Nationwide, preschool expulsion rates are alarmingly high. And again, African-American boys are disproportionately affected. Not only are these children losing access to the care and education they deserve, but their families also may face difficulties finding and keeping employment in the face of inconsistent child care.
Back-to-school season is a time of excitement and optimism. But for some children and families, it’s also a time of fear: How long before the phone calls start? “Please come pick up your child. He’s having a hard day” or “We need to talk about whether there are places that could better meet her needs.”
Unfortunately, across Washington and the country, these types of phone calls disproportionately occur for families of color, particularly boys of color. According to 2015 data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, for example, African-American and Hispanic students in Seattle Public Schools accounted for 55.8 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 100 percent of expulsions — despite representing only about one quarter of the school district’s population.
To put these data into perspective, suspensions kept African-American students out of Seattle Public Schools for 5,107 days in 2015. From kindergarten, this experience of exclusion leaves families with few choices and begins a rocky relationship with schools that can last a lifetime.
In July, Washington’s Office of Superintendent for Public Instruction adopted rules for how public-school districts may administer student discipline. These rules ensure that school disciplinary policies are fair across the state, take “prevention-based” approaches and minimize the use of suspension and expulsion practices. While these policies are in place for K-12 students, our youngest learners in child care and early-learning programs are still at risk for these punitive practices.
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Nationwide, preschool expulsion rates are alarmingly high. According to a 2016 study, more than 250 suspensions or expulsions occur every day in preschools and child-care programs across the U.S. The issue is complicated by the business demands of for-profit child care: pressure from other angry parents — who are often understandably concerned when their child is a victim of bites or injuries — increases the likelihood that a child and family will be asked to find a different program that can “better meet their needs.” Again, African-American boys are disproportionately affected. Not only are these children losing access to the care and education they deserve, but their families also may face difficulties finding and keeping employment in the face of inconsistent child care.
It does not have to be this way. As we begin a new school year, let’s focus on the child behaviors that challenge adults, and on the adult decisions that can make schools and early-learning programs unwelcoming places for children, especially for young children of color. Let’s commit to reframing our mindset and our conversations with families. Instead of seeing the child as the challenge, recognize that the child is walking into a system of hidden challenges from their earliest days of care. What can we — voters, community members, teachers, families — do to make early learning programs work better for each and every child?
Early educators across Washington are beginning to answer this question. In August, 184 teachers, coaches, managers, family support providers and University of Washington faculty and staff came together for the first Equity-Focused Positive Behavior Support Institute. This event sponsored by Washington’s Early Achievers program, UW Cultivate Learning Center, UW Haring Center and the Kindering Center helped us all learn how to recognize our own biases, collaborate with families and take steps to stop disproportionate discipline practices in programs.
We can start by teaching the social-emotional skills kids (and teachers) need. Learning to calm down, ask for help or express anger are just as important as learning to read. For teachers, learning to notice and interrupt bias is just as important as learning to design the classroom.
There is an impact on all children when a child is removed from a classroom, even temporarily. The implicit message children receive: Those who struggle don’t belong. This threatens the security of all children.
Second, reflect on the behaviors that challenge: What patterns are there in the behaviors, gender, race or ability of the children we are concerned about? How else could we interpret a child’s behavior?
Recognize that bias is present in each of us — even very young children. Be prepared to speak up, ask questions and teach about fairness. Early childhood teachers can shift the story and start children and families on a positive school journey. Then, at this time next year, we may be telling the story of how Washington lifted up its youngest learners, their families and their educators.