Digging Deeper: When the School-to-Prison Pipeline Starts in Preschool

Author: Shyanne Miller

 

Last month, the Office of Civil Rights released federal data that re-affirmed disproportionate discipline outcomes for public schools students by race, gender, and disability status. For many, this data confirms a need to address the school-to-prison pipeline—that is, the policies and practices that push historically underserved students (primarily students of color and students with disabilities) out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system.

 

While we know that students of color, boys, and students with disabilities are more likely than other student groups to be arrested, suspended, and/or expelled—we don’t often acknowledge how early disproportionate discipline starts. Some students experience suspension or expulsion as early as preschool.

 

Childcare programs come in all shapes and sizes and are not required to report discipline data (there is no system in Delaware to collect data from all public and private childcare providers). What little we do know is alarming. According to this 2005 Yale University study:

  • Delaware’s preschool expulsion rate is nine times higher than the rate for K-12 students.
  • We are the fifth highest in the nation in expulsion rates for preschoolers.
  • Twelve percent of early childhood teachers expelled at least one child. Teachers in faith-affiliated, for profit childcare, and other community-based settings were more likely to report expelling a preschooler as opposed to school-based or Head Start centers.

 

Unfortunately, this data could be a conservative estimate since it only looks at state-funded pre-k programs, which serve fewer than 1,000 Delaware four-year olds, only a small sample of the 15,000 kids in childcare from ages zero to 12. There remains a lack of reliable information on how many Delaware preschoolers face this type of discipline.

 

African-Americans, boys, and preschoolers four years or older are at a higher risk of receiving a suspension or expulsion.

 

While data is lacking at the state level, we know that having one or all of these traits can put a preschooler at risk. The Office of Civil Rights notes that racial disparities in discipline occur before kindergarten and that boys are over-represented in suspensions.

 

Still, researchers and practitioners dispute the root causes of these disparities. Some argue that children living in poverty—which are overwhelmingly students of color—are more likely to misbehave. Others argue that implicit bias, zero tolerance, and subjective discipline policies are resulting in disproportionate impact. Research from the U.S. Government Accountability Office shows that discipline is dished out more often to boys and black students despite factors such as poverty, school type, and the type of discipline.

 

The U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services recommends eliminating (or severely limiting) suspensions and expulsions for preschoolers.

 

In addition to raising awareness about exclusionary discipline in early childhood settings, the departments offer guidance to states and providers on preventing suspension and expulsion, collecting data, setting goals, and teacher training, including:

  1. Establish and communicate policies that eliminate or severely limit suspension and expulsion at the state and program level. This includes the creation of developmentally appropriate behavioral expectations and discipline practices.
  2. Set goals for improvement and use data to assess progress towards ending exclusionary discipline. The state should collect and analyze data from public and private providers, and use it to create a statewide plan to reduce these types of discipline in early childhood settings. The state should support programs in setting data-based goals and provide the resources and training needed to attain those goals.
  3. State and providers must invest in workforce preparation and development. Alongside pre-service and in-service training, providers need access to community-based service providers, behavioral specialists, and mental health consultants who can help them create a positive climate, strong relationships with children and families, and develop cultural competency.
  4. The state and providers must implement policies that ensure high quality programming. That means ensuring that there are high qualifications for staff and ongoing professional development. For programs, it means coordinating and using successful early intervention approaches and helping vulnerable children transition to the pre-K classroom environment. Furthermore, programs should develop clear policies regarding supports for pre-K students with behavior problems (access to alternative services, individual behavioral aides, highly trained personnel).

 

All states must comply with federal guidelines by September 30, 2018.

 

Delaware’s proposed policy (that will be submitted to the feds this summer) requires that child care centers simply have a policy—and isn’t specific about what’s actually in the policy, or how it gets implemented. A draft statement from DHSS recommends that publicly funded childcare programs aim to make suspension and expulsion discipline a last resort. However, challenges remain with ensuring staff are getting behavioral health supports—including special education services and mental health consultants. Furthermore, questions remain about how the policy will be implemented, monitored, and enforced. Concerns about this were brought up to the Delaware Early Childhood Council, which urged the state and partners to strengthen technical assistance to providers.

 

Opportunities remain for the state, providers, and parents to ensure that Delaware’s youngest learners are getting the support they need. Here’s how:

  • Address adult needs. While focusing on adults may seem counterintuitive, addressing the social and emotional needs of providers should be a priority. Early childhood teachers are often underpaid and overworked—nearly a third qualify for public assistance like Food Stamps. Supporting early childhood teachers in coping with challenging behavior, understanding childhood development, managing stress, and creating a positive work environment are key avenues to reducing early childhood suspensions and expulsions.
  • Ensure providers have access to behavioral and mental specialists. Discipline policies that limit the use of suspension and expulsion aren’t as effective without the proper training and professional development for staff to manage behavioral challenges. This is includes supporting and expanding programs like Delaware’s Early Childhood Mental Health Consultant Service and Child Development Watch, both of which offer services to providers and families to address children’s developmental, social, emotional, and behavioral needs.
  • Promote collaboration between providers, families, and community-based organizations to provide families with support services such as home visits, therapy, and skills training. We know that providers cannot do alone—and neither can families. Prioritizing collaboration can ensure that families are connecting with the wraparound services they need to support their children, and that providers have access to best practices, training, and resources.
  • The state and providers should prioritize the collection of data and the creation of a plan to eliminate early childhood suspensions and expulsions. These plans should include the collection of data for all programs—publicly and privately funded. The state should provide assistance in the creation of a plan that includes providing families and early childhood teachers with strategies and resources to manage challenging behavior.

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