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The headlines seemed shocking. Young children—not even old enough for kindergarten—were being expelled from state-financed education programs at higher rates than for older students in K-12 schools.
Now, the same Yale University researcher who drew attention with those findings in 2005 is recommending steps pre-K programs and policymakers can take to reduce the expulsion of preschoolers with chronic and disruptive behavior problems.
Prekindergarten programs should refrain from removing children whose behavior is troublesome, and instead should work to find solutions, Walter S. Gilliam recommends in a study released this week. Reducing preschool class sizes, giving teachers access to expert advice from mental-health consultants, and making sure teachers—especially those working in full-day programs—take regular breaks throughout the day are also ways that early-childhood programs can avoid expelling youngsters who are “most in need of classroom socializing opportunities,” writes Mr. Gilliam, the director of Yale’s Edward Zigler Center for Child Development and Social Policy.
Expelling preschoolers “runs counter to the mission of school readiness and shifts the focus of early education away from the children who need the most help,” says the study, released Jan. 10 by the Foundation for Child Development, a private philanthropy in New York City that focuses on improving the lives of children.
The original study startled many with the news that children were being tossed out of school before they had really begun their formal educations. (“Preschoolers Expelled From School at Rates Exceeding That of K-12,” May 18, 2005.)
Mr. Gilliam’s research, based on a survey of 4,800 classrooms in 40 states, showed that for every 1,000 preschoolers enrolled in state-financed pre-K programs, 6.67 were being expelled from school, compared with 2.09 per 1,000 students in public elementary, middle, and high schools.
• Early-education programs should not expel children with challenging behaviors, but should determine which supports are necessary to keep a child in the program or help the child make a transition to a program better suited to his or her needs.
• Early-childhood-education and child-care teachers should have regular access to mentalhealth consultants.
• Pupil-teacher ratios should be no more than 10 children—preferably fewer—per teacher.
• Teachers should work reasonable hours, with breaks away from children.
• Federal and state funds should be made available to track expulsion rates for public pre-K programs and to implement promising models for improving children’s behavior.
SOURCE: Foundation for Child Development.
There was great variation by state. New Mexico reported 21.1 expulsions per 1,000 pre-K pupils, while Kentucky reported none.
Prekindergarten expulsion rates were also higher in community-based programs—including privately run, but publicly funded, faith-based and child-care-center operations—than they were in Head Start and school-based sites. That finding, experts said, suggested that privately run programs were quicker to remove unruly children, while public schools might be following the same due-process procedures required for K-12 students.
Mr. Gilliam found in the 2005 study that when teachers had access to the expertise of mental-health professionals—more common in comprehensive programs such as Head Start—programs were less likely to expel children with serious behavior problems.
In a recent randomized trial in Connecticut, also conducted by Mr. Gilliam, he found that pre-K and child-care classes that received consultation from early-childhood mental-health experts were significantly less likely than those without access to such professionals to report that children were acting out inappropriately and being disruptive.
Yet, Mr. Gilliam reports in the new study that only one in five preschool teachers surveyed in the national study said they had regular access to a mental-health consultant.
Experts in early-childhood education also used the 2005 findings to argue for increased training for preschool teachers, many of whom have less than a four-year college degree and no special training in the early-childhood field. But Mr. Gilliam’s new report shows that teachers’ credentials and years of experience are not strong predictors of whether their students are being expelled.
Some experts also say that program directors also need to take charge of seeking expert help and working to find solutions for the problem of disruptive children.
Teacher training “is just a piece of it,” said Mary Louise Hemmeter, a professor of special education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and the principal investigator with the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. “If there is a child that is really challenging, it’s the program’s responsibility to build support for the child. The teacher can’t do it [alone].”
The federally funded center works with preschool and child-care programs to find solutions to children’s challenging behaviors, and disseminates research to programs across the country.
The problem, Ms. Hemmeter added, is that too few programs have policies or procedures to respond to such situations.
Mr. Gilliam’s study shows that 32 state pre-K systems allow expulsion or leave the decision up to local administrators. But only eight require any documentation of an expulsion, and only four require programs to offer help to the family, such as a referral to another provider that would accept the child.
Michigan is working to reduce the cases in which parents are asked to permanently remove a child from an early-childhood program. In a partnership between the Michigan Department of Human Services and the Michigan Department of Community Health, the state’s Child Care Expulsion Prevention project involves 31 counties.
“We work with the providers and the parents on how to avoid future episodes,” said Mary Mackrain, a consultant with the program.
During the 2006-07 school year, the project produced a positive outcome—such as retention of the child at the same site or a transfer of the child to a more appropriate site—for 77 percent of the children referred to it.
Mr. Gilliam’s study has shown that African-American boys are far more likely than other preschoolers to be expelled. Carol Brunson Day, the president of the Washington-based National Black Child Development Institute, said that while the new report’s recommendations are helpful, they don’t go far enough to reduce the disparities between black boys and their other peers.
Ms. Brunson Day said more work is needed to recruit and train “teachers who understand the role of culture in the behavior manifestations of children. … We firmly believe that teacher preparation is an avenue to pursue to make a difference.”
Links to Academics
Other authorities say teachers should pay as much attention to developing children’s social and emotional skills as their academic abilities. But warnings that many children are entering kindergarten without important pre-reading and pre-mathematics skills appear to be keeping many pre-K programs from focusing on nonacademic areas.
A 2004 survey showed that of the 36 states that at the time had completed standards for young children’s learning, most were paying far more attention to cognitive development than they were other dimensions, such as social and emotional skills or physical growth. (“Pre-K Standards Said to Slight Social, Emotional Skills,” July 14, 2004.)
Last month, the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning released the results of a four-year study, that showed that efforts to teach qualities such as compassion, cooperation, and emotional regulation in K-12 classrooms also led to growth in academic skills. (“Social-Skills Programs Found to Yield Gains in Academic Subjects,” Dec. 19, 2007.)
Mr. Gilliam’s new study also recommends that publicly funded early-childhood programs keep track of expulsions so that state and federal agencies can study the issue and implement promising models to reduce expulsions.
More research is also needed, he adds, on the factors outside the classroom—in families and communities—that might be contributing to children’s difficulties at school.
“It is likely that many children expelled from preschool programs,” the report says, “began their early educational experiences with pronounced behavioral problems already present.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2008 edition of Education Week