Associate Professor
Department of Curriculum and Instruction
University of Texas at Austin

Lead Researcher
Agency and Young Children Research Collective (AYC)

Project Title: Towards a Culturally Relevant Continuity of Development for Latino Children of Immigrants in PK-3 Educational Settings

Adair, J. K., Sánchez-Suzuki Colegrove, K., & McManus, M. E. (2017). How the word gap argument negatively impacts young children in Latinx immigrants’ conceptualizations of learning. Harvard Educational Review, 3, 309-334

Dr. Jennifer Keys Adair’s work explores the relationship between children’s agency and development as well as how institutional racism impacts how much individual and collective agency young children get to enact at school. The disparities that exist in the educational experiences of young children and the racialization of those experiences led her to apply to the Foundation for Child Development Young Scholars Program (YSP). As a member of the 2012 cohort, she examined how young children’s agency impacted their social and academic development. Methodologically, Adair is qualitative researcher specializing in video-cued ethnography and an educational anthropologist by training.

In this YSP Spotlight, she explains how YSP provided her with an extended sense of community, substantially grew her professional network, and how her YSP research provided the basis of her new book, Segregation by Experience: Agency, Racism, and Early Learning, which will be published by the University of Chicago Press in the winter of 2020.

What influenced you to become a researcher?
I was on a very large multi-cited international early childhood study called Children Crossing Borders. When I took over a lot of the analytic process and the data analysis and some of the interviews, it just kind of opened my mind to being able to think about research as a way to understand significant problems better and more deeply. Equity and the impact of racism on early learning is the biggest part of what I do and what I’m interested in. Research that can try to understand inequity better and to figure out how to make things more equitable and who would need to change or what would need to change to make that possible, that’s what I’m interested in.

What led you to apply to the Young Scholars Program?
At the time, the focus was on children of immigrants and I was trying to understand how young children of Latinx immigrants being able to enact their agency at school impacted their development. I was so grateful to find a foundation specifically interested in early childhood education and equity. That made it feel like a group of people that I wanted to be associated with and where I would find like-minded people. I was really excited about a community where people really cared about the communities and the ages that I did. I was very nervous about applying because the call seemed aimed at quantitative researchers and I was scared of being rejected so I needed a lot of encouragement.

Tell me about your experience in YSP.
I owe so much to the Young Scholars Program. The Young Scholars Program was my first grant by myself. It was the first one I was in charge of. My first time doing a budget. There were a lot of mistakes that I made in doing the budget on my own. I just felt like they [the Foundation] were very patient with me learning how to be in charge of the grant and what all the different components meant. They helped me feel supported. They also explained things to me and let me mess up and fix it. There was a sense of flexibility in knowing that this was a learning experience for me in terms of being in charge of a grant. That made a major impact on me. Just learning how to do a grant and what it meant to be in charge of each stage of the grant made me ready for larger grants.

During my time as a fellow, we met twice a year. Everyone was brought together as the new cohort, and then anybody from any other cohort was invited. The Foundation partnered with other groups too. We met at the Foundation once a year and also with MPI [Migration Policy Institute] where we participated in joint sessions specifically around immigration and children. They would invite lobbyists, NGOs, and organizations to come hear our work. That was amazing. I met people from all over who I never would have met. As a baby professor, being in the room with past Young Scholars who were now associate and full (professors) and hearing their trajectories helped me understand what comes next and what I should work towards. I felt like I got a lot of information from outside my own field of early childhood education that I wouldn’t necessarily be connected to because of the Foundation. So that was very wonderful. We had meetings with New America and we had meetings with NAEYC. There was just a lot of networking and a lot of effort to bring us together. Those connections helped me so much as a tenure-track professor. MPI would ask me to do a report or New America would do a story on an article that I wrote or people would pass along my name to somebody at Washington Post. I feel like the Foundation’s network is kind of amazing.

What was the most beneficial part of the process?
It’s the community. Past and present Young Scholars are invited to everything. I still feel a part of the community and I’m still meeting new people through the Foundation. Being a part of a strong community such as YSP made me feel more brave and able to write larger-impact pieces and tackle research that could make some angry. I got to engage with people throughout the early childhood community who are really working to make change.

What have you learned from your YSP research?
Young children of color are being offered more rote, narrow, simplistic, and heavily-controlled learning experiences than their white and wealthier peers.

