Suspensions and expulsions in preschool

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The increasing number of children as young as 3 or 4 years old being expelled or suspended from preschool has alarmed parents, educators and now two Cabinet secretaries.

Yet, the behaviors precipitating banishment from preschool do not spring up overnight. Many start to grow when vulnerable babies don’t get the positive start in life that bestows them with the social skills needed to learn in school settings. Increases in expulsions are really a not-so-early warning indicator of a much larger issue: that of children and families under great stress and an early childhood system that is unprepared and lacks understanding of how these stresses affect development and behavior from birth. 

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It may be surprising to know that preschool expulsion rates are more than three times the expulsion rate of students in kindergarten through 12th grade. A Yale University Child Study Center found that the patterns of disparity accompanying these rates begin early: Boys are more than four times as likely to be expelled as girls, and African-American preschoolers are almost twice as likely to be expelled as preschoolers of European descent.

The leading reason for these expulsions is “disciplinary” or “behavior” concerns, both of which are broad and loosely defined terms that offer no productive insights or value. In reality, the underlying causes of impulsive, inattentive, hyperactive and aggressive behavior in young children may be overlooked, misunderstood or inadequately explored. As the statistics on disparities suggest, a lack of cultural understanding may be at work in some cases. But very young children can and do develop full-fledged mental health disorders.

 In many cases the children who are being expelled are the ones who would most benefit from a high-quality early childhood experience. The behaviors that precipitated the expulsion or suspension did not develop overnight and, left without support or access to effective treatment, children will not “grow out” of them. It is likely that there are undetected or untreated issues at play among many of these children, their parents, or in the child-parent relationship. They may be defined as social, emotional, mental; whatever the term used, they are contributing factors to and results of the problems if left unaddressed. The point is that these issues are what must be addressed, whether within or outside of an early childhood program.  And the earlier, the better.

An important step was taken on Dec. 10, 2014 to mitigate the prevalence of preschool suspensions. Education Secretary Arne DuncanArne DuncanIn search of the surest Common Core exit route The opt-out movement and the coddling epidemic Senate approves Obama education chief MORE and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell co-authored a policy statement aimed at improving school climates and discipline while recommending ways to support social-emotional development across the entire educational system. This unique cross-agency alliance certainly underscores increasing concern about the situation.

If national policy to address expulsion and suspension is going to be successful, however, it must provide systemic support for strong, positive social-mental-emotional growth, starting at infancy, as well as early detection and the capacity to respond to problems.

A truly systemic response involves parents, pediatricians and other professionals who support early development within communities. At a minimum, policies must incorporate the need for early childhood program staff and parents to be aware of typical behavior and developmental milestones, when a child’s behavior might be signaling a problem and, ultimately, when program staff and/or parents should seek help. And they must foster strong partnerships with the infant-early childhood mental health system so they know where to turn for help. 

There are good programs in place to learn from and model. In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, the Invest in Children partnership reacted to a swath of troubling local headlines about preschool expulsion rates by launching a multidisciplinary program designed to target and support children dealing with issues ranging from anger to sadness, fearfulness and hyperactivity. The big takeaway from their effort was that 89 percent of the children studied who were at high risk for expulsion remained in their child care setting for at least six months following cross-sector mental and emotional health consultation.    

It is an important step for Secretaries Duncan and Burwell to highlight the negative educational and life outcomes associated with preschool expulsion and suspension practices — and the racial and gender disparities that exist in these practices — and recommend practices to reduce these occurrences. It is equally imperative to develop the capacity to support parents and early care and learning professionals in nurturing children before unhealthy and destructive habits and behaviors are ever formed.

We need to seize the opportunity to promote positive social-emotional development starting from birth and prevent later problems, as Cuyahoga County did, if our youngest and most vulnerable children are going to meet their full intellectual, emotional and social potentials.    

Zeanah is a member of the board of directors of Zero to Three and the Sellars Polchow Professor of Psychiatry at Tulane University School of Medicine. Melmed is the executive director of Zero to Three.