An Equitable Start: Eliminating Disparities in Preschool Discipline

by Jamie Bonczyk, Dianne Haulcy, and Thuba Nguyen

*Photos and graphics can be found in the pdf version of this article.

 

Policies in early childhood organizations continue to create situations in which rules are prioritized over relationships, often to the detriment of the child, which results in a statistically higher number of students of color unsupported in meeting their developmental goals. Systemically, we continue to see a disproportionate amount of Black and brown children disciplined for non-specific classroom offenses. These infractions are often subjective, and frequently labeled under a general umbrella of “defiance.” These students of color then end up spending valuable instructional time in the director’s office instead of the classroom—missing out on important learning opportunities. In many cases, these students are excluded from the program, parents are asked to withdraw, or children are suspended or expelled.

This happens in pre-K at a significantly higher rate than any other grade level. As of 2014, children of color were expelled from preschool at a rate about three times higher than their white peers, a ratio that has remained unchanged since the first study of its kind in 2005. As recently as 2020, the U.S. Department of Education has shown that nationwide, Black males make up 18 percent of pre-K enrollment but account for 41 percent of suspensions among male preschoolers. We see a similar discrepancy in the suspensions of Black girls in pre-K with a total enrollment of 19 percent and a suspension rate of over 53 percent amongst their female peers. The field of early childhood needs to combat the exclusionary discipline that continues to disproportionately affect the development of Black and brown children across the country.

Expulsion my look different in preschool settings as the approach is more subtle and places the ‘decision’ in the parents’ hands. For example, program leaders/administrators may use exclusionary language such as, “this is not the right fit,” “we do not have the capacity/capability to serve your child,” or “we do not want to compromise the health and safety of the other children and our staff” to ultimately condemn children who are experiencing adverse childhood experiences from gaining social/emotional skills to support their development. Though the statements seem harmless, the very root of the message is saturated with discrimination.

A common reason early childhood programs provide for expelling young children is “challenging behavior.” A significant factor regarding challenging behavior is the presence of events or experiences in children’s lives that are considered traumatic. Some children who have experienced trauma will act out in ways that are distressing to staff. This behavior may be interpreted by ECE professionals as willful or negative, instead of a reaction to past experiences. Blame is placed on teaching staff, however nearly all ECE professionals are significantly under-resourced. ECE professionals report that they need more training, time or additional staffing to understand and identify the origins of behavioral outbursts. Providing more support to ECE professionals can create meaningful change to educational disparity. 

Implicit bias compounds misunderstanding of children’s behavior. Implicit bias presents itself as the unconscious projection of negative societal beliefs that prejudicially affect how children of color are regarded and treated. Research has shown that ECE professionals unknowingly and mistakenly view African American boys as more “difficult to control” or subconsciously treat them as if they are more “dangerous” or “aggressive.” Casting children in this harmful light leads ECE professionals to respond to these perceived behavioral patterns more frequently, with increasingly harsh consequences. It is true that any child might display this type of reactive behavior, however, implicit bias can cause ECE professionals to notice and anticipate it happening more frequently, and to a greater degree, in children of color, even if that may not be the case. In the same way that programs struggle to support children and staff with the resources to understand the root causes of behaviors, many programs have inadequate resources to provide the training and coaching necessary to address the implicit bias that inevitably occurs in child development programs. 

Anti-bias education is the cornerstone of creating the next generation of social justice leaders and community activists. Implementing authentic, anti-bias education requires early childhood leaders working with young children to acknowledge their own implicit and explicit biases. There are two key components of the social context: implicit racial bias and structural racialization. Together, they reinforce each other like bookends, and hold a system of inequality in place that does not require overt racism or any racist actors at all to maintain it. As a result, inequality takes the form of seemingly harmless institutional practices or structures that reduce and limit opportunities for Black, Indigenous, People of Color, immigrants, and people with complex identities (Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, 2013). It is imperative for ECE professionals  to establish a foundational awareness of the cultural design of the learning environment and programming development, in order to minimize the achievement gap of students from marginalized communities.

