The Trajectory of Agency: Towards a Compassionate and Egalitarian Approach to Empowering Boys in Early Childhood Education

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by Rima Madi in June 2023

In every civilization throughout human history, the image of the child has evolved and influenced adults’ perception of children’s abilities, behaviour, milestones, temperament, and gender roles. This image has been socially translated into phrases such as “a child is a blank slate,” “boys will be boys,” “the innocence of childhood,” and “children are our future” (Flight, 2014, p.38). “Alberta’s early learning framework aims to awaken the image of a strong, resourceful, capable child—a mighty learner and citizen” (Flight, 2014, p. 38).

The early learning framework emphasizes children’s agency in early childhood settings. Brown and Lee (2015) define agency as the ability of individuals to make choices, take control, self-regulate, and pursue their goals, which can lead to personal or social transformation (p.84).

To put it simply, the concept of agency resonates with the transformative journey of a caterpillar inside a chrysalis, emerging as a beautiful butterfly. Despite the challenges and discomfort encountered throughout this process, the caterpillar’s inherent drive and motivation to break-free, self-actualize, and discover its identity and purpose guide its remarkable transformation.

Within this context, I ponder how we can integrate agency into early childhood education by employing a developmental lens that aligns with a child’s needs, temperament, and their social and physical environment.

Surprisingly, the agency of children, particularly boys, to freely express their innate disposition and their desire to take risks and experience freedom is often compromised in many structured early childhood programs. These programs often deviate from the concept of providing a “goodness of fit,” which represents a true match with what children genuinely require for their physical, emotional, cognitive, and social development. Instead, they attempt to mold children to conform to social conventions of school readiness and conform to learning environments that may not fully accommodate them. Failure to comply and conform may lead to the expulsion, suspension, and eventual placement of boys in special education (The Challenges of Boys in Early Childhood Education, 2016).

Research on child development indicates that boys’ brain development and nervous system progress at a slower rate compared to girls, which can impact their attention span, activity levels, and overall academic progress (The Challenges of Boys in Early Childhood Education, 2016). Girls tend to outperform boys in language development, exhibiting a higher rate of language acquisition and better verbal abilities. In the domain of mathematics, girls also tend to perform better in early counting and problem-solving during middle childhood. Regarding social and personality differences, boys generally display more physical activity, occupy more space, and engage in rough-and-tumble play more frequently than girls. Additionally, male infants are often inclined to explore through touch (Vista et al., p. 585).

According to The Challenges of Boys in Early Childhood Education (2016), boys have a natural inclination for taking risks and engaging in activities such as rough-and-tumble play. They often exhibit a fondness for creating noise and exploring their surroundings using elements such as water, sticks, mud, and sand. Boys are commonly characterized as spontaneous, impulsive, fun-loving, and prone to making mistakes.

However, young boys often find it challenging to sit for long periods during circle time and engage in fine motor activities. They excel in hands-on and multisensory activities, as well as whole-body movements both indoors and outdoors. The Challenges of Boys in Early Childhood Education (2016) notes that “boys prefer wild, aggressive, full-body activities, constructive play, hands-on learning with concrete materials, and lots of movement. They also seem to love making a mess!” (p.2).

Instead of modifying the physical environment and providing appropriate pedagogical support in language and cognition to address the challenges young boys face in their pursuit of autonomy, identity development, and empowerment, we have developed a “fix the child” syndrome. The emphasis on early intervention, excessive assessments, and a focus on what is deemed “normal” development has resulted in the need to identify and label children who struggle in our programs. Consequently, these children develop a belief that they are incapable of succeeding and view the program as a system that selects winners and losers (The Challenge of Boys in Early Childhood Education, 2016, p.4).

In conclusion, the labeling that many young boys often receive during their early educational journey, due to their non-compliance with standardized educational settings, can have detrimental effects on their self-esteem, emotions, and identity. This label instills a sense of failure that can impact their subsequent developmental domains and mental well-being. “Embracing the natural variability in the development of young children” (The Challenges of Boys in Early Childhood Education, 2016, p.4) and avoiding penalizing those who may naturally lag in a specific domain is the most compassionate and egalitarian approach to empower boys in early childhood education. Instead of undermining their innate potential, which may not yet be fully apparent, it is crucial to explore multiple approaches (such as working closely with parents, modifying the curriculum, differentiating activities, utilizing various learning styles, etc.) before considering the need for screening for possible special needs (The Challenges of Boys in Early Childhood Education, 2016).

References

  • Brown, H.D. &H.Lee. 2015.Principles of language learning and teaching. White Plains, NY:Pearson education.
  • Makovichuk, L; Hewes, J; Lirette, P; & Thomas, N. (2014). Flight: Alberta’s early learning and care framework. Library and Archives Canada.
  • The Challenge of Boys in Early Childhood Education. 2016. Community Playthings. https://www.communityplaythings.com/resources/articles/boys-in-early-childhood-education
  • Vasta, R.& Haith, M; M. &Miller, A; S. (1995). Child psychology. (2nd edition). New York. Authentic care is a partnership.