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Researchers Offer Some Solutions to Preschool Discipline Disparities

Hours after the Education Department's office of civil rights released data on preschool suspensions in 2011-12—a data point the department is collecting for the first time—a hashtag called #prekcrimes had popped up on Twitter. The data, which noted that black children make up 18 percent of the students enrolled in preschool but 48 percent of those children suspended more than once, brought out some mordant humor: 


But the statistics were not surprising to Walter S. Gilliam, a professor of psychology at Yale University and the director of the university's Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy. Gilliam has been leading research into preschool discipline more than a decade, using a random sample of state-funded preschool programs in 40 states. While the OCR data focused on suspensions, Gilliam said that his work eventually started to focus more on expulsions, because preschool programs tended not to suspend students, but just asked them to leave the program. However, such a process was rarely called expulsion by school personnel, he said: instead, it was couched in such terms as telling a parent that a program was not the "right place" for their child, or saying that a child needed "the gift of time." But asking or requiring a child to leave a preschool program is an expulsion, even if different language is used, Gilliam said. 

In a 2005 report, Gilliam said his research found that 4-year-olds were expelled at a rate about 1.5 times greater than 3-year-olds. Boys were expelled at a rate over 4.5 times that of girls. African-Americans attending state-funded prekindergarten were about twice as likely to be expelled as Latino and white children, and over five times as likely to be expelled as Asian-American children. Also, the more children in a classroom per teacher, the more likely it was that a student would be expelled. The longer the preschool day, the more likely a teacher would resort to expulsion. And finally, expulsions were more likely for teachers who reported a high degree of job stress.

Expulsions didn't seem to be related to the behavior of the children, but of the capacity of the adults around that child, the research showed. "Expulsion is not a child behavior. It is an adult decision," Gilliam said. 

But further research has shown that there are ways to address the issue. Connecticut has an early childhood consultation program, which works with teachers who report that they're having behavioral problems with a child. The child can be in a public or private setting, as long as they are under kindergarten age. Consultants visit the school and work directly with the teacher and the parent, forging bonds and offering resources that make it much less likely that child will be suspended from preschool, Gilliam said. 

His advice to parents is to forge a relationship with preschool teachers before any problems arise. For school administrators, offer support to teachers so that they feel they have helpful resources to draw on without having to resort to expulsion or suspension. Here's a full report on policies that may reduce these disparities, also written by Gilliam, in 2008. 

"We know from a lot of research that early childhood education programs, at high quality, can yield back great dividends in the lives of children," he said. And the children who tend to need preschool most are the ones who may be exhibiting challenging behaviors, he added. "If you have preschool program and you expel the children who need it the most, you're sabotaging your rate of return. It's these children that are being expelled that are the reasons we have preschool programs in the first place."

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