It is discriminatory to have some children enacting their agency at school while many children are heavily controlled without the ability to enact their agency beyond some kind of resistance. I think my work has turned people’s attention to agency and how some of the research and interventions aimed at Black and Brown children do real harm. My work signals a need to pay attention to learning experiences; that it’s not just access to early childhood programs but also the experiences that have once they are there. Children’s learning experiences are not equitable by any means and the disparity reveals an ongoing institutional anti-blackness that begins in early schooling. I hope my work as a Young Scholar contributes to the importance of looking at children of immigrants and their experiences at school and the ways in which intersectionality in the combination of immigration status, race, class and gender all come together to impact what kinds of policies, learning, curriculum and engagement young children receive at school. My YSP research also sheds more light on educational ethnography as a methodological option for large scale early childhood studies. Following my mentor Joe Tobin, I have tried to bring attention to young children’s schooling as an important and complex methodological area of study within anthropology.

In what way did your work as a Young Scholar result in new professional opportunities or experiences?
There is an ability to get your work out there more nationally, because of the people that you meet. You also learn how to talk to multiple audiences and how to frame your research for a much larger audience. Trying to translate my work to policymakers impacted how I learned to write. I try to write much more accessibly because I want them to read it.

I just finished a book that’s based on all the Foundation research. There’s been plenty of articles from that work, but there was this story that I wanted to tell in a much more accessible way. I remember having a conversation with NPR in an interview and she asked me a question, and I remember being asked the exact same question at a Foundation meeting and knowing exactly what to say. After that interview, she was like, okay, as soon as the book is done send it to me because I really want to do a story about it. So much of that experience happened because I got to talk to people (through YSP) who didn’t talk about education or young children exactly the way that I was raised to do as a graduate student.

How did YSP help to advance your career?
The research that I did led to the articles in major journals that got me tenure. It led to a book and it led to a lot of opportunities nationally to get my research findings out there and try to address the disparity about what kinds of experiences you get as a young child in early school. It helped me narrow my research area.

It helped me commit to this area of equity and early childhood and be able to find a way to answer the questions that are compelling to me but also come from the communities of color I serve in my work. 

It is helpful to know that there’s a community of people also working on it too.

What advice would you offer to early career researchers who are considering applying for the program?
Don’t give up. Know that you may have a certain way of writing or a certain way of presenting your ideas but that you may have to broaden and do some translation work so that people across disciplines that intersect with early care and education or intersect with child development will be able to follow what you’re saying and how you’re thinking about it. You can’t just write in the way you would for your tiny subfield. You have to be willing to translate and broaden your language so that people across disciplines will be able to see its importance. Research should really come from what the community would like, not what you think they need. It should be something the community is asking for. The community’s ideas and voice should be a part of the study, especially if you’re an outsider like I am.

Assistant Professor
Department of Population Health
New York University School of Medicine

Project Title: Navigating Uncertainty: Understanding the Impact of Immigration-Related Stressors on the Well-being and Work of Pre-K-3rd Grade Teachers and Social Workers Working with Immigrant Families

Dr. R. Gabriela Barajas-Gonzalez has always been interested in the interplay between how communities, families, and schools work together to promote health and well-being in children. She began pursuing research on the impact of immigration-related stressors on the early care and education workforce and the children they work with through the Young Scholars Program (YSP) as a member of the 2018 cohort. Barajas-Gonzalez is currently analyzing quantitative and qualitative data from her YSP mixed-method study.

In December of 2019, she had the opportunity to provide testimony about her YSP research before the U.S. House of Representatives in a Congressional hearing titled, “Growing Up in Fear: How the Trump Administration’s Immigration Policies are Harming Children.”

In this YSP Spotlight, Barajas-Gonzalez shares how her experience as a Young Scholar has influenced her research and her career thus far.

What influenced you to become a researcher?
The biggest influence for me to become a researcher was growing up with immigrant parents and doing a lot of language and cultural brokering for them. Having to be aware at a very young age of multiple inputs of information and having to make decisions that potentially affected my loved ones always made me be thoughtful and careful about finding the “truth” about something. As a researcher, you know that findings depend on who you sample and what the limitations of studies are. When we hear that policies are aimed for certain populations - especially when I am a member of that population - I like to be able to scrutinize the policy. As a bilingual, bicultural researcher, I am asked to vet things for people. There’s always vetting that’s necessary because there are so few bilingual, bicultural providers - whether you’re a provider of research or a provider of education.

