Adair Awarded Grant to Study Optimal Class Environments for Young Immigrant Children July 12, 2012

Dr. AdairEarly childhood specialist Dr. Jennifer Keys Adair has received a $150,000 grant to study how schools can provide high quality early childhood learning experiences to children of Latino immigrants.

The three-year grant was awarded by the Foundation for Child Development as part of their Young Scholars Program, to which Adair has been named a Fellow.

Adair will be examining what happens when young students who are members of marginalized populations – in this instance, Latino children of immigrants specifically – are given more opportunities to problem-solve, experiment, make decisions, work collaboratively, and follow their own academic interests.

Students who are part of this project will have greater choice and freedom in determining how they work their way through the learning process in class and how they demonstrate their knowledge.

“It’s common for marginalized populations in the earliest grades to be in even more structured, controlled classrooms than their white peers,” said Adair, who is an assistant professor in The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education. “I want to explore what happens when we increase what we refer to as the children’s ‘agency,’ or opportunities for self-directed behavior, in class and how that increase in agency affects academic and social development as well the acquisition of higher level thinking skills.”

Adair will be filming three first grade classes that consist mainly of high-achieving immigrant children who have increased opportunities to explore, collaborate, problem-solve and initiate projects in their classroom. Afterwards, she will have groups of teachers, students and their parents throughout Texas watch and respond to the films within focus group interviews. She will use their responses, opinions and shared experiences to guide creation of a culturally-responsive set of tools for teachers who want to offer a more sophisticated and challenging early childhood environment for young children of immigrants.

“The first-graders that I’ll be filming will be doing project- and inquiry-based lessons,” said Adair, “and will be given leeway to problem solve, experience discovery and develop critical thinking skills. I’m interested in hearing how parents and teachers feel about a relaxing of structure and how these opportunities for the students to explore and exercise choice appear to them. It may seem like chaos to the Latino parents or to the teachers – one of my aims is to determine how they perceive and define ‘agency’ in an academic sense.

“The feedback that I receive from the parents, teachers and students comprises the body of data that I will work with. It may be that all of the parents I interview want their children to have more critical thinking activities or more opportunities to creatively design a project. However, parent and teacher responses could also differ by educational background, ethnicity, language or economic level. My hope is to figure out what children, parents and teachers like about this more unstructured approach as well as what they don’t like and then respond to their input with a broad range of culturally relevant tools that teachers can use with these young students.”

Adair stated that marginalized populations, such as recent Latino immigrants, often find themselves in more structured classrooms in which most activities are initiated, dictated and designed by the instructor. She added that there is some concern among scholars and educators that this may create a long-term belief in the very young students that most learning must be initiated and led by an adult or other authority figure.

In addition to filming and interviewing in two first grade classes with predominantly Latino student populations, Adair also will conduct interviews in three additional schools. The teachers with whom Adair will be speaking represent a range of ethnicities as well as levels of teaching experience.

According to Adair, immigrant children typically enjoy high quality pre-K instruction and educational settings. Upon entering kindergarten, however, they are often are at schools with intense standardized testing pressures that do not support critical, creative and inquiry-based learning activities. Isolating strategies that will boost learning, creativity, willingness to experiment and the ability to problem-solve in the youngest immigrant students may have a lasting positive effect, continuing to support their academic performance and social development.

“When children enter first grade, there’s a focus on standardized tests and grades, and many people have become concerned about the long-term effects of these very structured classrooms that are oriented to test outcomes,” said Adair. “There’s also a great deal of concern about how our youngest immigrant children are treated in school settings and an acknowledgement that negative experiences at the outset could produce detrimental consequences later for them.

“Not many scholars are looking at the role of agency in very young immigrant children’s educational experiences, so I’m excited about this chance to explore the topic. The wonderful thing about being at The University of Texas at Austin is that early childhood education is such a clear priority, as well as the welfare and education of immigrants, and I’ve received an enormous amount of support here. I’m particularly grateful to the Foundation for Child Development for the generous grant – currently, there are relatively few grants out there for early childhood work, so I feel fortunate to have this funding and research opportunity.”

The Foundation for Child Development (FCD) is a national private philanthropy in New York City dedicated to promoting a new beginning for American education from PreKindergarten through Third Grade (PreK-3rd).  The Foundation promotes the well-being of children, and believes that families, schools, nonprofit organizations, businesses, and government at all levels share complementary responsibilities in the critical task of raising new generations.
FCD launched the Changing Faces of America’s Children - Young Scholars Program (YSP) in 2003, to build a new field of inquiry and to generate research-based knowledge to guide policies and programs for young children of immigrants.  

The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education is ranked number one in the nation among public universities by U.S. News & World Report’s 2013 edition of “America’s Best Graduate Schools.” It’s ranked number three among public and private universities nationally.

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Last updated on July 12, 2012