Who May Be Competent? Mothering Young Children of Color with Disabilities and the Politics of Care

In Washington state, schools are not legally allowed to use restraint or isolation as a form of punishment or to correct a child’s behavior (Washington State Governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds [WA-OEO], 2020). So why was eight-year-old Jaleel, a young Black child with a disability attending school in Seattle, repeatedly locked in an outdoor fenced area when he became overwhelmed or upset, without his mother’s knowledge? As KUOW reported, Jaleel’s behavior was interpreted as so outside normative notions of social-emotional competence that the district approved the outdoor space—where Jaleel often ate his lunch alone on the concrete floor—as part of his special education plan (Dornfeld, 2020). Jaleel’s mother, Janelle, described Jaleel as a child who loves caring for younger children and engaging in hands-on projects. Janelle, who first heard of this treatment from Jaleel himself and immediately confronted Jaleel’s principal, poignantly stated, “If I was to lock my son up in a closet, they’d be quick to call CPS on me. So why is it that y’all can lock my son up?” (Dornfeld, 2020). Jaleel and Janelle’s story represents larger patterns of pathologization and criminalization that many Children of Color1 with disabilities and their families experience in schools (S. A. Annamma & Handy, 2021; Hannon, 2019), patterns that begin in early childhood (Beneke, 2021; Love & Beneke, 2021). Like Janelle, Mothers of Color who have young disabled children are often on the front lines (Gumbs et al., 2016; Lalvani, 2019), fighting for the possibility that schools might be places where their children are affirmed and loved. This study focuses on how Mothers of Color who have young disabled children make meaning of underlying constitutions of competence within schools and how they conceptualize possibilities for justice in early childhood. We asked:

  1. How do Mothers of Color who have young children with or “at risk” for disabilities position themselves and their children in relation to normative notions of “competence” in early childhood?
  2. As Mothers discuss their experiences navigating early childhood systems, how do they reveal their priorities and dreams for educational justice in early childhood?

Interrogating constructions of competence in (early) education

Our project builds on scholarship troubling linkages between ableism and racism in schooled constructions of children’s—and their families’—“competence.” Ableism refers to the oppressive ranking, valuing, and categorizing of people’s bodies and minds, based on socially constructed ideals of competency (Lewis, 2021). Racism refers to expressions of power that depend on constructions of race to uphold white supremacy (Omi & Winant, 2014). Scholars argue that ableism and racism interlock (Annamma et al., 2013), such that schools often narrowly define competence (in thinking, learning, behavior) in proximity to whiteness (Leonardo & Broderick, 2011). By ranking and categorizing children’s bodies and minds, schools position children labeled with disabilities as incompetent and inherently inferior (Waitoller & Thorius, 2016), with harmful consequences for Children of Color labeled with disabilities (Artiles, 2013). Simultaneously, school-determined goals for parent involvement—normed on behaviors of middle-class white women (Tutwiler, 2017)—also construct “competence,” and lead to devaluing the ways Mothers of Color care for their children (Cooper, 2009).

Constructing competence in early childhood and disabling young children of color

While often overlooked, the construction of racial-ability hierarchies begins early on young children’s educational trajectories. For instance, early childhood professionals regularly position the development of schooled competencies (e.g., sorting and classifying objects) as universal, predictable, and desirable—assumptions deeply rooted in ableist (Ferri & Bacon, 2011) and white, Eurocentric perspectives (Souto-Manning & Rabadi-Raol, 2018). Children’s individual progress toward dominant norms and benchmarks—that reflect predominantly white ways of being—become indicators of competence, constructing children who do not display these norms as “in development” (Pérez, 2020). Moreover, early childhood curricular frameworks and behavioral expectations dually uphold whiteness (Bryan, 2020; Templeton & Cheruvu, 2020) and narrow notions of ability (Beneke, 2021), institutionally positioning early educators to encourage children’s assimilation into racist-ableist schooling practices. Legislation and assessment practices reinforce notions of normative development (Ferri & Bacon, 2011), emphasizing early detection of children suspected to be “at risk” for disability.

In the US, we see the consequences of labeling and sorting children in relation to “competence” in the overrepresentation of Children of Color in special education. Once labeled, Children of Color with disabilities are more likely to be placed in segregated and restrictive school settings with lower achievement expectations (Artiles, 2013), and increased risk for juvenile incarceration (Losen et al., 2014). Recent state-level data in Washington—where Jaleel attends school—reflect these national patterns (WA-OSPI, 2019). Ranking and categorizing children based on their displays of dominant schooling practices, deeply rooted in whiteness and narrow notions of ability, allows educational systems to position some children as outside the bounds of competence, perpetuating racial-ability hierarchies.