What led you to apply to the Young Scholars Program?
I knew about the Young Scholars Program ever since I was in grad school. I would look to see what the opportunities were for developmental psychologists to grow their scholarship and their careers. I looked at what scholars who were ahead of me did in their trajectories. Several of them all had been part of the Young Scholars Program. Once I graduated, I applied for it. I didn’t get it the first time. Luckily, another opportunity presented itself with a new research question due to the immigration climate. I had been working with schools on a project and teachers were asking for support managing anxiety that they were seeing in classrooms. When I saw the question emerging from the community itself, I knew it was a question that was important and valuable. That’s what motivated me to reapply. It was a topic that I could understand from many perspectives. I felt like I could really jump into it and learn myself.

Tell me about your experience in YSP.
It’s been rewarding for a couple of reasons. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of people that I really admire. It has been an opportunity to meet people that I wouldn’t otherwise get to meet. Attending the annual scholars meeting has facilitated a lot of thinking and collaboration. I’m working on a paper right now with several former YSP scholars on the immigration climate. Having the shared YSP experience as basic groundwork to collaborate and build scholarship together has been really invaluable. It’s also nice to not feel alone in this process of learning how to manage a grant because this is my first.

What was the most beneficial part of the process?

The allocation of funds to invest in my own research was huge. One, because psychologically it gave me the assurance that what I was thinking about was valuable.

Two, as a first-gen Ph.D. student, I’m figuring things out, in some ways blindly, because I don’t have role models within my family for how to build a career in academia. The social capital it is giving me by exposing me to other scholars has been invaluable. Three, there’s an expectation of policy relevance and excellence in thinking about what your work does or doesn’t say, which I take to heart.

What have you learned from your YSP research?
One recommendation thus far is that there needs to be greater investment in mental health resources for schools. Teachers who have an expert that they can talk with or collaborate with, such as a school psychologist or school-based social worker, are a lot less stressed than teachers who feel there is no one to collaborate with regarding immigration stressors in the school community. Teachers who perceive leaders to be silent or unaware about the impact of immigration stressors on students convey greater loneliness and stress. Additionally, there’s going to be a huge need for trauma-informed care when students are able to return to school, given the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on students from immigrant families.

Teachers that are more attuned to the communities they work with note that there is a need for more implicit bias awareness in some of their coworkers even at the early grades (pre-K to third grade).

In what way did your work as a Young Scholar result in new professional opportunities or experiences?
In November, a staffer [from Congress] reached out to me to understand a bit more about my research regarding the impact of the immigration climate and immigration stressors on school communities. I had shared the work I was doing for FCD [the Foundation] with someone who ended up getting a SRCD Policy Fellowship and worked with the chairman of the committee that led the hearing. Also, I wrote a social policy report outlining how fear and uncertainty regarding safety and family unity stemming from the immigration climate is a form of psychological violence for some children from immigrant families. That social policy report built off of my FCD [YSP] grant application. I provided testimony as a researcher on the panel with a superintendent, a pediatrician, and an immigration judge. The day of the testimony was surreal. I felt a big responsibility to make sure that I did my best to convey what I was learning and to represent the literature that was out there given the importance of the topic. What was fruitful about the follow-up questions is that they helped me get an idea of policy implications that were important to different representatives about the immigration climate.

How did YSP help to advance your career?
It gave me funding to create, to plan a trajectory that I wouldn’t otherwise have. Plus, having the social support of the other scholars to think about strategies for career growth has been helpful. As I build on my research and prepare to apply for the next grant, I will probably look to the Foundation for guidance and opportunities to speak to other people that have done this before to ensure I think about the full scope of the possibilities. There are a couple of other scholars in YSP whose research I really admire and that I built off of in order to study immigration climate in schools. Our collective work informs the work that we’re each doing. The other scholars are associate professors so they are ahead of me career-wise. It’s been invaluable to talk to them and get their guidance.

What advice would you offer to early career researchers who are considering applying for the program?
I encourage them to apply! I actually encouraged my colleague to do it and she is actually one of the scholars this year.

I think it is an amazing opportunity, especially for underrepresented minorities to be supported in establishing their research trajectory with funding and connections to other scholars forging similar paths. 

Really take the comments you get from the review committee to heart and pay attention to where your intellectual interests are. Being flexible is important and having good mentors you can bounce ideas off of and troubleshoot with is vital.