Do sports privilege children with different initial strengths and skills than schools do? To find out, I conduct a comparative, qualitative case study of two institutions of early learning—a preschool and a gymnastics class—using ethnography and in-depth interviews to determine how instructors categorize children, how they tailor instruction to meet students’ perceived needs, and how this differentiated instruction affects student learning and development. My fieldwork shows that a general process unfolds similarly in both sites. As soon as kids begin preschool classes in both sports and schools, their instructors begin to categorize them into groups based on their proximity to “kindergarten readiness.” When kids first enter institutionalized learning environments, like preschool or a structured gymnastics class, instructors assess them. On the basis of these assessments, instructors categorize the children and differentiate their instruction accordingly – they provide extra help to those whom they perceive as struggling and extra challenges to those whom they perceive as “advanced.” By the end of the term, these experiences inform their decisions about who is ready for kindergarten, who needs another year or session of preschool, or who should be tested for special needs. As a result of these instructor recommendations, the children are regrouped the following year. These new groups are separated by social boundaries, as resources are meted out differently to preschool and kindergarten classes as well as to students who are identified as needing special education services. As children continue to be sorted within the system into groups identified as “gifted” and as “mainstream,” symbolic boundaries form that further distinguish the groups. Thus, the creation of social and symbolic boundaries among groups of children begins from the moment they first enter institutionalized learning environments, as teachers and coaches categorize, instruct, and sort them. At the preschool level, unlike in later grades, the behaviors both teachers and coaches weigh the most heavily in categorizing and sorting students are social skills. This means that the children to whom the structured environments of preschool and preschool sports classes seem most familiar—those whose homes are culturally similar—likely have an early advantage over peers from homes that are less well “matched.”
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. June 2020. Major: Sociology. Advisor: Douglas Hartmann. 1 computer file (PDF); 320 pages.
Sorting In Sports and Schools: How Early Childhood Teachers and Coaches Categorize Children.
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