Mothering racialized and disabled children

Families bear the responsibility of navigating disability identification, educational placement decisions, and instructional supports with and for their children (Lalvani, 2019) through rights-based frameworks (Hong, 2020). That is, special education services for children, organized as legal rights, assume that access to general education settings, and interventions aimed at bringing children closer to dominant notions of competence, will achieve equity. While parent participation in educational decision-making is regarded as crucial (Love et al., 2017), school-sanctioned expectations for parent involvement in educational decision-making largely reflect white, middle-class family norms (Love et al., 2021), and are guided by legal documents that prioritize compliance, efficiency, and educator expertise (Bray & Russell, 2016). Such narrow expectations and procedures minimize the contributions of Families of Color (Park et al., 2001), pathologize how Families of Color resist their children’s marginalization (Lalvani, 2014), and construct Families of Color as incompetent.

Deficit-based approaches to parent involvement play out in particularly harmful ways for Mothers of Color. We honor that myriad family members play important caretaking roles in disabled Children of Color’s lives. In this article we specifically focus on Mothers of Color, whose bodies, minds, and caretaking behaviors have historically been hyper-scrutinized and blamed for their children’s disabilities (Kaomea, 2005). Within US (white supremacist, cisheteropatriarchal) society, Mothers of Color—including mothers, grandmothers, and other women-identifying care providers—bear disproportionate care labor (Lynch et al., 2016), and are often positioned to negotiate their child’s disability labeling, challenge professional recommendations, advocate for supports, and resist educational exclusion (Cioè-Peña, 2021). Such care work is often paradoxically deemed as unmotherly (e.g., aggressive, disengaged) based on norms of white femininity (Collins, 2009; Lalvani, 2019). Thus, within dominant parent involvement paradigms and due to intersections of ableism, racism, and cisheteropatriarchy, schools often position Mothers of Color as incompetent, denying their rights and dismissing their insights.

A small body of research documents ways Mothers of Color resist ableism and racism in early childhood settings. McHatton and Correa (2005) revealed the stigma and discrimination that Mexican and Puerto Rican single mothers experienced from educational professionals about themselves as parents and their disabled children. Harry et al. (2005) found that school personnel regularly overlooked the strengths and wisdom of Black mothers of young children with disabilities and, instead, considered their parenting practices as dysfunctional. Cheatham and Jimenez-Silva (2012) analyzed parent-teacher conference discourse, highlighting ways an educator discounted a Latina mother’s strategic advocacy attempts. Though nondominant families may offer insights, understandings, and opportunities to reshape educational practice (Ishimaru, 2018), few studies have positioned Mothers of Color as knowledge generators, asking how they reflect on early educational systems as they imagine possibilities for the future.

Conceptual framing

We conceptually framed our study through two complementary perspectives: Disability Critical Race Theory (Annamma et al., 2013) and revolutionary mothering (Gumbs et al., 2016).

Disability critical race theory

Building on foundational intersectional analyses by Black feminists (e.g., Collins, 2009; Crenshaw, 1989), Disability Critical Race Theory (DisCrit; Annamma et al., 2013) addresses implicit and explicit ways that ableism and racism intersect to socially construct standards of whiteness and ability as normative and desirable. Although all seven of DisCrit’s principles inform our work (see Annamma et al., 2013), here we explicitly draw on two key tenets. First, DisCrit exposes how Children of Color with disabilities and their families are often positioned outside social perceptions of what is considered normal and perceived as “less than” (Love & Beneke, 2021; Love et al., 2021). We used DisCrit to examine how ableism and racism intersect in the lives of young disabled Children of Color and their Mothers within early childhood systems, and how Mothers of Color articulated and resisted dominant notions of competence. Second, DisCrit recognizes multiply- marginalized people to be experts of their experiences in inequitable systems (Matsuda, 1995) and privileges insider voices. We foregrounded the perspectives of Mothers of Color who have young disabled children, positioning them as legitimate, valuable research partners who offer counter- narratives to dominant notions of competence.

Revolutionary mothering

Revolutionary mothering draws from the lineage of radical and queer Black feminists (Jordan, 2005; Lorde, 1984), placing marginalized mothers at the center of visioning for the future (Gumbs et al., 2016). As Gumbs (2016) wrote, mothering includes: “Those of us who nurture the lives of those children who are not supposed to exist, who are not supposed to grow up, who are revolutionary in their very beings.” (p. 20). From this lens, mothering moves beyond an individual biological function, and can instead be conceived as a politicized act, deeply rooted in defiance and radical love (Watson, 2018). Such a view of mothering includes political clarity (Beauboeuf-Lafontant, 2002), or sociopolitical consciousness about the realities of hostile educational systems that perpetuate real harm for multiply-marginalized children (Hannon, 2019). By presuming Mothers’ competence (Biklen & Burke, 2006), revolutionary mothering helped us in understanding how Mothers of Color defend the lives of children who are “not supposed to exist” within dehumanizing institutions, articulating tangible concerns for disabled Children of Color in the present while offering powerful visions for the future.

Together, we engaged DisCrit and revolutionary mothering to understand how Mothers of Color enacted political clarity regarding ableism, racism, and cisheteropatriarchal practices as they challenged dominant notions of competence in early childhood, strategically protecting multiply- marginalized children from harm while dreaming for liberatory educational futures.

