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Revisioning Fairness as Social Justice in Early Childhood Education

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Young children’s ideas of fairness have been studied in a range of laboratory settings with findings that children see fairness as equal distribution of resources. However, many studies occurred in decontextualized environments (i.e., laboratory settings), which hardly provide opportunities for children to exhibit nuanced ways to enact fairness. By observing children in more authentic contexts, their classrooms, this article complicates the concept of fairness as equality and attends to the ways that children respond to issues of fairness by acting as contributors to their classroom communities on a daily basis. Drawing on a larger video-cued ethnographic research project, we specifically focus on full-day films taken across three early childhood classrooms to contextualize young children’s capabilities when they encounter issues of fairness. The findings indicate that young children have the ability to respond to fairness with social justice-oriented solutions by giving up resources, prioritizing other’s needs, and advocating for others. When children confront issues of fairness in real-life contexts, they are capable of finding solutions that endorse equity.

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Data Availability

Due to institutional review board guidelines, data and materials are not available for use beyond approved researchers.

Code availability

The larger civic action and young children study has a detailed coding framework created in Dedoose that is forthcoming in publication but is not available to share yet. Analysis for this manuscript took place with three specific codes taken from the civic action and young children study’s framework. These codes include giving up resources, prioritizing other’s needs, and advocating for others.


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This research study was funded by Spencer Foundation.

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Authors and Affiliations



All authors contributed to the study conception and design. Material preparation, data collection, and analysis were performed by SL, JKA and KAP. The first draft of the manuscript was written by SL and DB. JKA and KAP reviewed and commented on the first draft. Based on the comments, SL edited and revised the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Sunmin Lee.

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Approval was obtained from the Institutional Review Board of University of Texas at Austin. The procedures used in this study adhere to the tenets of the Declaration of Helsinki.

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Written informed consent was obtained from parents/legal guardians and teachers who participated in this study.

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Lee, S., Adair, J.K., Payne, K.A. et al. Revisioning Fairness as Social Justice in Early Childhood Education. Early Childhood Educ J 50, 1083–1095 (2022).

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