Sorting in Schools and Sports: How Early Childhood Teachers and Coaches Categorize Children

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Social Justice through Sport and Exercise Psychology Symposium

Conference Location

Minneapolis, MN


Because instruction of the body and instruction of the mind have a long history of being viewed as antagonistic pursuits suitable for different populations, the categories of difference used by coaches as the basis for grouping and instructing athletes presumably differ from those used by teachers to group and instruct students. If this is true, sports offer differential advantages young people with different skills and abilities than those privileged by the school system. In this study, I explore whether and how sports may privilege students with different initial strengths and skills than schools do. To do this, I compare an academic case study of a half-day preschool classroom to a sport case study of a preschool gymnastics program. By investigating assessment at the very beginning of children’s academic and athletic careers, I hope to compare how not only content-area skills, but also the norms and expectations endemic to each environment are fostered. In the first phase of research, I gather observations from two months of immersive ethnography of instructors’ initial categorization of children at each site. In the second phase, I focus on how instructors’ feedback to children—including their words and actions as they create groups, direct individual children, and organize class behavior—change over time based on their perceptions of child difference throughout the rest of the school year. My analysis suggests that, influenced by their domain of instruction, adults provide many different rationales for their classification of children, but the most important underlying factor for both teachers and coaches—in practice is social skills, defined as children’s adherence to their instructor’s set of explicitly stated rules of conduct and implicit behavioral expectations. In both sites, children perceived to have weak social skills receive more directives and feedback concerning behavior, while children perceived to exhibit strong social skills receive directives and feedback concerning content area skills.


Sociology and Interdisciplinary Social Sciences

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