Methods

In this qualitative study, we used focus groups to understand how Mothers resisted and imagined beyond ableism and racism in schools. Through guided discussions, focus groups generate understanding about the ways participants collectively understand an issue and construct meaning about it, while eliciting new and varied perspectives (Liamputtong, 2011). Focus groups provided a space not just for us to listen to participants, but also for Mothers to listen to each other.

In co-facilitating focus groups and co-analyzing data, we strove to stay rooted in our theoretical commitments to DisCrit and revolutionary mothering, taking responsibility for our role in defining the study, as well as interpreting and sharing findings. Margaret is a white early childhood scholar and former early childhood teacher who was labeled with a disability as a child. Shayla is a Black, chronically ill Mother of two young children with disabilities and a parent organizer. Selma is a white, nondisabled US immigrant, former special educator, and current director of a special education teacher preparation program. As researchers, our positionalities and varied experiences with “competence” necessarily influenced how and what Mothers shared. We resisted engaging in damage-centered approaches to research (Tuck, 2009) that essentialize experiences, solely documenting pain and oppression. We instead centered Mothers’ agency, seeking to understand their varied critiques and desires in the context of their and their children’s lives.

Context and participants

We gathered participants purposively (Ravitch & Carl, 2021) in relation to our study aims, deliberately seeking participants who: (a) self-identified as Mothers of Color who had children with or “at risk” for disabilities who were served by school districts in Washington state and (b) were willing to engage in conversations about ableism and racism in early childhood. In many ways, our efforts to invite participation began informally, several years before the study officially began. With hopes to support community-led initiatives within our teacher preparation program, alongside our frustration with ubiquitous deficit-based approaches to working with children and families in special education, Margaret and Selma regularly attended neighborhood and regional meetings focused on disability, race, and education. Through our participation, we connected with parent organizers, including Shayla, whose leadership in several grassroots organizations focuses on family support, advocacy, and activism. Drawing on these relationships and through a snowball approach (Ravitch & Carl, 2021), we emailed, called, and texted parent organizers and Mothers we knew, sharing our study aims, inviting participation, and encouraging them to extend the invitation to other Mothers of Color they thought might be interested.

Thirty-three Mothers participated in ten focus groups. Given our analytic focus on ableism and racism in early childhood, we focus here on the perspectives of a subset of participants, specifically the twenty Mothers of Color who, at the time of the study, had young children (birth–9 years old) served by eleven school districts across Washington state. Although we cannot fully capture the complexity of each Mother’s positionality, their varied identities and experiences necessarily influenced what and how they shared. Mothers’ ages, occupations, and family configurations varied, including a single mom and part-time program coordinator at a Black-led nonprofit in her 20s, a married realtor in her 30s, and a retired grandmother and legal guardian of two children in her 50s. Some Mothers grew up locally, others immigrated or relocated to the state. Two Mothers identified as disabled. Three Mothers worked directly with children in public schools, including as substitute teachers and paraprofessionals, and two Mothers actively participated in school-sanctioned parent involvement roles (i.e., parent teacher associations, classroom volunteering). Each Mother, however, was invested in and involved in their children’s education, be it through providing feedback to educators about their children’s support needs, sharing resources with other families, or speaking out about inequitable policies in public forums. See Table 1 for additional demographic information (all participant names are pseudonyms).

Table 1 Participating mothers and their children.

Mother’s nameMother’s racial/ethnic identitiesaChild’s (children’s) age(s)bChild’s (children’s) disability label(s)
DenaBlack5.11 & 7.3Autism, emotional disturbance, speech and language impairment
KimAsian8.1Developmental delay
RaeMultiracial7.2Emotional disturbance
KaylaBlack2.6Hearing impairment
LiaLatina9Specific learning disability
NissaBlack5.0Developmental delay, sensory processing disorder
AletaHispanic6Autism
KarineAsian3.5Autism, sensory processing disorder
LindaHispanic/Peruvian5.4Autism
JoyAsian9Autism, speech and language impairment
AnaLatina5Intellectual disability
ChelseaBlack/White7“at risk”
ZoeVietnamese/White4.5Developmental delay, sensory processing disorder
MaiaBlack5Developmental delay, speech and language impairment, sensory processing disorder
LuaIndigenous Latinx3.7Autism
ErikaBlack7Speech and language impairment
MichelleNigerian/Romanian4.1 & 5.11Autism
AnnissaMexican/Indigenous8ADHD, anxiety
JuneBlack5 (twins)Developmental delay
RhondaNative American9Intellectual disability

aWe share Mothers’ own self-reported racial/ethnic identities. b Child’s age reported in years and months (i.e., 3.5 = 3 years, 5 months).

Data generation

Each of the ten focus groups included two to six Mothers and lasted between 75–125 minutes. Our first five audio-recorded conversations took place in-person and we provided childcare. Following state- wide restrictions due to COVID-19, our final conversations took place in video-recorded virtual meetings. The shift to virtual meetings created access for Mothers from a wider range of geographic locations to participate, but also meant that some were joining us while simultaneously caring for their children. Our evolving sociopolitical context, including uprisings for racial justice as well a global pandemic, surfaced throughout our conversations, as Mothers reflected on meanings of educational justice amid multiple social crises.

