The research brief is a brief about interesting academic work.
Poor preschoolers have fewer opportunities than wealthy children to bring their prized personal wealth to school. This is what I found in my two-year comparative ethnographic study of two preschools in Madison, Wisconsin. One of the preschools primarily serves middle-class white children and the other primarily serves poor children of color.
In preschools serving mostly poor children, teachers made a rule that children could not bring toys, games, stuffed animals or other personal items to school. The stakes were very high for these teachers. The families of some of the students were recently evicted and they had few toys. The families of other students bought them toys but at great financial cost, and the families did not want the items to be broken. Teachers are also worried about toys being stolen. The items I saw the kids try to bring ranged from expensive action figures to random board game pieces to sparkly ponytail holders.
I then visited a thriving school and found that teachers actually encourage children to bring their personal belongings to school. The teachers hosted and told a weekly show. Children can bring toys, objects of nature or anything else to show and tell. Teachers encouraged children to bring books to read with their peers and stuffed animals for naps any day of the week. Because these teachers knew that their students’ families were financially prosperous, they created classroom rules that allowed children to celebrate their personal wealth.
why it matters
There are differences in how children perceive classroom rules regarding property matters for three reasons.
At first, I noticed that when children brought personal items to school, they used the items to connect with friends or to be alone and enjoy throughout the day. This was true whether they were encouraged to bring the items or they had successfully crammed them in.
Bringing special personal items to school gave children a form of what sociologists call true dignity – a feeling that is in a wider community but still respected as a unique individual. My research shows that preschool segregation creates pressure for teachers of poor children to forbid personal property at school, blocking the way to genuine respect for these children.
Second, the disparity of children’s control over property adds to the findings of other researchers that affluent children have greater control over their experience within schools. From the rules of school uniforms to how much they get their teacher’s help when working on assignments, affluent kids grow up and expect more special attention from authority figures. They are more comfortable asking for housing, and that matters in college and as they transition into adulthood. In contrast, poor and working-class children experience greater incentives to defy the rules of an institution. My research shows that comfortable access to personal wealth of affluent children in preschool is an additional mechanism by which they feel entitled to individual attention in workplaces and other institutions.
Third, a consequence of the non-personal-objects rule in poor preschools was that a handful of students—all boys of color—secretly carried the toys anyway. Sometimes these children were captured and their belongings were taken away and sent to a quiet area. As a result, property rules contributed to differences in discipline based on race and gender. This aligns with the findings of other scholars that boys of color experience more punishment as preschoolers, and this pattern continues through K-12 schooling.
what is not yet known
My research looked at broad, social experiences that children had over time. However, social scientists will need to conduct more research to determine how teachers’ rules about controlling children’s use of personal property differ across a wide range of preschools. Another question is how teachers manage children’s access to personal items in mixed-income preschools.