Mental health consultant Wendy Jones is trying to explain how a 3-year-old child gets expelled from a preschool school class, and it’s taking a long time.
Her explanation includes cultural differences and parental struggles in the family that place pressures on children, seeping into their psyche and coming out as bad behavior. It also involves teachers who lack consistent supports and are more concerned with starting the day’s lesson than exploring why four boys in her classroom described their feelings that morning as “mad,” “sad,” “angry,” and “upset.”
“So you see little ones starting pre-k with some behaviors that teachers are not looking forward to handling or don’t really have an understanding of why it’s happening,” said Jones, a director at Georgetown University's National Center for Cultural Competence, within its Center for Child & Human Development.
Jones’ job is to help teachers and parents understand how 3- and 4-year-olds develop mentally and physically, consider cultural differences that may come from the family or their upbringing, and work on approaches to handle problematic behavior – from hitting and biting to simply not following directions or participating in class – that can lead to suspension and eventually expulsion from their first classroom.
It’s a job that a bipartisan group of lawmakers may push more funding toward as they look to prevent children – particularly black boys – from those extreme disciplinary actions in preschool and the first few years of elementary school.
African-American boys make up 18 percent of preschool enrollment but 48 percent of preschoolers who are suspended more than once, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights reported last year.
Black girls also are more likely to be suspended than their white peers, but boys account for the overwhelming majority of preschool suspensions. Males make up 79 percent of preschoolers who are suspended once, and 82 percent of those suspended multiple times, the OCR reported.
That data affected members of the House Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee who adopted language to the report accompanying their spending bill urging the Education and Health and Human Services departments to highlight interventions that prevent and limit suspensions and expulsions in preschool and the first few years of elementary school.
The Labor-HHS-Education appropriations team's amended report states that these findings are particularly troubling given that those early negative experiences with educational settings can adversely affect a child’s long-term development and health.
“When you have this disparity, these racial gaps, existing in our country with young, preschool children, our national, federal government has a responsibility to these children, to make sure they are treated fairly, and tax dollars should go to insist that there’s some equity and some justice in this,” Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said at an April hearing.
Soon after the OCR released its findings, HHS started stepping up efforts to promote social-emotional development and teacher training to slow suspensions and expulsions, including dedicating $4 million to start a national center to help states and communities with infant and early childhood mental health consultation.
HHS is also seeking to clarify Head Start standards to explicitly prohibit expulsions and greatly reduce suspensions. Under the proposed standards, temporary suspensions for challenging behavior can only be used as a last resort and, when deemed necessary, and would require the provider to reach out to a mental health consultant, collaborate with parents and use community resources to help the child return to the program.
The problem has also caught the attention of a few states. This year, Connecticut and the District of Columbia enacted laws prohibiting preschool suspensions and expulsions. Connecticut’s law requires a hearing to determine if an out-of-school suspension is appropriate if there is evidence that the child’s conduct at school is violent or sexual.
The OCR’s preschool suspension findings, however, highlights only a small part of the problem, experts said. The Education Department did not separate the data by location or income, but there’s a wealth of other research that helps draw clear lines between race, gender and disruptive behaviors.
Deborah F. Perry, an associate professor at the Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development, notes that other studies show black children are more likely to live in poverty, which puts them at a higher risk of having traumatic experiences and developmental difficulties. Studies also show that boys are more likely to cope with mental health issues by externalizing, or acting out, than girls, who generally internalize.
That means a child with lagging verbal skills, for example, may resort to seemingly aggressive behaviors, like hitting, if they have trouble communicating, Perry said.
Efforts to boost the educational rigor for poor children could be another inadvertent factor. Small children generally need some play-based education, as opposed to only sitting at tables and receiving instruction, Perry said. However, high poverty schools – which typically have high minority populations – are increasing their classroom time to close achievement gaps, limiting the active time preschoolers, and boys in particular, need developmentally, she said.
At this point, the connections that Perry and other experts are making with other studies are hypothetical as they await additional details from the Education Department. “In each of our sectors, we’re gathering data but we’re not gathering data in a way that helps us understand the complete story,” she said.
Some lawmakers say better data collection will help them figure out which intervention programs to fund. Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., said at the April hearing that he was shocked that so little information exists about the problem and agreed to work with Democrats to push more money toward research.
"I'd be happy to find ways we can work together on that and sort of encourage our government, which I think wants to do the right thing, to actually focus and start getting it done," he said.
Early learning experts said many of the factors that lead to disciplinary actions have little to do with a child’s actual behavior, including low teacher-to-child ratios, teacher depression and job stress.
For example, Yale researcher Walter Gilliam, director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, said he found that teachers who screen positive for depression expel at twice the rate of those who screen negative. Without the support of mental health consultants, the depression converts to stress and someone gets expelled from the classroom, he said.
“It’s a way to mitigate the amount of stress," Gilliam told appropriators.
Jones said part of the solution is training teachers to better empathize with the challenges children as young as three and four years of age face in their lives away from school, and to handle poor behavior in constructive ways in the classroom.
Many times it requires connecting with parents, trying to understand what problems the family may be facing, and realizing how that is being expressed in the child’s behavior, Jones said. It also requires teachers to know coping mechanisms to help the child deal with stress and anxiety, she said.
“What I was finding is that some of the teachers were sort of afraid to get into that realm because they are on a tight timeline for instructional pieces but also because I think they feel they didn’t have the skills to work with that,” she said.
Teacher training and mental health support programs are generally underfunded, experts said. Lawmakers seem to want to change that, but first they will want proof that programs are working, said Karen Howard, vice president of early childhood policy at First Focus, a child welfare group.
Many programs are underway on a small scale and have not yet gone through the rigorous tests that policymakers need to make a case for further investment, she said. The issue may be of particular interest to lawmakers pushing universal preschool coverage, Howard said.
“I don’t think you can have universal preschool with this looming in the background,” she said.
Researchers are only beginning to study the underlying racial bias that may be causing the problem — an issue that funders have been unwilling to touch, Gilliam said. As they do that, it may be best to help educators see their behaviors, such as punishing a black child and a white child differently for the same action, in a way that causes them to reflect, he said.
Howard said those findings could provide insight for conversations around policies that affect minorities differently in various systems, including the criminal justice system.
“We’re all not immune from stereotypes that we experience in our lives and our upbringing,” she said. “But if teachers are seeing black boys in particular as more aggressive and as a pattern of behavior early in the educational sphere, that’s disturbing and it has to be addressed.”