by Kate Abbott, Ph.D.
Expanding access to quality preschool has been a focus of recent policies at both the state and national levels. The 2015 passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act includes federal support to states that can be used to expand access to quality prekindergarten. Individual states have varied in their adoption of prekindergarten initiatives. Vermont, for example, has become a leader with Act 166 providing publicly supported prekindergarten to three- and four-year-olds across the state, making my state the second best in the nation for access to quality early education.
Yet the issue of equitable access to high quality preschool across the nation cannot be ignored. Barriers exist, and have been correlated to demographic indicators of poverty and race (Barnett, 2013). More recently, the release of data by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights shows children with challenging behaviors may face additional barriers to quality prekindergarten due to disciplinary practices (Gilliam, 2005, orcdata.ed.gov).
Suspension and expulsion deny children the very environment they need to develop appropriate social and behavioral skills. The longer children with unsafe and disruptive behaviors go without intervention, the more difficult it is to change behavior. (Walker, Ramsey,Gresham, 2004). So what we find is a link between suspension and expulsion and negative school outcomes, including increased dropout rates (Skilba,2000).
While suspension and expulsion is usually associated with adolescents, more than 5,000 preK students across the nation were “expelled” from public and private programs in the 2003-2004 school year (Gilliam, 2005) and these actions mirror in many ways the disproportionate rates of suspension and expulsion seen in K-12 systems for certain groups of students. Earlier this year, the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights released data demonstrating the disproportionate suspensions often observed in K-12 settings also occur in preschool, affecting some groups of children more than others. Some of the trends include:
- Black preschool children are 3.6 times as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as white preschool children. While black children make up 19% of those enrolled in preK, they account for 47% of the preschool students suspended.
- Boys are more frequently suspended from preschool than girls are. While boys are 54% of the enrolled pre K population, they represent 78% of preschool students suspended.
Yet, there is little or no evidence that suspension and expulsion have any benefit on the safety of school environment, or any meaningful impact on the likelihood the behavior will recur (Skilba, R., & Peterson, 2000).
So while Vermont can be proud of its leadership in preschool quality and access, we must acknowledge that children with some of the greatest needs are still unable to benefit. In 2003 and 2004 academic years, Vermont’s rate of preschool expulsion was reported to be 8.32 students per 1,000 enrolled–higher than 30 other states yet lower than neighboring states New York (12.67 students per 1,000), and Maine Head Start (24.31 students per 1,000). Such differences are caused not by needs and behaviors of students, but by the structure and approach of the prekindergarten system for intervening with those students. While public-private preK partnerships in Vermont offer a wide variety of opportunities for families, it also makes coordination and consistency a challenge.
In a 2005 study, Gilliam reported that for-profit and other private prekindergartens were significantly more likely to report using suspension or expulsion than a public school or Head Start center. The study also found teachers who had regular access to behavioral and mental health consultation reported suspension and expulsion at the lowest rates, while those with infrequent or irregular access to consultation reported higher rates of expulsion, and those with no access to behavioral supports expelled children at the highest rate of all teachers in the study.
As our nation continues to expand access to preschool, policymakers and the preK community should keep in mind these evidence-based points:
- Children who exhibit challenging behavior have the best chance of learning appropriate social skills when they are identified early and provided with effective interventions (Loeber & Farrington, 1998).
- Children who are not able to access interventions before age 8 are much more resistant to change (Gresham, 1991).
- Schools and early education programs that are proactive and systemic in addressing the academic, behavioral and social emotional needs of students have greater success (Lane, Menzies, Oakes & Kalberg, 2012).
- A wealth of research exists identifying effective strategies for supporting students with challenging behavior at both a class and individual level (Lane, Menzies, Ennis, Bezdek, 2013).
Expulsion is a punishment no preschooler should have to experience. Early childhood is an amazing stage of life, and in no other time in our life do we possess as much potential to grow and develop. Let us not waste this opportunity for our children; let us work to ensure our children receive the best early education possible by using a proactive, systemic approach to building resilience, and find alternatives to preschool expulsion.
Kate Abbott, Ph.D. is Director of Early Education at the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union. Supporting students with challenging behavior has been a career focus. Over the past fifteen years, Dr. Abbott has concentrated on supporting equity and access to a quality education for all learners through her work in the fields of curriculum and instruction, assessment, and special education.