Making a dent in the problem of preschool expulsion in Chicago

After 16 years, you might think that America’s education system would have found a better way to handle misbehaving toddlers than to kick thousands of them out of preschool every year.

We were reminded of this troubling phenomenon, first documented on a national scale in 2005 by researchers at Yale University, as we read about President Joe Biden’s proposal for free, universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds.

There are reasonable arguments both for and against a major expansion of preschool as outlined in Biden’s American Families Plan. The estimated $200 billion price tag is massive, for one, and research suggests that children don’t reap the educational and social benefits of preschool unless programs are high quality. On the plus side, Biden’s proposal would benefit 5 million children and be a boon to working parents who sorely need better child care and pre-K options.

Pros and cons aside, youngsters and families won’t reap any benefit if children are kicked out of school for misbehavior — fighting, hitting or even biting — that is all too common in small children.

“Kids are being expelled many times for behavior that could be described as developmental,” said Katherine M. Zinsser, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the lead author of a new report on preschool expulsions in Illinois.

Harsh discipline against 3- and 4-year-olds sets children up for educational failure later on, research shows. Children who are suspended or expelled as preschoolers are more likely to be expelled later on, to drop out and to become involved in the criminal justice system.

The 17,000 3- and 4-year-olds who are expelled from preschools every year deserve a better start to their education.

“It’s a symptom of a stressed [early childhood] system that is massively underfunded,” with underpaid teachers and understaffed classrooms, Zinsser told us. “One of the only ways early childhood systems have to manage classrooms is to decide who can and cannot stay, based on behavior.”

Racial disparities make those numbers even more troubling: 40% of expelled preschoolers are Black, though Black children compose just 18% of preschool enrollment.

Here in Illinois, a 2018 state law aimed at curbing preschool expulsions has sparked a dramatic decline in the practice, the UIC report found. Yet the same racial disparities found elsewhere across the country remain.

In 2020, Illinois’ preschool expulsion rate fell to 3.71 children per 1,000, down from 12.61 children per 1,000 in 2018. Black students were just 17% of enrollment, but 33% of those who were expelled.

Our state has made progress, but not enough.

Implicit bias against Black boys

Preschool expulsions and racial disparities garnered widespread attention from the 2005 Yale study, which found that preschoolers were expelled at rates three times higher than students in K-12 education. Black children were about twice as likely to be expelled as Latino or white children.

In 2012, the Obama administration began gathering preschool discipline data for the first time at the federal level. In 2014, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights released data that echoed Yale’s findings.

Implicit bias is to blame for the glaring racial disparities, as Yale researchers discovered in another 2016 study.

Using eye-tracking equipment, the researchers found that teachers spent more time watching and monitoring the behavior of boys than girls — but Black boys were watched and monitored more often than any other group.

As the researcher wrote, teachers “show a tendency to more closely observe black students, and especially boys, when challenging behaviors are expected.”

“It’s not that their behavior was any different,” as Zinsser said, “but [teachers] were watching and anticipating more.”

Clearly, more training is needed, both to root out racial bias and give teachers more skills to manage misbehavior in general.

Meanwhile, we’re noting Zinsser’s advice to parents: The best way to prevent harsh discipline is to have a positive relationship with your child’s preschool teacher.

“When teachers like parents, kids don’t get expelled,” she said.

Teachers must do their part, too. “The first phone call home,” as Zinsser said, “should not be, ‘Your kid did this awful thing.’”

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