At least two authors of the current study participated in each focus group. Our conversations were open-ended, focusing on Mothers’ experiences navigating early education systems and their visions for educational justice. In line with our aims to humanize research processes (Paris & Winn, 2014), we took on a variety of roles (e.g., facilitators, listeners, sharers). Across all our meetings, we began by encouraging Mothers to participate in whatever way felt right, and to attend to their children as needed. We shared our concerns regarding special education’s proliferation of deficit views and the harm we have seen it cause. We then invited Mothers to introduce themselves, sharing a bit about their children’s strengths and what brought them to the conversation.

Conversations then often shifted to discussing Mothers’ visions for educational justice and challenges they saw in realizing these visions. Honoring Mothers’ priorities and perspectives, we followed their leads as they told stories, laughed about the chaos of their lives, shed tears mixed with anger and exhaustion, shared hopes, and gently redirected children who popped in to say “hi.” Throughout these meetings, we restated our interpretations of what Mothers shared, checking to be sure we had understood them as they intended. In our first conversation, several Mothers arrived with artifacts (e.g., articles, handouts) they felt were relevant and wanted to share with us and other Mothers. In subsequent conversations, we invited Mothers to bring any artifacts they would like to share with the group.

Our conversations generated 202 pages of single-spaced transcripts as well as 16 artifacts that Mothers referenced or shared with us and each other during focus groups. Artifacts included: two social media posts; two news articles; four educational mission statements; four academic articles; two classroom teaching materials; and two found objects. Although our study officially ended in August 2020, we continue to stay in touch with Mothers through participation in local events, social media, and ongoing work in our teacher education program.

Data analysis

We iteratively analyzed transcripts and artifacts in Dedoose. During Coding Cycle 1, we used in vivo, process, and descriptive coding (Saldaña, 2015) to construct and define 48 initial codes that centralized how Mothers voiced their perspectives on competence and justice in early childhood. In vivo codes attended to Mothers’ own phrasing (e.g., “I get no information,” “seeing my child’s humanity”), process codes focused on Mothers’ discursive actions (e.g., resisting blame, demanding access), and descriptive codes summarized topics across conversations and artifacts (e.g., needs being met, meanings of respect). We collaboratively analyzed each data source, explicitly defining codes to support consistency.

During Coding Cycle 2, we looked across excerpts of data within each code, looking for connections and incongruencies, shifting units of data, and revising existing code definitions. We collapsed our initial codes into five code categories that directly responded to our research questions: descriptions of children, schooling, mothers’ learning systems, resistance, possible futures. During our third cycle, we returned to the literature and theory (Ravitch & Riggan, 2016), connecting our coding scheme to DisCrit (Annamma et al., 2013) and revolutionary mothering (Gumbs et al., 2016) to construct three themes (see Findings).

Throughout data generation and analysis, we engaged in monthly peer debriefing (Ravitch & Carl, 2021) with a group of community-based, critical scholars who supported us in reflexively processing meanings we brought to the data. Following our construction of themes, we shared our draft findings with participating Mothers and invited their written and verbal feedback regarding our interpretations (Ravitch & Carl, 2021). Based on participant feedback, we revised our findings, foregrounding Mothers’ resistance to having their perspectives dismissed.

Findings

We share three themes that explore how Mothers positioned themselves and their children in relation to “competence,” as well as their priorities for justice in early childhood: (1) mothering for respect and care; (2) learning systems and pushing back; and (3) rejecting and dreaming beyond the status quo.

Mothering for respect and care

Mothers of Color in our study frequently described how they refused to define their children in relation to dehumanizing conceptions of competence, and instead enacted the respect and care their children were not getting in school. For example, Linda explained:

Very little time is given to . . . discuss [her] strengths . . . It’s wiped away sometimes with the comment, “She doesn’t demonstrate this in the classroom.” . . . When she gets to step into the Puget [Sound] or the lake . . . she’s a different kid. She’s happy . . . she’s signing water. Connections are being made instantly right there . . . this is open, this is nature, here’s the sun, this is my shadow, here’s water, here are plants, this is green . . . it’s beautiful. But eventually she’s going to have to be able to sit down in a room, and, unfortunately, for lack of a better word, perform.

Here, Linda described cultivating her daughter’s connection with water and nature in spaces where her child made “connections,” unconstrained by schooled expectations to “sit down” and “perform.” Simultaneously, Linda reckoned with the ways conforming to such schooled expectations meant her child’s actions were interpreted based on what she “doesn’t demonstrate.” Across our data, Mothers shared similar concerns that their children’s identities and capacities were often read through a deficit- based lens in school (Pérez, 2020). Refusing to define their children in such limited ways, Mothers centered their children’s interests and strengths, demonstrating respect and care for their humanity. Similarly, Kim critically questioned expectations for children’s development:

We’re in a society that seems to have . . . a formula for developing the ideal child. Like if you do this and this right, then your child will achieve this and have this opportunity . . . and it just doesn’t work that way . . . yeah I think he’s shown a lot of growth but it’s all come at a price for him emotionally . . . I want him to be considered as a whole person [but it’s] really hard because they want to focus on the deficit and what he can’t do.

