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You’re Outta Here!: Why Preschoolers Are Being Tossed Instead of Taught

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Preschooler on the outside If time-out leads to feelings of isolation and unworthiness (and it does), imagine how it feels to a child thrown out of school – often for reasons he or she can’t even fathom.

Following a discussion on this topic on Studentcentricity, Sarah Davidon wrote:

National and state research shows that children are being expelled from preschool programs because of challenging behavior at a rate that is three times higher than that of the Kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) school system.  Young children should not be intentionally excluded from preschool opportunities, and expulsion is the ultimate form of exclusion.  If we deny young children and their families preschool experiences, we not only are harming the children who thrive on early learning experiences, but also impacting families who lose time at work and perhaps lose their jobs because they no longer have care for their children.

In a piece for Huffington Post written in 2011, attorney John Whitehead stated:

What we are witnessing, thanks in large part to zero tolerance policies that were intended to make schools safer by discouraging the use of actual drugs and weapons by students, is the inhumane treatment of young people and the criminalization of childish behavior.

Gail Innis tells us that pushing boundaries and testing limits is indeed typical childish behavior – and that in fact children who indulge in such behavior with their caregivers have better social outcomes. But that’s not going to happen if we oust children rather than setting boundaries and showing children how to stay within them.

Now, I’m not going to pretend that I think all preschoolers are angels; I once taught a group of four-year-olds whose antics stopped me from working directly with kids for three years. But I have to wonder how there could be such large numbers of young children doing things so wicked that they’re tossed out of school.

And to what end? As Walter Gilliam told me in an earlier BAM Radio interview,

The children who tend to benefit the most from a high-quality early education program are the children who are in greatest need of it. And if there’s ever a child who’s in good need of a school readiness experience it’s a child who has behavior problems in a classroom.

Consider, too, that not only does the punishment not usually fit the crime, it also can’t be considered a logical consequence. As Laura Bornfreund points out in another Huffington Post article, unless the “discipline focuses on teaching children how to act appropriately, they won’t learn anything from it.” And isn’t learning how to behave – to be ready for school and society – the whole point behind early education?

Davidon tells us

The federal Departments of Health and Human Services and Education recently released a joint policy statement on expulsion and suspension after the White House summit on early education last fall to raise awareness and provide recommendations on mitigating preschool expulsions. There are strategies that work to lessen expulsions and suspensions.  It’s not that we don’t know what to do, it’s how to implement and build sustainable strategies in early childhood programs like child care and preschool.  We must focus on teaching positive social and emotional skills to children at an early age to prevent and mitigate more challenging behaviors.

Brain development research shows that in the first few years of life children’s brains go through highly sensitive periods in areas such as the development of social skills and emotional control.  With movement towards earlier academic learning starting in preschool, we can’t forget the important point that social-emotional learning is a foundation to academic learning, and social-emotional skills are a precursor to other kinds of learning. We need to intentionally teach these skills in order for young children to build positive social and emotional skills and prevent challenging behavior such as aggression, social withdrawal and the inability of children to regulate their own emotions.

What’s a Teacher to Do?

  • Insist that you and your colleagues be offered training in the management of challenging classroom behaviors. This is the type of training most often requested by teachers – and most likely to be lacking.

  • If you’re in an early childhood classroom with access to mental health consultants, make use of this service. Preschool teachers with such access reported far fewer incidences of students acting out.

  • Get to know each child in your classroom, and make an effort to connect with the children’s families. Dr. Gilliam told me he’d never seen a child expelled from a preschool classroom where the teacher and the parent had a good relationship.

  • Be cognizant of your own levels of stress and burnout. Gilliam reported that teachers who screened positive for depression expelled students at twice the rate of those who did not screen.

  • And from Gail Innis comes this advice: “You are [a] child’s role model. Model the behavior you want to see!” Here's a link to her article on teaching personal space: http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/personal_space_a_social_skill_children_need_and_adults_can_teach

NOTE: Parts of this piece were excerpted from my new book, What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children’s Lives (Corwin Press, 2015). 

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Rae Pica has been an education consultant specializing in the development and education of the whole child, children's physical activity, and active learning since 1980. A former adjunct instructor with the University of New Hampshire, she is the author of 19 books, including the text Experiences in Movement and Music and, most recently, What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children's Lives. Rae has shared her expertise with such groups as the Sesame Street Research Department, the Head Start Bureau, Centers for Disease Control, the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, Nickelodeon's Blue's Clues, Gymboree, Nike, and state health departments throughout the country. She is a member of the executive committee of the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences and is co-founder of BAM Radio Network, where she hosts Studentcentricity, interviewing experts in education, child development, play research, the neurosciences, and more on teaching with students at the center.

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