs and perspectives of immigrant parents and the preschool teachers to whom they entrust their children. This research has produced findings on the ways schools can effectively and sensitively incorporate new immigrants into the social fabric.


Adair, J.K. (in press) Examining Whiteness as an Obstacle to Positively Approaching Immigrant Families in U.S. Early Childhood Educational Settings. Journal of Race, Ethnicity and Education New York: Russell Sage.

Summary: This article examines whiteness at the intersection of immigration and early childhood education as it was made visible during interviews with 50 preschool teachers in five US cities as part of the Children Crossing Borders (CCB) study. Findings show whiteness acting not only as a construct of privilege but also as an idea that manifests itself in ways that affect schooling, even in early educational settings like preschool. Whiteness is made visible through a combination of multivocal ethnographic methodology, Critical Race Theory (CRT), and post-structural analytical tools all used within a comparative framework to understand whiteness from the perspective of white teachers responding to newly arrived immigrant families and subsequently from the counterexamples of immigrant teachers working in cities with longer histories of immigration. Findings suggest that the logic of whiteness used to respond to immigrant families includes blaming them, distancing from them and charging them with responsibility to change while at the same time being grateful for their presence in the school. Whiteness was found to prevent teachers from responding in engaged and positive ways to immigrant families and the manifestations of whiteness revealed by the white teachers in this study mirror larger societal tensions around immigration and race.


Adair, J.K. & Barraza-Correa, A. (in press). Recognizing the Voices of Immigrant Parents in Preschool/Pre-K Settings. Young Children.

Summary: When immigrant parents bring their children to early educational settings, it is often with a mix of hope and apprehension. Immigrant parents are usually grateful for and hopeful about the type of education their children will receive. But they worry that their children may experience teachers who are unkind or unable to advocate for them in the classroom or on the playground. In this article, we share how immigrant parents described the types of teachers they want for their children. The ideas, strategies, and concerns are all taken directly from interviews with over 100 immigrant parents in five U.S. cities as part of the multi-sited ethnographic study Children Crossing Borders. We hope to demonstrate that immigrant parents are important sources of information about young children, about early childhood education, and about what it means to be a young immigrant family in the United States.


Doucet, F. & Adair, J.K. (2013). Addressing Race and Inequity in the Classroom. Young Children, 68(5), 88-97

Summary: As teacher educators, we often hear skeptical or worried responses when we bring up young children talking about race. "But kids are too young to talk about it." I don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable." "They’re so innocent!" But are they? The purpose of this article is to discuss (1) what we know in the field of early childhood education (ECE) about young children’s abilities and capabilities to think and talk about racial differences, and (2) how early childhood teachers and administrators can better approach and respond to racial conversations that are anti-racist within early childhood classrooms (preK-3). Avoiding conversations about racism and inequity does not mean some kids in the class will not experience these social realities. Teachers , and young children need tools, for addressing these issues.


Adair, J.K. (2012). Taking Seriously the Perspective of Immigrant Parents, Children and Teachers in Early Childhood Education. Teacher Education & Practice

Summary: A few years ago, at the beginning of a research project on immigrant parents and preschool teachers across the United States, I was at an elementary school in Mesa, Arizona just outside of Phoenix. My job as a young graduate student was to figure out if it would be a good preschool site to film and conduct interviews with parents and teachers. The school had a preschool parenting program that enrolled mostly Mexican mothers and I was standing outside near the program room waiting for it to end so I could talk to the parents.

While waiting, classrooms of young children passed by on their way back to class from the playground. Children struggled to walk in a straight line, which is a typical oddity in American schools – children being forced to walk in straight lines but never doing it very well. The first thing that struck me was that the reprimands were angry. Repeatedly, teachers yelled at the six, seven and eight year olds to line up and walk straight. "Excuse me – did you hear me? You need to get in line right now!" "Do NOT talk at all right now." "You are not listening." "You are not behaving." "You stand right here."

The second thing I noticed was that the children were all Latino immigrants and the teachers were all Anglo.

The parenting class was only a slightly better version of what was happening outside. Inside parents were being reminded to read to their children, practice their English and to return the forms that were due the next day. All I kept thinking about was that the mothers were in a parenting class run by a school that was yelling at their children.

I have come to understand that teaching, like parenting, is difficult work so sometimes even really good teachers get frustrated. I also know that parenting classes sometimes have positive underlying intentions and results. However, for me, this incident has become a metaphor for the ongoing dismissal of immigrant intellect in early childhood education. In all of my work since, I have tried to make the argument that the field of early childhood education would improve dramatically if we considered more carefully the experiences and concerns of immigrant children, parents and teachers (see Adair, Tobin & Arzubiaga, 2012; Adair, 2011).

