Early Childhood

Mother Pens Powerful Essay on Preschool Sons’ Suspension

By Christina A. Samuels — July 25, 2014 2 min read
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Anyone interested in early-childhood education has probably read—or should read—Tunette Powell’s essay on The Washington Post website about how her preschool-age sons, both African-American, have been suspended from preschool eight times so far this year.

I blamed myself, my past. And I would have continued to blame myself had I not taken the boys to a birthday party for one of JJ's classmates. At the party, the mothers congregated to talk about everyday parenting things, including preschool. As we talked, I admitted that JJ had been suspended three times. All of the mothers were shocked at the news. "JJ?" one mother asked. "My son threw something at a kid on purpose and the kid had to be rushed to the hospital," another parent said. "All I got was a phone call." One after another, white mothers confessed the trouble their children had gotten into. Some of the behavior was similar to JJ's; some was much worse. Most startling: None of their children had been suspended.

What the essay does not have is comment from the preschool. Many readers have jumped on that fact in the comments, suggesting that Powell, who lives in Omaha, Neb., is a bad parent making excuses for her children, now 5 and 3. And it is true that one set of anecdotes cannot tell a full story.

But the Education Department did attempt to define the scope of the issue earlier this year, when it released data from the Office of Civil Rights noting that black children make up 18 percent of the preschool population, but 48 percent of the population of children who are suspended from preschool for more than a day.

Walter Gilliam, director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University, took a look at the issue nationally and has found that black children were twice as likely to expelled from preschool compared to their their white classmates. There’s also evidence that behaviors from black children are seen as more threatening than behaviors from children who are not black: A recent study examined how teachers tend to perceive “make-believe” play of black children negatively.

What readers often question is whether the behavior of black children is worse than their classmates, either because black children disproportionately experience stress in their environments that leads to acting out at school, or because of some inherent difference among black children and children of other races.

Russell J. Skiba, the director of the Equity Project at Indiana University and Natasha Williams, a graduate assistant with that program, examined that topic in March 2014 review of recent research on discipline and racial disparities. The research they collected indicated that black children were disciplined more, even when controlling for such factors as socioeconomic status or the nature of the offense.

Powell ends her essay with a promise to be more involved at her children’s school, and an encouragement for others to do the same. Gilliam, in an interview with me, also suggested that black parents build a relationship with school employees before issues arise.

But the essay, and the statistics, also raise an issue for those in the early-childhood field. What, if anything, needs to be changed?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.