Examining the Segregated Lives of Preschoolers

In her new book, sociologist Casey Stockstill shows how even the highest-quality preschools reinforce racial inequities.

When sociologist Casey Stockstill set out to observe two top-ranked preschools in Madison, Wisc., she didn't expect to discover two markedly distinct classroom experiences. 

"They're both of high quality and the teachers have similar training and language around play-based learning," says Stockstill, an assistant professor of sociology whose work centers on race and class, particularly in childhood. "But, in fact, they were super different." 

Stockstill's two-year study focused on a government-funded Head Start program designed for low-income students and a private, tuition-based facility serving predominantly white and affluent families. Segregation by race and class, Stockstill discovered, has a profound impact on the ways children spend their time, the instruction they receive, and how they learn. 

Her newly published first book, False Starts: The Segregated Lives of Preschoolers, documents how segregated classrooms reinforce racial and class inequities, setting the tone for children's educational experiences for years to come. 

Stockstill's work experience as a teacher's aide in a Head Start program and as a babysitter for affluent families led her to research how children experience segregated early childhoods.

In a Q&A, Stockstill discusses her research for the book, unexpected revelations along the way, and her hopes for the future of preschool in the United States.

Both preschools you observed have excellent reputations. How did you come to realize that segregation fostered very different classroom experiences? 

The Head Start I observed was rated five out of five stars, so it was in the top 10% of preschools in the state. Great Beginnings (a pseudonym), the private school, also has a great reputation, with five out of five stars. The Head Start was 95% children of color and Great Beginnings was 95% white. 

When I looked at these five-star classrooms on paper, I saw similar schedules of breakfast, circle time, playtime, and snacks. What I found was that segregation was sneaky. It created demands on Head Start that made them deviate from that listed routine.

For example, the Head Start schedule had story time once a day. But I saw many days where they skipped the story or they read three pages and then had to stop because they have kids on the rug who can't sit still for all kinds of reasons, one of which has to do with segregation and poverty. The Head Start classroom could enroll 17 kids, but usually only 12 or 13 were steadily enrolled, meaning they signed up in September and they've been going all year. The other spots fluctuated because poor families experience more instability: they have to move, they get evicted, a parent gets incarcerated, or a kid gets placed in foster care, for example. 

Head Start absorbs some of that instability and also prioritizes it. They want to help kids in foster care, for example, or kids who are homeless, so they get priority to be put in. That meant, though, that some of the kids have never listened to a story being read before, so they're spinning circles on the rug or poking a friend and the book has to stop.

Head Start was also squeezing in toothbrushing. Some kids in poverty don't have good dental hygiene practice, so there was a policy intervention: Let's brush teeth at school. It adds 15 minutes where you have to sort out 17 toothbrushes and brush teeth. I call these routine disruptions. They are constant. 

Great Beginnings had a completely stable enrollment. So when I visited them in February, they had gotten to a point where all the kids could sit and listen to the story on the rug. And the teachers read to the kids an average of six times a day for a total of 30 minutes. They would say, "Oh, we're waiting for breakfast, let's read a book. We just got back from outside time, let's read a book." They basically use the time that's open to them—because those teachers are not dealing with poverty among their students—to enrich students with more reading or conversations. That is an impact of segregation.

What's another example of how segregation plays out in the preschool classroom?

At Head Start, kids weren't allowed to bring personal toys from home. The Head Start classroom has this rule because they know they have kids with extreme scarcity. They don't want to highlight those differences by having show-and-tell. But the result is that two-thirds of the kids don't try to bring stuff in, so they don't have this opportunity to personalize the school with something special. A third of the kids decide to bring stuff in anyway, but they learn how to sneak and hide it from teachers. And then sometimes they get caught, and that becomes a source of punishment. It was predominantly boys of color at Head Start who had this experience. And we know that there are disparities in expulsion and suspension in preschool.

But at Great Beginnings, kids did not sneak toys into school. They had show-and-tell each week, based on a "letter of the week." They could use that program to bring in things they wanted. It was this environment of celebrating possessions and abundance that contrasted completely to Head Start.

Did you observe that segregation also created potential challenges for affluent, predominantly white classrooms?

At Head Start, poverty and segregation come up again with pretend play because they would release the kids for about an hour of open-ended play. The children go to a play center, like the house area or the block area, and they start playing. As the hour unfolded, the kids could switch play areas whenever they wanted. The teachers are hands off because they are busy. They have to do federal and state sets of paperwork: developmental notes on the kids and other documentation. Or they might be giving extra, one-on-one attention to a child who's experiencing hardship at home and acting out.

