First Time Out: A Qualitative Study of Classroom Discipline in Early Childhood Education
Kathryn Boonstra

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



University of Wisconsin-Madison

Primary Discipline

Beginning as early as preschool, African American students are two to four times more likely to be suspended from school than White students. While the scope and severity of disparities in school discipline are well documented, there is an urgent need to understand the underlying school processes and classroom interactions that drive unequal outcomes. In this dissertation, I examine discipline practices during the transitional years of pre-K and Kindergarten, when children’s school experiences are known to have lasting impacts on later achievement, development, and school success. Specifically, I seek to understand how educators construct meaning around student behavior, how these meanings are activated in different relationships and classroom contexts, and what these patterns tell us about the ways race, culture, and discipline intersect in the school lives of young children. I use multiple data sources—including eight months of participatory classroom observation; in-depth interviews with educators, school leaders, and staff; and document and media analyses—to probe teachers’ decision-making processes and to examine how, why, and under what conditions they elect to employ discipline in relation to particular students. Situated in a district that is working to address longstanding racial disparities in academic and disciplinary outcomes, this study will provide insight into how equity-oriented reforms translate into classroom practices.
About Kathryn Boonstra
Kathryn Boonstra is a PhD candidate in the department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research and teaching interests center on issues of equity and social justice in early childhood education, specifically the role of race, culture, and social contexts in early childhood teaching and teacher education. In her dissertation, she investigates classroom discipline in pre-K and Kindergarten settings, and the social, cultural, and historical contexts that shape teachers’ practices. Drawing on ethnographic methods, this work sheds light on the underlying mechanisms that contribute to inequality in school discipline outcomes and educational opportunity more broadly. Prior to coming to UW–Madison, Kathryn taught pre-K and Kindergarten in Washington, DC. She earned a B.A. in International Relations from Brown University and an M.A.T. in Early Childhood Education from American University.

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