New data showing that thousands of children—including a disproportionate number of boys and black children—are suspended from school before reaching kindergarten have researchers and policymakers asking tough questions about pre-K discipline, and highlighting programs that help keep challenging children in preschool.
The notion that preschool pupils even face suspension surprised some, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who called the data “mind-boggling” at a press event March 21 where he rolled out comprehensive U.S. Department of Education data on a broad range of P-12 indicators, including discipline.
The Civil Rights Data Collection for the 2011-12 school year shows that more than 8,000 public preschoolers were suspended at least once, with black children and boys bearing the brunt of the discipline. Black youngsters make up about a fifth of all preschool pupils but close to half the children suspended more than once. Boys of all races represent 54 percent of the preschoolers included in the report but more than 80 percent of those suspended more than once.
The Education Department data do not offer any clues about the reasons behind the disparities. But other research has proposed a number of potential explanations, including teacher bias, classrooms with high numbers of children per teacher, and a higher likelihood of children in poverty showing aggressive or impulsive behavior.
That same research also indicates that suspension and expulsion rates plunge when teachers feel competent about working with challenging young children and supporting their emotional development.
“If you have a preschool program and you expel the children who need it the most, you’re sabotaging your rate of return,” said Walter S. Gilliam, a Yale University associate professor of psychology who has conducted research on preschool discipline. “No child is more in need of a school-readiness-boosting preschool experience than a child who is being expelled or suspended from a preschool.”
The 2011-12 Civil Rights Data Collection offers the first federal accounting of preschool suspensions. The self-reported information reflects disciplinary actions taken in 99 percent of public schools that have preschool children, representing more than 1 million nationally.
Nearly 5,000 preschoolers were suspended once, and more than 2,500 were suspended more than once.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights
The 2011-12 data collection is the first time the Education Department gathered information on preschool discipline. The report outlines a number of education disparities; for example, black children face more discipline and have less access to high-level courses and experienced teachers. Thirteen percent of children with disabilities receive out-of-school suspensions, compared with 6 percent of those without disabilities.
With the preschool statistics in mind, several agencies have created formal and informal programs that provide direct support to teachers and parents, with the hope of curbing dismissals.
For example, the 12-year-old Early Childhood Consultation Partnership in Connecticut provides licensed social workers to work directly with parents and providers in private or public settings, offering coaching and strategies for managing expectations and child behavior. The success of the Chicago School Readiness Project, a training program to help Head Start teachers support positive behavior, led to elements of the program being adopted in several of the city’s Head Start centers.
The Arkansas Better Chance program, which serves about 25,000 children from low-income families, does not allow them to be permanently removed from the program without approval from state officials, and without a chance to direct more resources to that classroom.
“If we can’t do this in early childhood, we have more serious problems in this country than we realize,” said Tonya Williams, the director of Arkansas’ child-care and early-childhood-education division. “I cannot think of any case—and I’ve seen some really extreme cases—where I thought [removal] was warranted permanently. In my mind, we might as well send them on over to the prison,” she said.
The federal Education Department offered caveats about overinterpreting its numbers. The chances of mistakes are higher when districts are asked a question for the first time, the department said.
The data collection also only accounts for preschoolers who are in programs based in public schools. The universe of other settings for young children, such as private providers who have state-funded slots for preschoolers, is not a part of the statistics. The department also collected data on about 220 expulsions nationwide, but it did not offer further analysis on those numbers because the expulsions came from such a small number of schools.
However, the general tenor of the findings—preschools meting out harsher discipline for black children and for boys—matches the research conducted by Mr. Gilliam, the director of Yale’s Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy.
In 2005, he surveyed a sample of 4,000 state-funded preschools, looking at expulsions, rather than the Office for Civil Rights’ focus on suspensions. He found that preschoolers were expelled at three times the rate of students in K-12 settings. Such a process, though, was rarely called “expulsion” by school personnel, he said. Instead, families were often just told that a preschool was not the right fit and that they should look elsewhere.
Mr. Gilliam’s findings delved into demographics as well as classroom structure. Four-year-olds were expelled at a rate about 1.5 times greater than 3-year-olds. Boys were expelled at a rate more than 4.5 times that of girls. African-Americans were about twice as likely to be expelled as Latino and white children, and more than five times as likely to be expelled as Asian-American children.
In his research, large class sizes and long preschool days also correlated with higher rates of expulsion, as were classrooms that reported frequent use of flashcards and worksheets and less time in the day devoted to make-believe play. The more children per teacher, and the longer the preschool day, the more likely a teacher would resort to expulsion. Teachers who reported a high degree of job stress tended to resort to expulsions more so than other teachers.
Mr. Gilliam said his research found that expulsions had more to do with a teacher’s perceived capacity to handle the problem than a child’s behavior. He supports consultation models like the program in Connecticut, which intentionally brings together all the adults in a child’s life.
“I’ve seen a lot of kids expelled or suspended. I’ve never seen an expulsion or suspension where the teachers and parents knew and liked each other,” he said. The empathy “doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, but it can buy you time to fix the problem.”
Elizabeth M. Perry, a social worker who works with centers in southwestern Connecticut, says she has been called in to assist when children have been having major and frequent tantrums, hurting other children in the classroom, or acting out aggressively. Her first step is to bring in the parents and the teachers to talk about expectations. She also observes the child in the classroom and in the home before developing a short action plan for parents and teachers to follow.
The advice may include offering lessons in “feeling words” to the whole class, so that children can express themselves without outbursts, or creating a “cozy corner” where children can retreat if they’re feeling angry or overwhelmed.
She often encourages teachers to connect with pupils when they’re behaving well, rather than to react to disruptive behavior.
Ms. Perry said that removing a child entirely from preschool leaves him or her feeling like they’ve failed. “Then they start kindergarten without having honed social skills at all,” she said.
Researchers as well as the Education Department hope that the numbers might provoke more conversation and a deeper look into the reasons behind the disparities. Biased adults, higher rates of disruptive behavior among children who live in stressful environments, even an introduction of academic content at younger ages—which may come with higher expectations for child behavior—need to be on the table for consideration, said Kyle Snow, the director of the Center for Applied Research at the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington.
“We have this disparity—what do we do with it now?” he said. “This becomes the kicking off of a dialogue.”
Federal officials also are urging action.
“It is our belief that knowledge is power,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department. “Our schools, our districts, our states, and our educational policy leaders should be thinking about what’s in the data and whether it suggests if they should investigate any potential changes.”
Those questions are increasingly important to grapple with as states and cities consider expanding their preschool programs, said C. Cybele Raver, who developed the coaching model in Chicago that helped teachers support the emotional and behavioral development of children in Head Start.
“Preschool teachers are fantastically and phenomenally hard-working, but get very little preservice and inservice training,” said Ms. Raver, who is currently the vice provost of academic, faculty, and research affairs for New York University. What training they do get is around early literacy and math, she said.
“We obviously care deeply about remedying racial disparities in academics,” Ms. Raver said. “What’s important about this data is that it spurs us to care more about remedying racial disparities in kids’ disruptive, and internalizing, behavior problems.”
Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 02, 2014 edition of Education Week as Pre-K Suspension Data Shines Spotlight on Interventions