Preschool Suspensions: Young Children Who Are Being Left Behind

Young children have now begun the new school year, many for the first time. How many will not be allowed to finish the school year due to being expelled or miss significant time in school due to suspension for unacceptable behavior or for violating some mandatory school policy?
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Co-authored by Dr. Denisha Jones

Young children have now begun the new school year, many for the first time. How many will not be allowed to finish the school year due to being expelled or miss significant time in school due to suspension for unacceptable behavior or for violating some mandatory school policy? The most recent figures available come from a 2011-2012 study from the US Department of Education found that more than 8,000 public preschool students were suspended at least once, and almost half of those children more than once.

As early childhood educators who train teachers to promote the optimal development, learning, and overall wellbeing of all young children, we read these figures with deep concern. And we have many urgent questions that are not being adequately addressed at any level of society.

• Who are these children who cannot make it through a preschool program year? The Department of Education study found that a disproportionate number were black, low income, boys, disabled and/or English-language learners. These patterns represent many of the disparities that will continue throughout the school years and beyond.

How will these suspended children understand what happened--what led to their suspension and why they cannot go to school? Young children do not think the way adults do. But their thinking, which is generally more like a slide than a movie, makes it hard for them to see logical causal connections--so they are unlikely to fully understand what they did that led to the teacher rejecting them and forbidding them from coming back to school. Their egocentrism and inability to take multiple points of view is likely to lead to their blaming themselves for what happened. Thus, young children are likely to understand little about a suspension that will help them return to school afterwards and be more successful. And it can very well harm their image of themselves as learners and their attitudes toward school at such a young age.

What services exist to support suspended children? Generally, children who are suspended need help understanding what happened, dealing with the kinds of problems and behaviors that led to the suspension, and learning what they can do to succeed in preschool. Young children need to be taught the value of pro-social behaviors and their teachers need to be prepared to do functional behavior assessments that teach children how to replace challenging behaviors with skills that promote positive social and emotional development. Without such help, the suspension is unlikely to teach children anything about how to change the behavior that lead to suspensions.

• How will children's future schooling be affected by their preschool suspension? Often these are the children who would benefit most from a high quality school experience that helped them get the experiences and services they need to overcome the kinds of behaviors that are leading to preschool suspensions and school failure. These children, who are already less likely to succeed in school than their more entitled peers, are put at even greater risk. These children are often stigmatized by their peers because they are labeled at an early age as "a problem child." All of these are risk factors that can lead to anti-social behavior and bullying, putting the child's future at even greater risk.

• What will the suspended children not be learning because they have been excluded during part or all of their preschool year? The preschool year helps lay a crucial foundation for later school success. When students are suspended from preschool, they lose out on the opportunity to gain important skills and experiences with their peers. Preschool helps children become deeply engaged in the active construct knowledge process-- an essential aspect of all meaningful learning. And in preschool, children develop an interest in the printed word that is an important precursor to later fluent reading. Before we suspend children, we must ask how it will affect their opportunity to learn now, and in the future.

• Who are the early childhood teachers that are suspending these children and how can they be better prepared to address the children's needs in the classroom? Often teachers have not had adequate training in working with children with diverse learning abilities, experiences and needs. They need to understand developmental milestones, and how children construct knowledge in unique ways and need 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. A report in 2005 on the workforce qualifications in early childhood found that a decline in the percentage of ECE teachers and administrators with college degrees from 43 percent in 1983-1985 to 30 percent in 2002-2004. The study also reported an increase in ECE teachers with only a high school education or less from 25 percent in 1983 to 30 percent in recent years. Low wages and benefits were cited as reasons for this trend. Without an educated and trained workforce ECE teachers will be unprepared to provide young children with the adequate services they need to decrease challenging behaviors and ultimately decrease the use of suspensions.

• Are early childhood programs contributing to the behavior that is leading to the suspension/s? Often class size or lack of resources means the programs are unable to provide these children with the kinds of supports and special services they need to deal with and move beyond the kinds of issues and problems that are leading to their suspensions. In addition, many publically funded programs are receiving increasing mandates for prescribed, direct instruction approaches for working with preschoolers with less time for individualized activities. The increased focused on academic skills to the exclusion of promoting social and emotional competence means that young children have fewer opportunities to learn how to regulate their behavior and develop critical cognitive skills.

• How are the families of children who are suspended or at risk of being suspended being approached and included? For low income parents who work outside the home, suspensions or preschool age children pose a financial challenge to the family. If the child cannot go to school, who will care for the child? If the parent is paid by the hour, can they afford to lose eight hours of pay to supervise their young child while he/she is suspended? In addition to the financial impact, having a child suspended in preschool can cause social and emotional harm. Parents often blame themselves or their child, when their child does not do well in school, without really knowing what has gone wrong. This can lead to stricter control at home that rarely leads to better outcomes for children.

• How is the wider-society contributing to the increasing numbers of suspended preschool children? More than 50 percent of children in public schools live in poverty. Poverty can lead to a lack of the kinds of resources and opportunities in the home that lead to success in school. These children often attend schools that are underfunded and overcrowded. Such conditions can contribute to challenging behaviors in young children. Not all poor children will be suspended, but many will be. We must encourage all children to take responsibility for their actions; however suspension does not teach children responsibility. It is a form of punishment. Is preschool the environment where we punish children for not having the skills needed to succeed or is it the place where we give them those skills?

This issue is cause for serious concern. There is still much more that needs to be learned. We know a great deal about what questions to ask and how to go about answering them. In the meantime, we call for the early education as well as wider community to put time, energy and resources into addressing this problem and the issues it raises. The lives of many young children will benefit greatly if we end the use of suspension and invest in programs and resources that help all children succeed.

Dr. Denisha Jones is Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Howard University. She is a former early childhood teacher and preschool director. She received her PhD from Indiana University in 2013. She has been active in the fight to stop the corporate takeover of public education since 2011.

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