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Throwing a tantrum, crying inconsolably, hitting or biting, and refusing to follow the rules are challenging behaviors that many preschoolers experience on the playground and in the classroom.
For many children, these tear-stained incidents are quickly forgiven and forgotten, dismissed by caregivers as yet another tumultuous developmental stage to be weathered. But for some youngsters, the incidents have repercussions that resonate throughout their childhood and beyond.
That’s one of the reasons that California’s new Master Plan for Early Learning and Care, an ambitious 10-year plan to reform the state’s early childhood system, calls for prohibiting the suspension and expulsion of any child in state-subsidized early learning and care programs, so that children are not deprived of opportunities to learn at a critical stage in their growth. Such practices disproportionately impact children of color, particularly Black boys, experts say.
“There are times when young children get suspended or expelled for behaving like young children,” said Joseph Johnson, former dean of the College of Education at San Diego State University. “It is counterproductive for our state to allow early care and education providers to exclude children at a time when they are most in need of support, care and guidance.”
In fact, preschool children, who often struggle to regulate their emotions, are expelled at rates more than three times higher than children in K-12 settings, according to a report from the Children’s Equity Project, a research organization at Arizona State University. The National Survey of Children’s Health found that an estimated 50,000 children under 5 were suspended, and 17,000 were expelled, across the nation in 2016.
“Expulsions in early childhood education vastly outnumber those in K-12. That needs to change immediately,” said Mary Ignatius, statewide organizer of Parent Voices, a parent advocacy group. “Young children with big emotions due to living in poverty or living with trauma need support. We need to look at what their lives are like to understand their behavior.”
Equity in education has proved an elusive goal as racial disparities persist. Black preschoolers, for instance, remain far more likely to be suspended than their white peers, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection, a national survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Education. Black boys make up 18% of the male preschool enrollment, but 41% of male preschool suspensions, and Black girls constitute 19% of female preschool enrollment, but account for 53% of female suspensions, according to a Children’s Equity Project analysis of recent federal data.
“When it comes to racial disparity in suspensions and expulsions, the bottom line is that we have zero evidence that Black children behave worse or have more frequent misbehavior,” said Shantel Meek, founding director of the Children’s Equity Project. “In other words, the behavior is not driving the disparity.”
Harsh discipline at such an early age can have lasting consequences. Research suggests that children who are suspended in preschool are more likely to drop out of high school and become incarcerated, according to the Center for American Progress, a public policy research and advocacy organization.
“When children are excluded from services, they assume that they are not wanted, not valued and not capable of succeeding in school. What a devastating message to communicate to any young child,” said Johnson, a founding member of Black Men for Educational Equity, an advocacy group. “In contrast, healthy societies work diligently to communicate to their children that they are valued, brilliant and lovable because research shows that those early messages can have lasting impacts on childre’s sense of worth and efficacy.”
How to dismantle the structural inequities that make some children more likely to get pushed out of the system than others remains a complicated matter. Raising awareness of the issue of implicit bias isn’t enough, experts say.
“We need reporting requirements where states and localities are required to report on disparity and are held accountable for addressing it,” said Meek, who was a senior policy adviser for early childhood development in the Obama administration. “We need coaching and training specifically on bias, being aware of it in our decision-making and identifying concrete ways to prevent it from manifesting into adult behaviors that hurt children.”
Some scholars suggest that the answers lie in gathering more comprehensive data. You can’t fix a problem if you can’t see it clearly.
Many also suggest that while prohibiting suspensions and expulsions in the early years is a good first step, it won’t give overburdened teachers and caregivers the tools they need to engage these children effectively.
“Even one child with behavior issues can be difficult and demanding and exhausting,” said Stanford University professor Deborah Stipek, an early education expert. “What if you have 20 children and a few of them are bouncing off the walls and you’re not trained in how to deal with them. How do you keep the other 18 engaged?”
To institute lasting change and increase equity in the early childhood world, advocates say, it will take a significant investment of resources. Suspensions and expulsions increase, they say, with larger class sizes and longer days, key factors that place greater stress on children and adults.
“Policy change needs to be accompanied by funding for resources,” Meek said. “The hope is that money will accompany the implementation of the plan to help address some persistent challenges associated with structural underinvestment and systemic racism and bias.”
Johnson hopes the state’s new master plan will pave the way for substantive investments in structural changes that promote equity.
“As a society, we have claimed to not have the resources to pay the price associated with these supports; however, we have chosen to spend much more when we have failed to educate millions of children,” said Johnson, “and we find ourselves responding to our failures through various social service systems or the prison system.”
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