Empty Seats at Circle Time: Taking On Preschool Suspension & Expulsion

By this point, most families of preschoolers have settled into their school-year routines. But for a startling number of American families, this routine is subject to change abruplty through disciplinary measures, including suspension and expulsion in pre-K.

Why are suspensions and expulsions so troubling for young children? A joint statement from the National Association of Educators of Young Children, signed by over 30 national organizations, lays out the concern:

“Expulsions and suspensions in early childhood education both threaten the development of these positive relationships and are a result of the lack of positive relationships between educators, families and children. Expelling preschoolers is not an intervention. Rather, it disrupts the learning process, pushing a child out the door of one early care and education program, only for him or her to be enrolled somewhere else, continuing a negative cycle of revolving doors that increases inequality and hides the child and family from access to meaningful supports.”

An estimated 8,700 preschoolers are expelled from their state-funded pre-K programs each year, a rate three times higher than in K-12 grades. Many states and districts have passed policies in recent years to ban or put restrictions in place around the use of these measures, but the problem perseveres. Many more students are suspended each year, which still causes an interruption to a child’s learning as well as potential difficulties for parents who work or are in school.

These policies are not applied across the board; Black students are suspended and expelled at rates higher than their other-race peers. Blacks boys are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended, compared to a white preschooler. New research on “implicit bias” indicates that early educators more closely observe Black boys for misbehavior, particularly if they have been warned there may be challenging behaviors. While the study did not find differences by race in terms of whether suspension/expulsion was recommended, it has highlighted a fact that many of us prefer to deny – racial biases may sneak into our daily perceptions without us knowing it, and can have negative impacts on the children entrusted to our care.

What can we do? It is essential to provide teachers, parents, and other adults with resources to respond appropriately to challenging behavior. While several states have taken steps to ban or limit these disciplinary actions, teachers may feel they have lost a necessary tool to maintaining order in their classrooms and protecting other students from disruptive behavior. We can learn from efforts in Connecticut, arguably the state that has made the most success in banning suspension and expulsion. They have done this by giving teachers the time and resources to address root causes of disruptive behaviors, as this piece from the Hechinger Report highlights:

“’In Connecticut, they didn’t just pass a law; they passed a very nuanced and detailed law….It’s comprehensive and savvy with a lot of safeguards, much more detailed than what districts usually do.’ Another distinguishing characteristic of Connecticut’s effort is that the state provides supports to its school districts, and to the agencies that are expected to support them in implementing the policy, rather than relying on individual school districts to organize and fund the supports needed.”

Connecticut has had significant success with an intervention called Early Childhood Consultation Partnership. While states and districts may balk at the idea of spending time and money on new techniques to address behavior, embracing evidence-based responses is cost-effective in the long run – children who are expelled in early childhood are 10 times more likely to drop out of high school according to federal government’s policy statement, which has high costs for individuals, families, and taxpayers.

In August, ICS hosted the event “Closing the Discipline Gap is the Key in Closing the Achievement Gap” with Dr. Rosemarie Allen, President of the Institute for Racial Equity and Excellence. Dr. Allen has previously spoken at TedxMileHigh not only about the research on early childhood but as her own experience being suspended for typical curious child behaviors:

Dr. Allen’s message is a clarion call not only in the classroom, but for all adults who work with children – “the key to managing the difficult behaviors of children is to manage our own behavior as adults.”

 

– By Megan Carolan, ICS Director of Policy Research

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