Local Program Aims to Prevent Preschool Expulsions

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According to a 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Education, black preschool children enrolled in publically-funded programs are three-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended than white children. The racial disparity also holds true for preschoolers being expelled. In the continuing ideastream series Healthy Beginnings, Stephanie Jarvis takes a look at a local program designed to help prevent children from being removed from class. 

Around a dozen three and four year olds gather in a reading circle on a warm summer morning at a Head Start preschool on Cleveland’s West Side. 

Curious eyes face April Frazier as she leads a storytelling exercise. Frazier is from OhioGuidestone and works with preschool teachers on strategies to deal with children displaying challenging behaviors. She started working in this classroom after instructors noticed troubling behavior from one of the little boys. 

"He liked to move," Frazier recalls. "He liked to grab things off shelves. He had some difficulty keeping his hands and body to himself."

In Cuyahoga County, mental health professionals like Frazier connect with preschool teachers through a special service coordinated by Starting Point

"Some of the reasons for referrals or concerns are children who may be biting, fighting, refusing to listen or follow instructions, won’t play with other children, isolation, withdrawn …all those kinds of things,” says Constance Walker, who oversees the program at Starting Point. 

These are exactly the types of behaviors that can lead to suspension or even expulsion. Surprisingly, preschoolers are expelled at three times the rate of students in kindergarten through high school. Walker says that’s why her program was developed. 

"There were a number of children that were getting expelled or suspended. We’re talking about kids that are 3, 4 or 5 … so you can imagine," she says. "This program is prevention. It is not treatment. It’s prevention."

 Walter Gilliam authored a 2005 Yale University study that first brought national attention to the high expulsion rates among preschoolers. 

"The definition for expulsion that we used was anytime that a child was permanently and totally removed from the program forever," Gilliam says. "Across the 40 states that had a state funded pre-kindergarten program, almost every single one of those states the rate of expulsion in preschool years exceeded that of the K-12 children."

The Yale study also found that preschool boys were expelled four times more than girls, and African American boys had the highest rates. 

"There really is no more severe punishment you can make than to tell a child to never come back. That basically with three-year-old children, we’re telling them that we totally give up on you."

Providing teachers with support from professionals on how to handle behaviors, Gilliam says, is crucial in the fight to prevent these expulsions from happening. His research shows expulsions were cut in half when teachers reported access to behavioral coaches or early childhood mental health consultants. 

Meanwhile, back in Cuyahoga County, data shows Constance Walker’s program is working.

"Initially when we started, we got many, many calls and a number of kids were suspended," Walker says. "At this point, it’s a rarity."

And, according to Gilliam, the earlier we intervene to help at-risk children … the better. 

"The best predictor of being expelled or suspended in the future, is having been expelled or suspended in the past. So what we’re suggesting here is instead of letting the problem grow and get bigger as the child gets bigger, let’s address it when the children are smaller and the problems are smaller."

The push to get more programs like the one in Cuyahoga County off the ground got a boost earlier this year when the State announced that $9 million dollars in funding will be available to help 75 counties across Ohio add more mental health consultants to work with preschools and other early learning programs.

ideastream coverage of preschool discipline continues Thursday on the Sound of ideas at 9am on WCPN. These stories are part of the ideastream series “Healthy People, Health Places"... exploring the intersection of people, place, and health. Find additional Healthy Beginnings stories here

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Additional Resources: 

Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy

See the Preschool Expulsion Timeline, which details significant events and documents at the federal, state, and local levels, along with links to the relevant resources.

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