What is it about?

Although preschool is intended to level the playing field for children from different socioeconomic backgrounds, it fails to do so. Why? We examined whether early schooling contexts provide unequal opportunities for engagement to children of higher versus lower socioeconomic status (SES). Specifically, we focused on whole-class discussions—a core aspect of the preschool curriculum. When we analyzed extensive recordings of whole-class discussions, we found that low-SES children participated considerably less than their peers. Consistent with the claim of unequal opportunities for engagement, these differences were observed even after accounting for SES differences in language proficiency. These engagement disparities are likely to be compounded by peer perceptions: Preschoolers explained the behavior of children who made oral contributions by appealing to internal factors (e.g., “she’s smart”) and viewed these children as competent and socially skilled.

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Why is it important?

By providing low-SES children with fewer opportunities for engagement, preschool is shortchanging these children and likely amplifying achievement gaps.


Our results suggest that preschools underutilize their potential to “level the playing field” for students from different SES strata, will spur the development of interventions targeting the context of early childhood education. For example, it is possible that increasing preschool teachers’ awareness of the cultural mismatch between the socialization experiences of low-SES students and the school environment may help teachers to foster equal engagement in all their students; explaining to teachers how the cultural stereotypes about low-SES students’ abilities may affect these students’ behavior in the classroom could have similarly beneficial effects. There are many concrete aspects of the preschool context that could be redesigned to promote more equal engagement, regardless of student SES. Consider, for example, whole-class discussions: One means of increasing the engagement of low-SES students during such discussions might be to inform students of the discussion topics ahead of time (e.g., “what is your favorite book?”), so that they all have a chance to prepare. Instituting a rule that each student should take a turn first before a student makes a second comment could help as well. Teachers could also model that all topics are interesting and appropriate—not just museums and the arts but sports and TV shows as well.

Sébastien Goudeau
Universite de Poitiers

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Unequal opportunities from the start: Socioeconomic disparities in classroom participation in preschool., Journal of Experimental Psychology General, June 2023, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/xge0001437.
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