“In order to sell the solution, one must first sell the problem.” Dr. Walter Gilliam, PhD, Associate Professor of Child Psychiatry and Psychology and Director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University began his conversation series lecture on November 29 with this impactful statement. Gilliam skillfully brought the 160+ audience of researchers, students and community members to both laughter and tears throughout the presentation as he discussed the issue of preschool suspension and expulsion, the children most at risk, and what can be done about these issues.
Why are these young children being expelled?
In the United States preschool children are being expelled from school at a rate that is three times greater than children in grades K through 12. Gilliam began by highlighting research which reveals the large disparities in expulsion and suspension rates for preschoolers. Almost 4,000 preschool teachers in 40 states were randomly selected to respond to a survey. Responses showed that 10.4% of preschool teachers had expelled at least one child in the past year due to behavior problems. The expulsion rate from the data indicates that 6.7 children out every 1,000 preschoolers are being expelled. This is compared to the expulsion rate for K-12 which is just 2.1 children out of every 1,000. Gilliam discussed several risk factors that predict higher rates of expulsion in preschool classrooms. These risk factors include high child-teacher ratios, high teacher job stress, and length of school day. These risk factors are not child behaviors, and thus preschool expulsion is not a child behavior, but an adult decision.
Why are some being expelled more than others?
When talking about who gets expelled from preschool classrooms, Dr. Gilliam highlighted what he calls “The 3 B’s of Expulsion Risk.” The 3 B’s are big, black and boy. The data shows that 4 year olds are 50% more likely to be expelled than 3 year olds, black preschoolers are 3.6 times as likely as white preschoolers to be expelled, and boys are more than 4 times as likely as girls to be expelled. The 3 B’s raises a number of questions including, why are boys and black children most at risk? Gilliam discussed some potential reasons such as research that shows that boys are more susceptible to stressors, and children of color often have more stressors and often attend poorer quality programs. However, these are not enough to account for all of the disparities. Gilliam and his colleagues recently conducted a research study to examine the impact of implicit biases on early suspensions and expulsions. In the first part of the study 135 preschool teachers were recruited to watch a video of four children and look for challenging behaviors, but none of the children in the video were actually exhibiting challenging behaviors. Using eye trackers the researchers tracked which children the teachers were watching. The results showed that when they were expecting bad behavior they looked more at the black children than the white children, and they looked at the black boy the most.
In the second part of the study, teachers were given a vignette to read about a child disrupting class. The child in the vignette was randomly assigned a stereotypical black or white name. Teachers were instructed to “act as if this child in is your classroom and tell us how you would respond.” The findings from the study indicate that teachers appear to expect challenging behaviors from black children, and specifically black boys. It also showed that white teachers have lower behavioral standards for black children, but black teachers have relatively high standards for black children.
What can be done?
Gilliam was joined by three community respondents who discussed current efforts in the state of Ohio to address high preschool expulsion rates. Tanya P. Morrow, Early Childhood Director at Beech Brook, noted that Cuyahoga County is on the right track in regards to preschool education. She highlighted two programs in the county including early childhood mental health consultations through the ADAMHS Board of Cuyahoga County which help to keep children in the classroom and out of therapy. She also mentioned a program through Starting-Point, a Northeast Ohio organization working to enhance early childhood experiences, that focuses on the teachers and provides training and support to teachers who have special needs children in their classrooms. Dr. Valerie Alloy, PhD, from the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services is the lead for Ohio’s Early Childhood Mental Health Initiatives. She highlighted four things that Ohio is doing with 9.1 million dollars in grant money through the Whole Child Matters: Early Childhood Mental Health Initiative. First, the state has created a hotline partnership with Nationwide Children’s Hospital to reduce preschool expulsions. Calling 1-844-678-ABCs (2227) will link preschool and child care providers with a local early childhood consultant. The state is also using the money to expand the workforce and has hired 65 new early childhood mental health consultants. They are also investing in workforce development and providing training on a number of topics including trauma-informed care and social-emotional learning. Finally, a program evaluation is being conducted to ensure that all of the changes implemented are effective. Sarah Biehl, a policy consultant for the Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio, discussed the need to engage parents in the issue in a meaningful and tangible way. She urged the group to think about ways that we can build up parents’ skills so that they can model positive behaviors for their children.
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