Federal officials are sounding an alarm: children who are being suspended or expelled from preschool need help.
“Recent data indicate that expulsions and suspensions occur with regularity in preschool settings,” according to a recent letter signed by both U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia M. Burwell and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
Expulsions are “a problematic issue” Burwell and Duncan write, because removing children from preschool programs can have “adverse outcomes across development, health, and education. In addition, stark racial and gender disparities exist in these practices, with young boys of color being suspended and expelled at much higher rates than other children in early learning programs.”
The secretaries add: “These trends warrant immediate attention from the early childhood and education fields.”
Providing the immediate attention that Burwell and Duncan call for can make a huge different in the lives of children and their families, as a New York Times opinion piece by Sara Neufeld explains:
“A few years ago, a boy here was on the verge of being expelled because his teacher felt he was a danger to his classmates.
“He was 4 years old, in preschool.
“This situation is all too common. Preschoolers are expelled at three times the rate of children in kindergarten through 12th grade, with African-American boys being most vulnerable.
“This boy — I’ll call him Danny — was lucky, though. His teacher received assistance from a specialist, Lauren Wiley, an early childhood mental health consultant. Wiley started off by listening. The teacher had said she thought Danny (not his real name) needed to be medicated for attention deficit disorder, or A.D.D. Then she admitted she was angry with him. Her job was to keep her students safe, she said, and the boy’s aggression made her feel like a failure.”
“It came out that Danny had witnessed his father beating his mother and then being taken away in handcuffs by the police. No one had talked with Danny about the event. As with many children, what was thought to be A.D.D. was actually a result of trauma. Danny needed his teacher to empathize with him, to give him warmth and a sense of safety — not to wish to be rid of him. After the intervention, she warmed to him, and gradually he warmed to his time spent in the classroom.”
And as an article in Chalkbeat Colorado explains, even parents who have studied the problem of preschool expulsions can be affected:
“When Sarah Davidon’s son was in preschool in Douglas County, he would often bite or hit other kids. Once he pinched a teacher on the arm. Another time he punched her in the stomach.
“Although the teachers tried to be patient with his outbursts, Davidon worried that the center’s director would ask that the boy be removed from care—what many might call an expulsion.”
The article adds: “The irony is that Davidon is a faculty member of the University of Colorado School of Medicine who studies preschool expulsions and early childhood mental health. She’s also board president of the Colorado Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health.”
Among the strategies that seem to help prevent expulsions, the article says, are “teacher trainings focusing on children’s social-emotional development. These include programs like Pyramid Plus, The Incredible Years and ‘Expanding Quality for Infants and Toddlers.’”
“Another option for providers is bringing in early childhood mental health consultants. The state funds the equivalent of 17 full-time positions. Such consultants observe classroom dynamics and help teachers adjust schedules, change room layouts, and otherwise tweak instruction to better handle challenging children.
“That’s what helped in Davidon’s case. Her son, now a first-grader in the Jeffco school district, didn’t end up getting expelled from preschool. Instead, as things deteriorated during his four-year-old year, she called in a friend who worked as an early childhood mental health consultant in Douglas County.”
Research Findings and Policy Implications
In a 2007 report, Walter Gilliam, a Yale professor of child psychiatry and director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, wrote:
“Severe behavior problems during the preschool years are a meaningful predictor of continued behavior problems, poor peer standing, and academic difficulties during kindergarten.”
The good news, however, is that, “high quality early education and intervention programs may prevent severe behavior problems in young children, especially for those from low-income communities and families.”
And, “Pre-kindergarten teachers who report having an ongoing relationship with a classroom-based mental health consultant are about half as likely to report expelling a preschooler, relative to teachers with no such support.”
But as the Times reports, “Still, most early childhood settings do not have routine access to consultants, according to Deborah Perry, a Georgetown University professor who directed the National Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation.”
To address some of the challenge of preventing expulsions, Burwell and Duncan’s departments have released a policy statement “to support families, early childhood programs, and States by providing recommendations… for preventing and severely limiting expulsion and suspension practices in early childhood settings.”
This information includes:
• recommendations on establishing “preventive, disciplinary, suspension, and expulsion policies and administering those policies free of bias and discrimination”
• recommendations on “setting goals and using data to monitor progress”
• a focus on “early childhood workforce competencies and evidence-based interventions and approaches that prevent expulsion, suspension, and other exclusionary discipline practices,” and,
• free resources to help states, programs, teachers, and providers address children’s social-emotional and behavioral health and also strengthen family-program relationships.
Calling for change that will improve children’s lives, Burwell and Duncan write in their letter:
“Together, we can make progress in addressing this issue, by partnering with families and communities, investing in the early childhood workforce, and establishing appropriate policies and applying those policies consistently. An important step in closing the ‘opportunity gap’ is ensuring that all of our youngest children are afforded the experiences they need to thrive, from day one.”