Kim’s apprehensions pointed to how dominant notions of growth and development diminished her child’s ways of being. Consequently, educational approaches that encouraged her child’s achievement negatively impacted his emotional well-being. Like Kim, participating Mothers of Color often critiqued practices that narrowly defined competence and fragmented their children. Instead, Mothers argued for viewing their children through the lens of respect and care, seeing them as whole people.

Mothers further asserted that status-quo notions of competence perpetuate exclusionary institutional responses in early childhood. For example, Ana shared:

Having a [disability] diagnosis labels a lot and pushes the person away . . . [with] developmental preschools . . . you are already secluding. Even the names that they give—“container class,” “contain” I mean, to me, it’s like, why do you contain?

Ana questioned why educational systems funnel children out of educational settings and into spaces of containment based on ability, beginning in preschool. She later shared that early childhood special education classrooms, structured to meet children’s “pre-academic needs,” usually included ~10 disabled students and one or two “peer models.” As multiple Mothers stated, these spaces of containment allow educational systems to continue operating as-is, in ways that uphold whiteness and normative ideas of learning and progress (Love & Beneke, 2021). Refusing the idea that multiply-marginalized children—institutionally constructed as incompetent—need to be contained (Ferri & Bacon, 2011), Mothers positioned their children as deserving of respect and care.

Mothers also interrogated what “respect” and “care” mean in early childhood. For example, Lua shared a Tumblr post by Autistic teen blogger @stimmyabby (Figure 1).

She explained:

[Schools say] that to kids all the time. That if you want what you want, you have to listen to exactly what I say and exactly the way I say it. So . . . kids learn that “might makes right,” and they take that out into the world, and the world will validate that over and over and over again in the worst ways . . . we need to show kids respect so that they’ll learn respect. But we are also using different words for what respect means . . . my child being a non-verbal Black child, him as a person and his age aren’t seen the way that other kids’ ages and humanity are seen.

Applying the Tumblr post to the context of schools, Lua reflected on how early educational systems define respect as individual assimilation to adult expectations, and critically questioned dominant definitions of respect that dehumanized her non-speaking Black child. To resist these dehumanizing processes, several Mothers we spoke with (including Lua) mothered for respect and care by homeschooling their children. Collectively, Mothers questioned how school expectations surrounding “respectful behavior” narrowly construct competence, perpetuating ableism and racism. Moreover, Mothers conveyed that schooled notion of respect becomes a kind of curriculum that all children learn, teaching children their worth in relation to others.

Mothers in our study connected these dehumanizing schooling practices to criminalization. When Nissa joined us, she referenced a news article about a Black kindergartener with a disability who was arrested based on perceived behavioral incompetence. Nissa shared, “Knowing the fact that a kid as young as six years old can be arrested, that doesn’t exempt my daughter at all. So it’s just like, okay, something needs to happen.” Nissa went on to suggest this child’s arrest was related to her Blackness and disability, identity markers Nissa’s own preschool-aged child shared. Like Nissa, Michelle came to our conversation prepared with data (Figure 2) documenting the ways disabled Children of Color are hyper-criminalized.

Michelle stated, “[Our] kids are not well educated, taken care of . . . .it feels awful to say that, well, if you don’t care for them . . . they will end up in prison or they will end up dead . . . I have to keep reminding people that the consequences are really dire.” In naming early childhood settings—spaces often associated with care—as sites of punishment (Bryan, 2020), Mothers revealed their rejection of dominant notions of behavioral competence, fighting a system that criminalizes kindergarteners.

Indeed, across our study, Mothers illustrated the many ways “competence” was used to construct their children as outside the bounds of childhood. Mothers shifted blame away from their children, mothering for respect and care within early childhood systems they deemed as dehumanizing.

Figure 1. Lua’s artifact: Tumblr post by Autistic teen blogger @stimmyabby.

Figure 2. Michelle’s artifact: Suspensions (by race and disability), nationally and in WA.

Learning exclusionary systems and pushing back

Mothers frequently shared how they had learned to navigate exclusionary early childhood systems and strategically push back. In particular, Mothers discussed the necessity of resisting current early educational systems in community with other Mothers of Color who have disabled children. Aleta, whose child transitioned to a special education kindergarten classroom in the same year that her husband was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, described her own “mental exhaustion” trying to participate in her child’s education. Aleta connected with other Mothers in a Facebook group to, “listen to other parents’ experiences, especially the ones that have older children [so] that I know some of the things that they had to go to get those [inclusive] services . . . the inside about how the system works.” Similarly, Nissa talked about gathering with other Parents of Color who have disabled children, explaining the value of, “being able to share those same stories. It was just like finally there’s someone else that knows what I’m going through . . . that’s how you’re going to find out about these things . . . the knowledge, the resources, the community.” Indeed, for Mothers who were fighting for their children’s right to thrive in their early education, sharing knowledge and resources was an essential way they held one another as they pushed back.

