- Colorado and Illinois are using two promising strategies to lead the way in reducing exclusionary discipline practices in early childhood education, New America’s Education Policy Program said in a report released Wednesday. The group's study focused primarily on how these states use early childhood and mental health consultation and professional development around social-emotional learning to address disparities in discipline.
- During virtual listening sessions late last year with teachers, program administrators and mental health consultants in Colorado and Illinois, New America heard about persistent staff shortages in early childhood education and how the pandemic has increased stress for students, teachers and families.
- Some of the report’s recommendations for helping early childhood educators address discipline disparities include creating a uniform state department that oversees these programs, addressing the preparation and retention of early educators through fair pay, and increasing access to mental health resources for early childhood programs.
Disproportionate suspensions and expulsions of young children are a long-standing issue that has been exacerbated by the pandemic, said Chrisanne Gayl, chief strategy and policy officer at Trust for Learning, a philanthropic partnership focused on expanding early learning environments for underserved children.
“It’s important to note this is an ongoing issue. It’s not one that is going to go away unless we’re really intentional about addressing it,” said Gayl, who is also a former senior policy advisor for early learning at the U.S. Department of Education.
The New America report cited a 2019 study that found, through parent-reported data, more than 174,000 pre-K students were suspended each year. On top of that, more than 17,000 pre-K children were expelled annually. A 2005 study by Yale University also discovered pre-K children were over three times more likely than K-12 students to be expelled. Additionally, that same study said Black pre-K students were twice as likely to be expelled compared to their White and Latino peers.
About 15 state early childhood discipline policies reflect language with a focus on racial equity, according to New America, a public policy think tank based in Washington, D.C. The group's report goes on to recommend that more of these policies focus on racial equity and that policy stances on racial equity should be clearly communicated to early childhood educators.
“They may not be aware of the equity implications of exclusionary discipline, or it may not have been communicated to them that this is an intentional part of the law,” the report said. “The data suggest that doing a better job of reducing exclusionary discipline in ECE [early childhood education] will benefit Black children, especially Black boys, the most, and policies should be designed accordingly.”
Gayl said exclusionary discipline is rooted in racism and the implicit bias of some educators. This can begin to be addressed through professional development, she said.
“We should be honest about that,” Gayl said.
Both Colorado and Illinois have passed legislation banning or strongly restricting expulsion of young children from the classroom. This is an emerging policy trend that Gayl said she wished other states would adopt at a faster rate.
As states begin eyeing policies to address exclusionary discipline, it should be noted this move is only a first step to taking on the problem, said Abbie Lieberman, a co-author of the report and a senior policy analyst in early and elementary education at New America.
Two strategies that stood out most to Lieberman as she talked with educators in Illinois and Colorado were the focus on early childhood mental health consultation and professional development on social-emotional learning. But access to these resources needs to be more available and consistent, she added.
“If we want to see meaningful change, we really think the focus needs to be on supporting these teachers so that they can better support the children,” Lieberman said.