Preschoolers Most Suspended Age Group: New Report and What It Means for You

New U.S. Department of Education Report Just Released: New Office for Civil Rights Report Reveals that African American and Male Preschool Students are Disproportionately Suspended from Preschool

Dear Colleagues,

Late last month (March 21, 2014), the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights released its first comprehensive look at civil rights data from every public school in the country in nearly 15 years. Called The Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), data from the 2011-2012 school year were reported, and the most newsworthy information showed that:

More than 8,000 public preschoolers were suspended at least once, with black children and boys receiving a disproportionate number of these suspensions. Indeed, while Black youngsters made up about 20% of all preschool pupils, close to 50% of these children were (disproportionately) suspended more than once. While boys of all races represented 54% of the preschoolers included in the report, more than 80% of them were (disproportionately) suspended more than once.

In a press conference announcing the Report, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the data "mind-boggling." And, indeed, the data are mind-boggling. . . but nothing new.

In fact, we have known for at least a decade-for example, through the Harvard Civil Rights Project and researchers like Walter S. Gilliam at Yale University-that preschool students are the most suspended age group of students in public education.

The real questions are, "Why is it happening?" and "What do we do about it?"

Relative to the first question, there are many possible contributing factors. Poverty, potential teacher bias, high student-teacher classroom ratios at the preschool level, dysfunctional families and poor parental supervision, preschool students being raised by the TV and impacted by media violence were cited in an Education Week article about this Report.

And while we need to be sensitive to these issues, we need to understand that these reasons are correlational or contributory factors and rarely causal in nature.

Critically, the primary causal reason for preschool "discipline" problems is that the many preschool students have not learned and mastered the developmentally-appropriate social, emotional, and behavioral (both individual and interpersonal) skills that they need to be successful.

Indeed, preschoolers often imitate the behaviors that they have observed, or randomly try out different behaviors-sometimes not knowing if they are "good choices" or "bad choices." Sometimes, preschoolers use the same behaviors at school that help them to "survive" at home. And sometimes, the behaviors that are inappropriate at school have been supported, reinforced, or not corrected at home.

All of this leads to the following important points or recommendations:

  • Preschools need to have a formal, developmentally-appropriate social skills training program that is taught by teachers who are both qualified and trained to teach these programs.
  • Preschool staff need to understand that preschoolers need clear and explicitly-stated expectations, constant verbal guidance and feedback, behavioral prompts to organize their awareness and thinking, and adult supervision and presence. Preschoolers, cognitively and developmentally, do not have the ability to anticipate or predict events (unless they have learned them from previous experiences), nor can they "walk in another student's shoes"-understanding "how another child feels." Remember, according to Piaget, preschoolers are pretty egocentric at this age level.
  • Preschools need to have a written behavioral standards and accountability document that differentiates behaviors that are "Annoying" versus "Disruptive" versus "Antisocial/Major Disruption" versus "Dangerous/Extreme." If teachers consistently use these standards to categorize and respond to different intensity levels of students' inappropriate behavior, this should largely resolve the "teacher bias" issue.
  • When preschoolers make "bad choices," the critical behavioral principals are:

"If you consequate, you must educate" and

"Consequences do not change behavior, they only motivate students to want to change behavior."

That is, after a consequence is over, students must be taught and practice (ideally, with the same adults and in the same setting where the original "offense" occurred) the appropriate, replacement behaviors as part of a "teachable moment." This is what holds students accountable (to appropriate behaviors), and increases the probability that these behaviors will occur the next time.

  • A school suspension is not a consequence. . . it is an administrative response or decision prompted by a student's inappropriate behavior. For preschoolers, suspension rarely acts as a consequence that motivates them to "want to do better the next time."
  • If a student continues to demonstrate inappropriate behavior-despite a well-taught social skills program and a consistently-implemented accountability system, a data-based problem solving process (largely led by preschool behavioral experts like school psychologists, behavioral consultants, speech pathologists, etc.) needs to proceed (with parent permission) to determine why the behavioral pattern persists. This assessment may/should be completed as part of the local public school district's Child Find Process.
  • Finally, if a student needs to be expelled or "released" from a preschool, the preschool should file an immediate Child Find petition with the local public school district.

We have known for years that students from poverty often come into preschool and kindergarten with approximately 20,000 expressive or receptive vocabulary words less than students coming from middle class or above homes. Clearly, the needed intervention here is to intensively work with and teach these students the vocabulary that will close this gap.

Similarly, when preschoolers come to school exhibiting "behavioral gaps" that result in behavior or "discipline" problems, we need to focus on the strongest high-hit intervention: teach the expected behaviors.

While, in the long term, it is important to also reach out to prevent these skill deficits from occurring, the Civil Rights Data Collection report demonstrates that suspension is not the answer. If suspension were the answer, every suspended student would return from a suspension demonstrating consistently appropriate behavior and decreased (or absent) levels of the original inappropriate behavior.

Clearly, that is not happening (look at the "twice-suspended data in the Report). And so, we need more common sense, research-based approaches to address this issue.

Hopefully, some of the ideas and points in the discussion above will help all of us on our way.