Mothers engaged in this knowledge- and resource-sharing throughout our focus groups. For instance, as Dena talked about advocating for her children’s inclusion in early childhood settings, she described what it means to speak up as a Black Mother of children with disabilities. Dena shared her experiences navigating the system this way.

I feel that the system . . . was never designed to tolerate anything different other than white males. So outside of that you are already at a disadvantage when you add Black to that, with disabilities, we got a whole different ball game that we’re dealing with. And it’s already stacked against you and . . . you’re supposed to speak tactfully and nicely . . . So you have to be very careful when you’re advocating . . . and I [learned] that very quickly. They called CPS on our family . . . twice.

Dena depicted how early educators repeatedly read her advocacy attempts as threatening, questioning her parenting competencies to the point that they called Child Protective Services. At the same time, Dena critiqued the system itself, recognizing how its fundamental design upholds whiteness, cisheteropatriarchy, and normative notions of ability. Thus, Dena surfaced a critical tension around advocating for her children’s inclusion into a system she did not fully believe in, knowing her advocacy attempts would be read as unmotherly (Cioè-Peña, 2021; Collins, 2009). Understanding this tension, Maia shared her own approach, stating, “I found in a lot of environments, [I just have to] make it clear: I’m just going to sit here in this room until you let my kid show up as himself and support him.” Like Dena and Maia, the Mothers we spoke with recognized that their parenting was surveilled (Kaomea, 2005; Lalvani, 2019) and—with love on the line—they also understood silence was not an option.

To push back on exclusionary systems, Mothers strategically positioned themselves as knowledgeable. For example, as she described advocating for her child’s inclusion into general education settings, Karine shared three different peer-reviewed articles (Figure 3) on racial bias and the experiences of children with Autism.

Karine told the group:

The system always tells you, “Hey, you’re only one warrior, you can’t do it.” I mean . . . I can find this guy on the ResearchGate and send him private messages and he’s going to reply to me. Because I’m going to be following until I’m not going to get what I want . . . when I come to some meeting, I’m like, “You know in the article this, this, this . . . in this journal, impact factor of this journal . . . .” Anyways the problem with the system you always have to have the facts and data.

Karine expressed learning that decisions surrounding children’s disability identification and early educational placement get made based on facts and data. As Karine advocated for her child’s strengths to be seen and his needs to be met, she leveraged ResearchGate—a social networking website for researchers—to re-position herself as competent, identifying and sharing research-based articles with educational decision-makers, as well as participating Mothers. She pragmatically used these studies to legitimate her stance regarding inclusive education, even as she critiqued the system’s over-reliance on data as a means for decision-making.

June talked about how she had learned to protect her two children from being excluded and punished by going above and beyond school-sanctioned parent involvement expectations (Love et al., 2021). After listing countless ways that she did this, including volunteering, arriving to meetings early, and creating her own early educational materials at home, June explained.

I want to pave the way with staff and teachers . . . so if my children have done something wrong, you go, “Oh, that’s the parent that volunteers. We can talk to her.” . . . I want [educators] to know [my children are] coming from a household that takes education seriously. That if there is a problem, please, I [hope I] have done enough for you to talk to me . . . but it’s just that extra, extra . . . it’s exhausting to do that extra just so they’re not labeled. Or just so they don’t get expelled.

June described that “extra, extra” as a way of defending her young children’s right to exist in an exclusionary system stacked against them. That is, even as June put in additional labor to establish trust with educators and create a safety net for her children in ways that align with behaviors of white, middle-class women (Tutwiler, 2017), she recognized her efforts to prove she was more-than-competent were unsustainable. As June described, this extra burden was wholly exhausting, and resonated with the ways multiple Mothers in our study took on disproportionate care labor (Lynch et al., 2016). Across our conversations, Mothers shared how they learned to deliberately push back on deficit framings of themselves and their children as a matter of necessity, advocating for their children’s inclusion into early childhood settings with political clarity (Beauboeuf-Lafontant, 2002).

Figure 3. One of Karine’s artifacts: A peer-reviewed article.

Rejecting and dreaming beyond the status quo

As they worked to address tangible concerns for their children’s participation within the current system, Mothers rejected notions of educational justice as conformity and erasure, and shared dreams beyond inclusion into the status quo. For instance, Kim insisted that early educators must not ignore the structures they operate within. She shared: “[I need his educators to] look at institutionalized racism . . . look at ableism . . . I had to go research this myself as a parent, looking at eugenics. Does anybody talk about eugenics? None of his [educators] know anything about eugenics.” Indeed, Kim suggested that teachers need to account for the harm that ableism and racism have co-created throughout history (Annamma et al., 2013), recognizing how special education carries forward histories of eugenics by intervening on children. Naming this history of erasure, Mothers demanded educators reject its reproduction.

