This past Wednesday, the Albert Shanker Institute and the American Federation of Teachers hosted a lively conversation, “Positive Alternatives to Suspending And Expelling Misbehaving Students in Early Childhood Education.” The event featured a panel of experts from around the country who offered thoughts and recommendations about age-appropriate, nurturing policies to replace suspension, expulsion, and referrals in early childhood education centers. At First Focus, we’ve examined this problem extensively, focusing on the impact of racial bias and promising practices to solve this issue.

Recent research about the overuse of suspensions and expulsions has left educators troubled, and in search of positive solutions. A groundbreaking study in 2005 found that preschool suspensions and expulsions occur at three times the national rate of the practices for students in kindergarten through twelfth grade. Furthermore, data from the U.S. Department of Education found flagrant racial disparities in preschool suspensions. While African American boys comprise 18 percent of preschool enrollment, they make up 48 percent of students suspended more than once. Gender disparities exist as well, with boys comprising 79 percent of students suspended once and 82 percent of preschools suspended more than once. Even more disturbingly, students with disabilities are excluded from the classroom at rates that far surpass their peers, often due to challenges that stem from their disabilities.

In light of this stark picture of overly punitive disciplinary practices, the panel sought to offer educators concrete alternatives that can both ensure school safety and meet the needs of students. Ralph Smith, manager director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, started the event by questioning the American mythology that claims that access to an education is a safeguard against a life of poverty. Smith noted that for many students, particularly students of color, preschool is an access road to prison rather than a life of success. He emphasized that additional training and practicums on child development and professional development can improve the workforce’s ability to meet the needs of students. At the same time, he noted that this problem does not fall solely on the shoulders of educators. Rather, administrators and policymakers also need to develop ways to develop teacher-parent relationships.

Teachers should use parents as a resource to learn how the child communicates them, what triggers them, and what calms them. Finally, Smith noted research from the Rollins Center in the Atlanta Speech School that demonstrates that children with language delays communicate with pulling, tugging, and other physical behaviors. Such behaviors may be deemed problematic, and lead to suspensions. Meanwhile, the student’s language delay is not identified and the problem is not being solved. Therefore, teachers need to be trained to understand how students with language delays communicate and methods to teach them proper communication skills.

Lise Fox, co-director of Florida Center for Inclusive Communities, continued the conversation by pointing out the elephant in the room: the lack of quality in early education. While access to childcare and prekindergarten has greatly increased throughout the year, there hasn’t been an increase in classroom quality or in resources that allow teachers to get the job well done. In order to improve the classroom experience, Fox recommends that teachers use social and emotional assessment tools to identify which students need more supports rather than discipline them for problem behaviors. In addition, schools should have clear concise policies of when and how to deliver interventions to students in need. Over time, they should evaluate the effectiveness of these services and work to improve the way they serve the child.

Tala Manassah, Deputy Executive Director of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, built on this idea by emphasizing the need for resources to support teacher development. Teachers need the time and space to be in conversation with each other, to work as a team and collaborate to improve their professional practices. When teachers have the space to work together, the implementation of the solutions becomes much easier.

Ken Zarifis, President of Education Austin, closed out the event by highlighting the importance of relationships and communication. Schools must be intentional in fostering strong, supportive relationships with their students. By doing so, they will demonstrate that the pupil is welcomed in the classroom and a part of their community. Fox suggested that educators reflect on how they include students in the school, and how they identify the students’ needs.

Overall, the panel highlighted some strong interventions that can empower school staff to keep students in the classroom while maintaining a safe school climate.

We look forward to continuing the conversation, and working to dismantle the preschool to prison pipeline.

Alternatives to Preschool Suspension: v/ @First_Focus  #ECEBehavior @shankerinst @AFTunion
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