We know better.
This month, the State Department of Education presented data to the State Board of Education showing that 1,674 children in preschool through Grade 2 were suspended in the last school year — 1,674 small children.
This despite 2015 legislation that outlaws out-of-school suspensions for children in preschool through Grade 2, except for “conduct of a violent or sexual nature that endangers persons.”
State board Chairman Allan B. Taylor found it “hard to believe” that 1,674 students exhibited behavior that warranted a suspension. And school superintendents aren’t challenging that incredulity.
The thing is, we know better. Connecticut is at the forefront of the national movement to reduce suspensions of young children — we were the first state to pass statewide legislation effectively banning the practice. We have been cited as a national model by the federal government. We have the lead researcher and national policy consultant on the subject, Walter Gilliam at Yale University. We were one of the first states to institute effective and accessible early childhood mental health care through the Early Childhood Consultation Partnerships program.
We know better, meaning, we know who is being suspended, we know why it happens, and best of all, we know what works in preventing suspensions of young children. We can do more to bring this knowledge into classrooms, support teachers and staff, and eliminate suspension of young children from school.
National and state data show that young black boys are significantly more likely to be suspended from school than white children. Black boys represent 19 percent of the male preschool enrollment but account for 45 percent of the male preschoolers who are suspended at least once. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education expressed alarm at the “stark racial and gender disparities” that result in “young boys of color being suspended and expelled much more frequently than other children.” This “disturbing trend” results in increased likelihood for poor social outcomes, including a higher risk of dropping out and involvement with the juvenile justice system. Federal civil rights law prohibits discriminatory discipline and education practices. It is urgent that this harmful practice be eliminated.
Gilliam sought to uncover why this disparity is occurring in a 2016 study. The risk factors that contribute to implicit bias and result in disparate discipline rates include high student-to-staff ratio, longer school day, higher reported levels of staff stress and less access to behavioral supports. Early childhood educators already contend with lower pay and less training than their K-12 peers. These pressures affect decision making and impact children of color the most.
Typically tantrum behavior leads a small child to be suspended when a teacher may not have therapeutic resources to support the child. We know that children with traumatic life experiences, such as extreme poverty or witnessing violence, are the most likely to be removed from school. We also know that trauma changes the structure and functioning of a young child’s brain through activation of a fight or flight response. These children live in what trauma experts call “a constant state of emergency.” According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, children who experience trauma “cannot express in words whether they feel afraid, overwhelmed or helpless.” It is children’s behavior that tells us how they are feeling. We must respond with care and support, not punishment.
Connecticut has shown that early intervention that supports teachers’ capacity to promote children’s social-emotional development works. In Connecticut, 98 percent of the children who went through the innovative Early Childhood Consultation Partnerships program had not been suspended within the next six months. The benefits from the program include consultants who provide on-site coaching that supports teachers in working with all children in their classroom.
Using social-emotional supports and trauma-informed technical assistance in preschool classrooms is a cost-effective intervention that will help teachers, improve classroom climate, reduce punitive discipline and racial discrimination, and advance positive academic outcomes.
Connecticut must eliminate the use of suspension for young children in school. We must help teachers to support children and emphasize the need for skilled interventions whenever children need them.
Sarah Eagan is Connecticut’s Child Advocate. Steven Hernandez is executive director of the Connecticut Commission on Women, Children and Seniors. Kathryn Scheinberg Meyer is a staff attorney and director of the SpeakUp Initiatives at the Center for Children’s Advocacy.