Mothers also shared desires for what their children deserved in early childhood education but had not yet experienced. As Maia explained:

Education has traditionally been this thing that we’ve herded white women to indoctrinate our children in how to go and function in a settler colonial society. I feel like if we took all the policies and the cultural tendencies of white supremacy . . . perfectionism, paternalism, fear of open conflict . . . if we looked through the policy and unpacked it to where . . . you don’t have to worship the rules and there’s some flexibility . . . to where [he’s] not having to fit into a box in order to get [what he needs].

Here, Maia highlighted the ways racism and settler colonialism show up in current early childhood policy. Rejecting policies that position white women to encourage children’s and families’ conformity, she imagined how unearthing the characteristics of white supremacy culture (Jones & Okun, 2001) might support the construction of an open, responsive system that would allow her child to be who he is, while knowing that if she or her child asked for supports, their needs would be met.

Lua further expanded on the notion of children’s agency, reading a post that she had found on Facebook (Figure 4).

Lua went on:

Figure 4. Lua’s artifact: Facebook post.

I guess that’s what I want . . . inclusion would be great, but what does that even mean because [my child’s] still going to be treated like shit wherever he goes? I’m still treated like shit a lot of times, so I need more than whatever inclusion is. I need full-on acceptance, thriving.

By sharing this post, Lua rejected inclusion into the current system as a viable solution and dreamed of an early childhood education that cultivates multiply-marginalized children’s and their Mothers’ capacities to thrive. Annissa agreed, adding, “[C]ompassion, understanding, patience. Treat them like kids . . . [knowing] they aren’t responsible for everything . . . justice for sure looks like that.” In the context of a system that locates deficits within children, funneling them out of educational settings (Hannon, 2019; Harry et al., 2005, Mothers in our study explicated their desires for multiply- marginalized children to be treated as children who have needs, questions, and insights, instead of asking them to carry the blame for the structural ableism-racism they experience.

As we spoke, June took out an expandable sphere (one of her children’s toys) (Figure 5).

Opening the sphere, June said she wanted her children to know, “Right now you’re on the inside, growing. And all the adults are on the outside with their hands linked together. Taking care of you. Protecting you.” June emphasized adults working together, and contended that her children —often positioned as incompetent and outside the bounds of childhood—deserved space and the freedom to imagine themselves as children too. Expanding on June’s example, Ana stated, “So it’s not that we want to be special, the ‘special education,’ and it’s not that a typical kid is the pure model. It’s like, there is something to offer from our kids to other kids.” Contesting static constructions of “special education” which position her child as always in need, Ana suggested that multiply-marginalized children have insights and valuable perspectives to share. Like June and

Figure 5. June’s artifact: expandable sphere.

Ana, many of the Mothers we spoke with longed for early childhood systems that would allow their children to be their full selves in early learning, as they build relationships and connections they want and need.

Discussion

Bringing DisCrit (Annamma et al., 2013) into conversation with revolutionary mothering (Gumbs et al., 2016), we explored how Mothers of Color who have young disabled children made meaning of “competence” within schools and conceptualized possibilities for justice in early childhood. Mothers in our study embodied and enacted revolutionary mothering, offering counterstories to dominant notions of competence rooted in ableism, racism, and cisheteropatriarchy that dismissed their wisdom (Lalvani, 2019; Love et al., 2021). Through mothering for respect and care, pushing back on exclusionary systems, and rejecting and dreaming beyond the status quo, Mothers reframed their children’s competence and also reclaimed competence for themselves.

In our study, Mothers viewed early education as a normalizing system that upholds whiteness and narrow notions of ability. From their perspectives, dominant notions of competence rendered disabled Children of Color as less human, worthy of exclusion and punishment from the moment they begin school. Specifically, they described how the system utilizes “competence” to perpetuated deficit views of children through: (1) practices that stressed assimilation to adult expectations; (2) institutionalized processes that emphasized fixing children; and (3) educational exclusion. In response, Mothers demanded authentic respect and care, seeking to protect their children from harm through a variety of means (i.e., volunteering, educating themselves, advocating for inclusion), while dreaming beyond the current system.

Skrtic (1991) highlighted how schools have long been rooted in a functionalist view of educational practices as “objective, inherently orderly, and rational” (p. 152), and that legitimize the labeling and exclusion of disabled children. With political clarity, Mothers in our study refused this organizational logic, re-orienting toward teaching and learning in solidarity with multiply-marginalized children and their families. From their perspectives, early education systems must explicitly reject the idea that “some lives are throwaway” (Shalaby, 2020, p. 41). By interrogating dominant notions of competence, decentering educator expertise, and considering what educators stand to learn through reciprocal relationships with multiply-marginalized children and their families, Mothers imagined early education as networks of respect and care.

