DOI: 10.1177/14639491241229227 ISSN: 1463-9491

Agonist relationships in the toddler classroom: Exploring the connection between conflict and care

Cassie Sorrells, Samara Madrid Akpovo
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Education

Dominant Western discourse in early childhood education frames conflict as a disruptive and damaging force that is antithetical to the “ideal” classroom environment. However, critical early childhood scholars have begun to reconceptualize the role of conflict in early childhood classroom dynamics, exploring its potential as a productive and necessary force that supports current and future political participation for young children. This paper draws from data collected during an eight-month ethnography of care practices in an infant/toddler classroom at a university laboratory school in the Southeastern United States. Using Chantal Mouffe's theories political conflict, we interpret one teacher's understandings of conflict in her classroom and the practices that she engaged in support of what Mouffe would term “agonist conflict” (i.e., friendly, rather than antagonistic, conflict). Findings demonstrate that this teacher views agonist conflict to be a productive process for young children—one that enables them to articulate their political subjectivities as members of their classroom community and one that will foster their engagement as citizens of a broader democratic society. As such, the emotional support and scaffolding she provided to support such engagement constitute a political form of care. This research holds implications for reconceptualized understandings of peer conflict in early childhood contexts and insight into how teachers can better support children's developing political engagement through agonist conflict with their peers.

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