There are two imperatives – one relational and one pedagogical - for teaching children of immigrants in early childhood settings that connect to my experience in Mesa. First, how immigrant children and their families are treated must improve not just by teachers but also by administrators, school staff and policymakers. Second, how we engage with children of immigrants in the early grades must change from commands to rigorous inquiry, discovery, experimentation and problem solving if disparities between children of immigrants and children of U.S. born have a chance of changing course.

Because early childhood education sets the stage for children's academic trajectory, it is important to think carefully about how schools treat, position, and instruct young children of immigrants as well as immigrant parents and teachers. The relational and pedagogical imperatives shared in this article are meant to extend an invitation to broaden one's early childhood ideals and consider the perspectives and ideas of immigrant communities. Listening, rather than assuming, and asking questions, rather than commanding, will improve the field of early childhood's ability to meet the needs of a rapidly diversifying nation of children beginning their schooling years.


Adair, J.K., Tobin, J. & Arzubiaga, A. (2012). The Dilemma of Cultural Responsiveness and Professionalization: Listening Closer to Immigrant Teachers Who Teach Children of Recent Immigrants. Teachers College Record, 114 (12), 1-37.

Summary: Culturally knowledgeable and responsive teachers are important in early education and care settings that serve children from immigrant families. However, our study of teachers in five U.S. cities at a number of early childhood settings suggests that teachers who are themselves immigrants often experience a dilemma that prevents them from applying their full expertise to the education and care of children of recent immigrants. Rather than feeling empowered by their bicultural, bilingual knowledge and their connection to multiple communities, many immigrant teachers instead report that they often feel stuck between their pedagogical training and their cultural knowledge. Our article argues that bicultural, bilingual staff, and especially staff members who are themselves immigrants from the community served by the school, can play an invaluable role in parent–staff dialogues, but only if their knowledge is valued, enacted, and encouraged as an extension of their professional role as early childhood educators. For the teachers, classrooms, and structures in our study, this would require nonimmigrant practitioners to have a willingness to consider other cultural versions of early childhood pedagogy as having merit and to enter into dialogue with immigrant teachers and immigrant communities.

As featured on Voices from Teachers College Record


Adair, J.K. (2012). Discrimination as a Contextualized Obstacle to the Preschool Teaching of Young Latino Children of Immigrants. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 13(3), 163-174.

Summary: This article explores how discrimination acts as a barrier to providing the highest quality education to young Latino children of immigrants. Preschool teachers' concerns emerged from focus group data with 40 teachers in four US cities, collected as part of the international Children Crossing Borders study of immigration and early childhood education. Using focus group data as well as a multi-sited comparative analytic model, this study details teachers' concerns about discrimination in terms of negative discourses and harsh education and immigration policies, and explains how these forms of discrimination affect preschool teachers' efforts to teach. The findings demonstrate why and how local and national forms of discrimination can prevent teachers from reaching their full capacity to teach young Latino children of immigrants successfully, while suggesting that educational inequities facing Latino immigrant families cannot be resolved by teacher education alone, but must include cultural, societal and political changes to how Latino families are treated in the USA.


Adair, J.K. (2011). Advocating for Ethnographic Work in Early Childhood Federal Policy: Problems and Possibilities. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 42(4), 422-433.

Summary: This article reflects on making the case for ethnographic research within early childhood education federal policy through the creation and distribution of a policy brief, titled "Ethnographic Knowledge for Early Childhood," for the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Early Learning. Here I outline the process of synthesizing a large body of work into a policy brief format and the larger considerations of dissemination inherent in such a process. I discuss how people unfamiliar with ethnographic research received the policy brief and the challenge we have as educational anthropologists of making our work accessible to those directly connected to policy decision-making at national levels. By describing how the policy brief tried to reframe early childhood policy from an anthropological perspective that offers context, evidence, and findings that cannot be obtained through other methodologies alone, I hope to encourage fellow anthropologists to think strategically about including policy briefs within their multilayered dissemination efforts. Although this article focuses on a specific political networking strategy common in the United States, the discussion relates to all anthropologists who must alter their writing and communication methods to connect with decision makers involved in education.


Adair, J.K. & Pastori, G. (2011). Developing qualitative coding frameworks for educational research: Immigration, education and the Children Crossing Borders project. International Journal of Research and Method in Education, 34 (1), 31-47.

Summary: The Children Crossing Borders (CCB) study is a polyvocal, multi‐sited project on immigration and early childhood education and care in five countries: Italy, Germany, France, England and the USA. The complicated nature of the data pushed us as a group to expand our methodological resources to not only organize the data but also to make it searchable, and thus comparable, so that we could understand more deeply the perspectives and desires of immigrant parents and preschool teachers on education. This article uses examples from the CCB project to show how coding frameworks can be created to support large‐scale collaborative projects that seek to amplify the voices of marginalized groups in educational qualitative research. We argue here that creating qualitative coding frameworks depends on a balance between etic/insider and emic/outsider knowledge, decisions about interpretation and practical compromises about labels and meanings. These three elements play out in necessary debates and disagreements as part of the creative process and are critical for large‐scale projects looking for a coding framework and a coding process that is both useful and meaningful.