Implications

Based on study findings, we offer three interrelated implications for teaching and learning in early childhood. First, Mothers in our study were clear that early educators and leaders must eradicate policies and practices that allow systems to label and exclude children for whom the system does not work (Skrtic, 1991)—including placements and policies that allow young disabled Children of Color to be excluded, suspended, expelled, or arrested. Simultaneously, early educators and leaders can account for the ways schooling perpetuates harm as a way to move beyond it. Drawing on the theoretical tools of DisCrit (Annamma et al., 2013), early educators and leaders can reckon with histories of oppression—including histories of eugenics and scientific racism (Baynton, 2001)—carried forward by dominant constructions of competence. By critically examining how racism and ableism co-constitute narrow notions of competence (in thinking, learning, and behavior) through various elements of early education systems (i.e., developmental guidelines, early learning standards, placement decisions; Beneke, 2021), educators and leaders can continuously recognize and contest policies and practices that perpetuate the ranking, categorizing, and pathologizing of children.

Second, Mothers insisted that early childhood policies and practices be rooted in authentic love and respect for their children. Though early education is often perceived as a place of care, to authentically enact care, early education can radically re-imagine competence through the lens of interdependence (S. A. Annamma & Handy, 2021). That is, educators and leaders must dismantle the myth that any learner moves through the world without support (Brown, 2012)—and instead frame young children, educators, and knowledge itself as interrelated, supportive entities. Doing so requires that educators and leaders recognize multiply-marginalized children’s (and their Mothers’) capacities (Biklen & Burke, 2006), viewing their ways of being and knowing as legitimate. Moving values for interdependence into classroom management means emphasizing care (vs. control) and accountability to community (vs. authority) through restorative and healing-centered practices (Shalaby, 2020). Translating care to pedagogy, leaders and early educators must resist standardized curricular interventionist approaches aimed at “fixing” young children’s thinking, learning, or behavior (Love & Beneke, 2021), and instead draw on asset-based pedagogies (e.g., Paris, 2021), demanding pluralism both in what is learned and in forms of participation (Waitoller & Thorius, 2016), and cultivating multiply-marginalized children’s joy as well as resistance to injustice in their worlds (S. Annamma & Morrison, 2018).

Finally, any systemic change in early childhood must take place in coordination with Mothers of Color who have young children with disabilities. Doing so requires early childhood systems to fundamentally reframe how multiply-marginalized families might participate in change. In our study, Mothers of Color narrated how they strategically resisted aspects of current early educational systems—including deficit-based expectations around parental involvement—with political clarity, and shared these resistance strategies in the context of community-based parent organizations. Leveraging families’ collective wisdom within parent organizing groups (Ishimaru, 2018) can be a powerful catalyst for dismantling ableism and racism in early childhood systems. Moving beyond extant models of parent compliance with the status quo (Hong, 2020), Mothers of Color can be positioned as leaders, whose knowledge and insights into the goals of early learning can support socio-political change-making.

Conclusion

We conclude this article where we began, with the story of Jaleel—a young disabled Black child who was isolated and punished in school without his Mother’s knowledge, based on his perceived deviance from socio-emotional competence. We urge readers to consider how the perspectives of Mothers in our study might be leveraged to create a more loving story for Jaleel and his Mother in early education, one that decenters educator expertise and recenters Jaleel’s and his Mother’s agency, positioning Jaleel as a child within a learning community that recognizes the fullness of his life.

Note

1. We capitalize Black, Indigenous, Latina/x, Asian, Pacific Islander, Multiracial, and Children/Families/Mothers of Color. This is not meant to flatten or erase the unique struggles of specific communities but to signify patterns of racial subjugation and resistance.

Acknowledgments

We would like to thank each of the readers who has offered support in the development of this article. A special thanks to Manka Varghese, Marge Plecki, Ana Elfers, Carly Roberts, and all the participating Mothers, whose feedback and insights strengthened our writing. Additionally, we thank the reviewers and editors at Equity & Excellence in Education. We deeply appreciate the time and care each of you committed to grow the ideas presented here.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

Notes on Contributors

Margaret R. Beneke, PhD, is an assistant professor in the College of Education at University of Washington and a former early childhood teacher. Dr. Beneke’s research examines the ways ableism and racism intersect in early childhood and teacher education settings, as well as how multiply-marginalized young children, their families, and their teachers make meaning of and resist these processes. Her work has been published in Educational Researcher, Journal of Literacy Research, and Whiteness and Education.

Shayla Collins is a Continuing Education Specialist at the University of Washington’s Center for Child and Family Well- Being and a mother of two boys with disabilities. She supports multiply-marginalized families through her parent organizing and leadership in Families of Color Seattle, Arc of King County, and Guided Pathways. Ms. Collins also facilitates for Children’s Hospital’s Odessa Brown Children’s Center Mindfulness & Compassion Program Team, and co-facilitates sessions with formerly incarcerated individuals through Progress House.

Selma Powell, PhD, is an associate teaching professor in the College of Education at University of Washington, where she serves as the director for the Special Education Teacher Education Program. Prior to her doctorate, she worked in public schools for nine years, from preschool through fifth grade. Dr. Powell’s research and passions lie in the preparation and induction of critical, inclusive teachers who can support and sustain multiply-marginalized children and their families.

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