So the kids in the play areas are managing their play completely by themselves. They get to approve who gets to join them and what their part is going to be. They solved problems on their own. They were very creative. I thought it was really valuable.

I went to Great Beginnings and thought they would do it similarly, but these types of interactions were highly controlled. Their teachers had more time to spare. They don't have as much of what psychologists would call "externalizing behaviors." So they use their attention to closely monitor the kids. They would allow only two or three kids per play center, and then they set a timer and said, "You're going to play for 15 minutes at your center, and then you're going to switch."  

What this did in practice is prevent the kids from having conflict. Their teachers encourage them to be democratic, so basically everyone shares their ideas for how to play, and then they'll decide together what to do. The kids script their play. At Head Start, it was improv. Anything is possible. The Head Start kids are able to handle seven kids playing together. So I actually saw less creativity and less autonomy over play at Great Beginnings.

What is the long-term impact of segregated early childhood experiences? 

If these kids go to elementary schools where creativity is rewarded and peer problem-solving is encouraged, the Head Start kids have a leg up. But if they go to a place where the teachers value kids doing things the way teachers do, those Great Beginnings kids have an advantage because they play like mini adults.
The Great Beginnings children also feel close to teachers. They ask them for help. They expect the teachers to help solve their problems in ways that the Head Start kids did not. Kids can benefit from feeling close to teachers, if they feel that they trust their teachers.

There's sociology research on elementary schools that shows that teachers respond positively to kids asking for extra help. In fact, in mixed-income classrooms, middle-class kids more often raise their hand and ask for help than working-class kids, and teachers will respond and help them. So sometimes working-class kids are kind of suffering in silence; they don't understand the math homework or what to do, but they feel a sense of constraint that they're supposed to figure this out on their own. Teachers have limited time to respond to requests, so they advantage the middle-class kids, even though that's not their intention. 

What solutions do you envision for reducing the impact of segregation on children's preschool experiences?

Two thirds of preschools are segregated. So in the short term, I think affluent white centers can try to open up avenues for at least income diversity, and have meaningful scholarships that reduce the price of tuition.

Also, we should be thinking about how classroom rules are encouraging children to be. What is show-and-tell communicating to children about personal possessions? Maybe there could be a "found object" show-and-tell or something about nature to curtail some of this entitlement. Same thing with problem solving: You can let kids be creative. Think about how you are setting up the environment for children.

Additionally, the segregated preschools that are majority poor and majority kids of color could be affirming spaces that really center these kids' family culture. Unfortunately, that's not what I found. Head Start was kind of a colorblind environment. For example, Head Start had four kids who were Hispanic. When I first got there, I asked the teachers, "Do you know where Luz's family is from?" And they didn't know. I got to know her and found out her family is from Mexico; her grandma still lives there. There's a kind of fear in some spaces to dig into cultural differences, and I think you have to get specific to really support children.

More broadly, what we need is an expansion of childcare and preschool. We need federal investment. And I actually think it's exciting. People are like, "How can we question quality and deal with segregation when there's not enough preschool to begin with?" I try to flip that and say, We're building this right now. 

Some of the segregation that we see in K-12 education, the architecture of that was set into motion more than 100 years ago, and we have to deal with that—where those schools were built, how they were built, residential segregation. We are not finished building out preschools. So we have an opportunity to get it right. Let's consider more broadly how we make a classroom environment that supports dignity for all children.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

I want people to want more out of preschool. I think we owe children of color and poor children more than we are giving them—even the ones who get a spot in preschool.

The conversation about preschool is scarcity-focused. The conversation is, 'Let's try to expand this; we need more spots, we need more options.' And in the early childhood field, there's less time to talk about how we make these classrooms dignifying for children, and warm and positive. We are not able to really ask kids what it means to them to have a good classroom environment. And I think that's important, because what my book shows is that even the spaces we've defined as "the good kind" fall short when they're segregated. So I want people to question this idea of what a quality preschool is.

I also want people to talk about preschool segregation. We don't talk about preschools as segregated, even though with K-12 education, that's a huge topic. And not just that they are segregated, but to what extent? What are the implications?

If people read my book and it brings them into the touch and feel of these spaces, and what they mean to children, I think that's valuable.