Preschoolers get expelled at three times the rate of students in elementary, middle and high schools. But when teachers get regular help from mental-health coaches, they expel at half the rate of those who don’t.

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The 5-year-old boy in Michelle Perry’s preschool class in Seattle was having a rough morning. He’d thrown chairs when Perry suggested he use the bathroom, and now a little girl was in tears because the boy had scribbled on her self-portrait.

In many preschools, such behavior would have gotten him suspended or even expelled. Preschoolers, surprisingly, get kicked out at three times the rate of kids in elementary, middle or high schools — a fact that still shocks many, even though it came to light about a decade ago.

Teachers don’t want to expel disruptive children, but they often feel overwhelmed by the mental-health needs of some of the families they serve.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to some of the most persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network, a New York-based nonprofit that works to spread the practice of solutions-oriented journalism. Education Lab is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“It’s a huge issue in our programs and it’s a growing challenge,” said Katy Warren, deputy director of the Washington State Association of Head Start/ECEAP, a nonprofit based in Bellevue that advocates for preschool providers and families. “That is the number one thing that we get requests for training about — behavior.”

Before 2005, it was easy to shrug off anecdotes about preschool expulsion as isolated cases, because no one kept track of how often they occurred.

But a study published that year was the first to show it was a big, national problem.

That study also found that preschool boys were expelled more than girls, African Americans were expelled more than any other race, and African-American boys had the greatest chance of being booted from their preschool classrooms.

That’s consistent with the troubling pattern among older kids — the reason why Seattle Public Schools and other school districts are under federal investigation when it comes to the suspension and expulsion of black students.

The extent of the preschool problem surprised even Walter Gilliam, the Yale psychologist who authored the 2005 study.

“It never occurred to me that it would be multiples higher than K-12,” Gilliam said. “That was a shock.”

But as troubling as the study’s results were, there was a bright side — a remedy that was already in place in Connecticut when Gilliam did his study. When preschool teachers have access to a good coach — a mental-health professional who can, in real time, help them work with the kids who are giving them fits — expulsions go way down.

In the same 2005 national study, Gilliam found that preschool teachers who had a regular, ongoing relationship with such a coach expelled kids at half the rate of the teachers who had no help at all.

The state of Connecticut still offers coaches for free to all of its licensed preschools and child-care providers. The practice is growing in this state, too — including the Denise Louie Education Center, a private nonprofit in Seattle’s Chinatown International District, where Perry recently faced the angry 5-year-old.

Because that preschool is part of Seattle’s new subsidized program, which forbids expulsions, the city sent coach Sharon Knight to help Perry develop her students’ emotional skills, which improves their behavior better than just making them follow orders.

Sharon Knight (in background) observes teacher Michelle Perry and her preschool students at the Denise Louie Education Center in Seattle’s Chinatown International District during a visit on April 26, 2016. Knight is an educational coach and consultant who helps preschools receiving money from the city’s preschool program. She observes and gives teachers guidance in real time using a two-way communication system.  (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Sharon Knight (in background) observes teacher Michelle Perry and her preschool students at the Denise Louie Education Center in Seattle’s Chinatown International District during a visit on April 26, 2016. Knight is an educational coach and consultant who helps preschools receiving money from the city’s preschool program. She observes and gives teachers guidance in real time using a two-way communication system. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

“I’ve been in the field for over 30 years and this is by far the most effective approach,” Knight said.

On the morning she was coaching Perry, Knight stayed a few feet back, but she could see from the boy’s face that he was on the verge of a meltdown.

She turned on the wireless device that let her speak directly into Perry’s ear, like a coach calling plays from the sidelines into a quarterback’s helmet.

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Knight suggested Perry take the boy to the music corner of the room for some one-on-one attention, and listened in.

Perry asked the boy what he wanted to do instead of making self portraits, but he didn’t respond. She asked him if he needed a hug, but that didn’t work, either. Knight suggested Perry ask him how much energy he had (he said he had none) and what happened to his energy (it all went away) and why did it all go away?

Then Perry placed her hand gently on his chest and asked him how he felt.

“Yucky,” he said, and then spilled out his story. He had been promised that he could make cookies at home over the weekend and that didn’t happen.

As he unloaded his frustrations, his body loosened and he calmed down.

Knight nodded and smiled.

Data breaks down disbelief

Many find it hard to believe that a preschooler could do anything that would warrant expulsion.

That’s what Gilliam found more than a decade ago when he was lobbying Connecticut state lawmakers to pay for the type of coaching that Knight provides.

“I would talk to assemblymen and explain the need to them,” Gilliam said, “and they would say, ‘Well, if they’re acting up, just tell them to be quiet.’ Or they would say, ‘If the teacher can’t control the kids, fire her and get a new one,’ as if there’s a long list of people who want to work in child care because the pay is so good.”

Gilliam wasn’t talking about the occasional tantrum, but what is politely referred to in his field as “challenging behaviors”: hitting, shoving, biting, screaming, bolting out an open door, having violent fits.

He’d seen those behaviors — a lot — at Yale’s own preschool center, where kids were sent if they had been expelled or were about to be expelled from other programs. But he couldn’t give lawmakers hard data on how often preschoolers were expelled because that data didn’t exist.

