As early-childhood educators who prepare teachers to meet the needs of all young children, we became deeply concerned when we read a 2011-2012 data collection from the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights that reported preschool suspensions for the first time. The analysis found, among other concerns, that more than 8,000 preschoolers under age 5 were suspended from public preschools at least once—and more than 2,500 of those children were suspended more than once.
Preschool helps young children develop the early foundations for school success. How is it possible that so many children are being deprived of this vital learning experience? How are these suspensions affecting them, and what can be done about it? As we tried to answer these questions, we identified six issues that preschools—and society as a whole—must address.
1. The children suspended are disproportionately black and male.
Black children make up only 18 percent of the preschool population but represented 48 percent of preschoolers with more than one suspension. In addition, 54 percent of all preschoolers are boys, but boys made up 79 percent of suspensions. These figures are cause for serious concern. Given that black boys are disproportionately suspended beginning in preschool, it is important to explore how this loss of vital school time contributes to the achievement gap. If we are to help all children achieve academic excellence, we must work to eliminate practices that contribute to failure in the earliest school years.
2. Preschool-age children are too young to benefit from being suspended.
Because of the way young children think, they have a hard time understanding the reasons for their suspensions or what they can do to be more successful when they return to school. They cannot always make logical connections about why they are forbidden to attend school or reflect on what they can do differently. And they often blame themselves for what happened and think they are “bad.” This can lead to the development of a negative self-concept.
Without explanation, a suspension is unlikely to produce any desired results, and its effects can continue beyond the early school years, putting a child’s social and academic future at greater risk, including compounding the risk factors for that child to become part of the school-to-prison pipeline.
3. Preschool suspensions can have a negative impact on families.
Parents have to make alternative arrangements for the care of children who are prevented from attending school. This can pose a special financial challenge for low-income parents. If a child cannot go to school, who provides and pays for child care while the parent works? Beyond the financial strain, suspending a child can cause social and emotional harm to the family system. Parents often blame themselves or their child for the “failure” without knowing what went wrong or how to make it better. These factors can lead to stress at home and stricter controls on children, which rarely produce better outcomes.
4. Giving teachers inadequate resources for addressing difficult behavior can lead to increased suspensions.
Many teachers have not had adequate training to work with children who have diverse learning abilities, experiences, and needs. Early-childhood teachers need to understand developmental milestones, as well as how children construct knowledge in unique ways and require hands-on, individualized learning experiences when they are young. It is not always possible to find teachers who meet these standards for children in low-income early-childhood settings.
Should preschool be the environment where we punish children for not having the skills necessary to succeed, or is it the place to teach those skills?
A report from the Economic Policy Institute in 2005 studied the workforce qualifications in early-childhood education and found a decline in the percentage of the field’s teachers and administrators with college degrees—from 43 percent in 1983-1985 to 30 percent in 2002-2004—because of low wages and benefits. In addition, large class sizes or lack of resources often mean that programs are unable to provide children who have special behavioral needs with the kinds of support services they require to move beyond the issues that are leading to their suspensions.
5. Increased federal and state mandates to teach developmentally inappropriate academic skills put stress on children.
In the current era of increased accountability for public education, federal and state mandates often result in the teaching of developmentally inappropriate academic skills. Many publicly funded programs, including preschools, have mandates from early-childhood-quality rating systems and common-core kindergarten standards for prescribed, direct-instruction approaches, which leave less time for individualized activities. Yet, early-childhood research shows there are greater gains for children who attend play-based preschool programs than for children who receive a more academic-focused preschool education.
The increased emphasis on academic skills, often to the exclusion of promoting intellectual and social-emotional learning through play, means young children have fewer opportunities to learn how to regulate their behavior, become deeply engaged in the learning process, and develop critical cognitive skills.
6. Economic factors in the wider society are contributing to the problem.
More than 50 percent of children in U.S. public schools live in poverty. Poverty can lead to an absence of the kinds of family resources and opportunities that promote school success. It can lead to underfunded and overcrowded schools and contribute to challenging behaviors in young children that can provoke suspensions. While we must help all children learn to take responsibility for their actions, suspension does not teach children responsibility; it is a form of punishment. Should preschool be the environment where we punish children for not having the skills necessary to succeed, or is it the place to teach those skills?
Our No. 1 priority for preschool should be helping all children believe that they can engage successfully in a meaningful learning process. We should instill in them a sense of trust that the adults in schools are there to help them learn to deal effectively with whatever problems arise. And we also have to teach all children how they can contribute to the development of a more positive world for themselves and others in their school years and beyond. If we allow preschool to become a place where students are punished for behaving the way young children normally do when problems arise—especially if they have not yet had opportunities to develop positive behavior skills—then we are failing to invest in their potential and are instead investing in their failure.
We need to commit to creating preschool environments in which suspensions are not an option. Instead, our goal must be to provide young children with the kinds of positive supports they need to succeed in the early-childhood classroom. We must also work with the families of children who are at risk, with teacher education and in-service training programs, and with the wider community to teach preschool educators how to successfully meet the diverse learning needs of all young children.
A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2016 edition of Education Week as Preschool Suspensions Do More Harm Than Good