Adair, J.K. (2011) Confirming Chanclas: What Early Childhood Teacher Educators Can Learn From Immigrant Preschool Teachers. Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education 32(1), 55-71.

Summary: The immigrant teacher perspective has been largely missing from local and national debates on early childhood pedagogy and has certainly been marginalized in debates about language in early childhood settings. Interviews with dozens of preschool teachers in multiple U.S. cities about children of immigrants' language choices at school (as part of the Children Crossing Borders study) revealed a specific immigrant teacher critique of typical English language modeling techniques. These immigrant teachers reposition children's home languages as a valuable form of expression and thus argue for a more empathetic and constructivist view of children of immigrants. Hearing the perspectives of immigrant preschool teachers is especially important for early childhood educators who are preparing young teachers to serve a growing number of children of immigrants in early childhood settings. This article asserts that early childhood educators need to talk honestly with students about the implications of their responses to children of immigrants in the classroom and in doing so, can benefit from consulting the personal experiences and perspectives of practicing immigrant preschool teachers.


Adair, J.K. & Bhaskaran, L. (2010). Meditation, Rangoli and Eating on the Floor: Practices from an Urban Preschool in Bangalore, India. Young Children, 65(6), 48-55.

Summary: Young children benefit from learning about and experiencing cultural and ethnic diversity. Early childhood practitioners often strive to diversify the curriculum by including children's cultural traditions, holidays, or foods. Yet, one knows that young children need more than a celebration or a circle time story about a place or people to feel connected to groups outside their home and school worlds. Because India is an incredible mix of cultures, languages, and philosophies, it is an ideal place to look for everyday practices to use in the early childhood classroom. The authors have chosen three early childhood practices--guided meditation, decorating with rangoli, and eating on the floor--as examples of everyday cultural practices in India that can help children in the United States open their minds to difference. In this article, the authors use these three practices to exemplify how including diversified cultural practices in early childhood classrooms can broaden children's global knowledge and cultural flexibility.


Adair, J.K. (2008) Everywhere in Life there are Numbers: Questions for Social Justice Educators in Mathematics and Everywhere Else. Journal of Teacher Education, 59 (5), 408-415.

Summary: This essay looks at reflective questions most teachers struggle with. These self-analytic questions are framed by two books in particular, Eric Gutstein's Reading and Writing the World with Mathematics and Gutstein and Peterson's Rethinking Mathematics, that advocate for the inclusion of social justice pedagogy in mathematics curriculum. This essay uses these two books to talk about the relationship between social justice educators (in all disciplines, not just mathematics) and the students they teach. Using the discussion found in both books, I argue that who we are teaching matters in how we combine social justice and academics in the classroom and that the families and communities of our students need to be actively engaged in our efforts to connect academic knowledge to social justice. I situate my argument in the writing of Paolo Freire and contemporary U.S. critical theorists currently looking at the intersection of social justice, critical theory and pedagogy.


Adair, J.K. (2008). White Pre-Service Teachers and "De-privileged" Spaces. Teacher Education Quarterly, 35(4), 189-206.

Summary: In their classic article, "Culture as Disability," McDermott and Varenne (1995) retell the fable of the seeing man who, upon finding himself in the "country of theblind" thought he could easily rule it. His efforts were fruitless because he could not make sense of their world. Daily life was set up for the blind to be successful. The seeing man was shocked by the idea that what was considered a privilege (his eyes) in one setting could be his handicap in another. Although McDermott and Varenne used this story to illustrate how culturally determined the notions of "able" and "disabled" are, I believe the seeing man’s arrogance has further application to how teachers and teacher educators can approach White privilege.

The story I tell here is my own version of the seeing man (with a gender and race twist). It is about a small group of White pre-service teachers in a mostly Latina(o) teacher education cohort as they began their first semester in the Multicultural Teacher Training (MTT)1 program at a large public university in the southwest. It is about how Whiteness can become both a handicap and an opportunity instead of a privilege. This process, which I refer to as "de-privileging Whiteness," pushes White pre-service teachers to re-examine their own perspectives as culturally constructed (Geertz, 1973) and their version of the world as just that, a version. The White pre-service teachers I concentrate on were given a reason to see themselves as "White" and to see their own version of the world as one of many. In their early MTT classes, they were misled and ill prepared by their own cultural understanding of education, especially when it failed to give them the tools to participate successfully in class. They often made mistakes, putting their "foot in their mouth" so to speak. At the same time, the Latina(o) students were empowered to speak their mind and disagree with the White students, something that is less common in other education classes at the same campus and at other universities in the U.S. (Montecinos, 2004). How this de-privileged space was manifested in the MTT classroom is the focus of this article.