So he added a couple of questions about expulsions to a survey he was already sending to more than 4,000 state-funded preschool centers around the country in 2003 and 2004.

The responses from 40 states, including Washington, floored him:

• The national average expulsion rate was 6.7 per 1,000 kids enrolled in pre-K programs. (Washington’s rate was even higher, 7 to 10 expulsions per 1,000.)

• Boys were expelled at more than 4½ times the rate of girls, and African Americans were expelled at about twice the rate of preschoolers of European descent.

• The overall prekindergarten expulsion rate was more than three times higher than in K-12.

Connecticut’s solution

That study not only raised an alarm, but helped Gilliam promote Connecticut’s solution of providing teachers with regular visits from mental-health professionals, and avoiding setting many kids on a path that often leads to more expulsions from other schools and, eventually, dropping out.

Connecticut’s program, started in 2002, is typically three months long with up to eight visits once a week, with two follow-ups a month after it’s ended.

In Connecticut, that program costs about $2 million a year to operate, which includes training and maintenance of a database that has helped fine-tune details such as how often a coach should visit to provide the most effective help.

About 20 coaches typically visit about 300 different providers serving around 3,500 students a year.

“In no way, shape or form is it therapy at all for teachers or children,” said Elizabeth Bicio, who led the creation of the program. “But that being said, you have mental-health concepts that are guiding you.”

In Washington state, a 2010 study found that such coaches reduced expulsions in three counties that were part of a pilot program launched in 2007 with $500,000 from the Legislature.

While 40 percent of child-care directors said that they had expelled a child in the year before they got help from coaches, only 20 percent had done so since.

That study wasn’t a slam dunk — in part because it relied on providers’ own reports and recollections of conditions before and after the coaching.

The evidence backing the success of Connecticut’s program is much stronger, with two experimental studies, also conducted by Gilliam, in which he compared preschools that got the coaching with preschools that were randomly selected to get the coaching later.

And while many experimental studies test how well a new program performs under ideal conditions, Gilliam was testing a program already in operation statewide, warts and all.

Teachers who received the service rated their preschoolers as having fewer “challenging behaviors” — such as refusing to follow adult directions, throwing tantrums and disturbing other children — than before they got the coaching.

Because every classroom in the Connecticut studies eventually gets the same coaching, it’s impossible to determine its overall effect on expulsions.

Data still scarce

And information on expulsion rates in general remains scarce.

The federal government began collecting data on preschool expulsions a few years ago, but only for programs based in public schools and only every other year.

Massachusetts is the only state Gilliam knows of that collects preschool expulsion data. Washington’s Department of Early Learning has no conclusive data.

Gilliam was not able to determine why teachers in the Connecticut preschools he studied saw fewer challenging behaviors — whether they learned new skills or just saw old problems in a new light. But he knew from the 2005 study that teachers who showed signs of depression expelled kids at twice the rate of teachers who didn’t. The rate was even higher for teachers who had a lot of job stress.

“Children don’t get expelled because of their behavior problems,” Gilliam said. “They get expelled because of an adult’s perception of how bad that is. So if I can change even that perception and make it feel not quite so bad because you’ve got support — that probably is a help.”

Growing in Washington

In Washington state, mental-health coaching for preschool teachers and child-care providers has only been available on a piecemeal basis, nowhere near what the state of Connecticut provides.

But its use is growing. Along with Seattle’s preschool program, the state’s Early Achievers program provides coaches to child-care providers who sign up to be part of its rating system, and some of those coaches have received training to help withsevere behavior problems.

Early Achievers doesn’t specifically forbid expulsions, but providers can improve their ratings with policies that either prohibit expulsion or make it a last resort.

Before signing up for Early Achievers four years ago, Caileen Hill, who runs Adventures in Learning Preschool out of her home in Olympia, occasionally expelled children. Now, she will expel only as a last resort and even then will do whatever she can to make sure the family finds a new provider.

She was one of the first home-based providers to join Early Achievers and has earned four out of the five possible stars. She continues to gets monthly visits from a new coach for overall help, and she has her original coach on speed-dial to help with specific kids.

“She’s the go-to person and I rely on that,” Hill said. “She has helped me save at least two kids in the last three years that probably otherwise would have gone.”

Sharon Knight uses an iPad to document her observations during her visit to the Denise Louie Education Center. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Sharon Knight uses an iPad to document her observations during her visit to the Denise Louie Education Center. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

One of those kids was a girl who hit, shoved, pushed and grabbed when she wanted a toy. She also would just bolt out the door at home — and Hill worried she’d do that at her preschool, which is on a busy road. For safety alone, Hill might have expelled her in the past.

But her coach suggested Hill make stop signs and put them on the doors, both at school and at home, and explain to the girl that when she saw that sign, she couldn’t go any farther without an adult.

“It worked and it worked at home, too, and that’s what’s really cool,” Hill said. “Whether or not she knew what a stop sign was at 3 years old, I don’t know. But it was red and it stopped her.”

When it came to the toy problem, Hill’s coach suggested Hill write a brief story with the girl as the main character that showed what behavior was expected, giving the girl some choices when a toy she wants isn’t available, such as she can set a timer to wait for her turn, or trade for another toy.

That worked, too, and the girl is still in Hill’s class.

“She will be graduating this year and going off to kindergarten,” Hill said. “She made it!”