ECE professionals may subconsciously engage in projecting harmful stereotypes and exclusionary practices that contribute to continuing to place children from historically underrepresented and underserved communities in a chronic state of stress, trauma, and inequity. For example, when a child “acts out” or exhibits “challenging” behaviors, ECE professionals deem them defiant or uncooperative, hence excluding them from learning activities or shaming them in front of their peers, rather than trying to investigate the origin of the behavior and support the child and family to address and overcome the underlying issue. Repetitive patterns of negative experiences perpetuate disconnect and dissonance between school and learning, discouraging children from becoming young adults with the ability to confront conflict with creative and progressive solutions.

The values and methodology of anti-bias education embrace cultural differences and support children to address unfair treatment of others. It is a microaggression when ECE professionals frame children’s differences as deficits, rather than as assets. The negative bias only reinforces a student’s negative academic script, leading them to believe school is an unwelcoming place where they cannot be themselves (Hammond, 2015). The pedagogical approach of anti-bias education creates an intentional meaning behind the culture of the learning community. When ECE professionals normalize racial socialization skills in the development of the child’s culture, they naturally increase a child’s ability to engage in complex cognitive thinking and problem solving. When a child from a marginalized community does not feel respected, seen, or heard by their peers or community members, they may internalize the negative encounter and normalize disparities and inequities. Furthermore, in the development of a culturally responsive learning environment, children need tools to strategically problem solve and critically think about social constructs that perpetuate barriers, injustice, discrimination, and misinformation.

In conjunction with the implementation of an anti-bias pedagogy, ECE professionals have to practice culturally responsive organizational and classroom practices. The application of culturally responsive practice promotes stimulation for the development of new neural connections and catalyzes the brain’s neuroplasticity in young children (Hammond, 2015). The intersection of neuroplasticity and culturally responsive teaching provides children with the opportunity to shape their mental models and evolve their mindset. Adverse childhood experiences deeply impact and challenge a young child’s brain development. Educators and care providers should establish a sense of belonging in their learning environment that buffers children from the impact of ACEs and trauma on brain development. The cultural archetypes of collectivism and individualism can immensely influence how a child engages in the social world as a whole. These archetypes provide a fundamental framework for the brain to categorize cooperation and isolation. Belonging and community depend on collectivist ideals, therefore educators who utilize culturally responsive practices can improve a child’s global lens. 

Trauma sensitive care has a multi-generational impact on children and families. To impart lasting impact on the lives of these children, ECE professionals must find additional ways to promote change in the established practices. The single best predictor of future mental health is a child’s current “relational health,” or their sense of connectedness to others. This emotional disconnection is fueled on two fronts: the inability to form and maintain stable relationships, and the lack of opportunity afforded to form these relationships (Perry, 2021). 

The capacity to develop these two needs happens early in life, through interactions at home, school, and in the community at large. When a child is supported by their community and loved ones, and sees consistent and responsive care from adults in their life, there is a reduction in the amount of immediate and long-term effects created by traumatic events or negative experiences. It is critical to the well-being of the child that we maximize the positive impacts provided in these areas. We can help children become more resilient, and give them the capacity to move beyond these experiences, if we teach them ways to understand that they need not be defined by their trauma. The alternatives to exclusionary practices include restorative practices that build community. Restorative practices include exploring implicit bias, racism, historical trauma, and resilience.

A Solution

The mission of Greater Twin Cities United Way is to disrupt inequities by income, race and/or place, toward creating a community where all can thrive. As one lever toward achieving this mission, Greater Twin Cities United Way seeks to impact complex local issues by directing targeted funds and attention to particular community challenges through a set of innovation initiatives. The goal of innovation initiatives are sustainable solutions through time bound projects that have targeted impact goals.

The most recent innovation initiative is 80x3: Resilient from the Start. This project aligns with efforts to reduce preschool suspensions and expulsions in Minnesota through a five-year, region-wide initiative to increase capacity to deliver trauma-sensitive care through healing-centered engagement in early childhood settings by increasing retention, providing sustainable caregiver training and support, and supporting expanded parent engagement and navigation. 80x3 is a community solutions approach towards creating more equitable outcomes for Minnesota’s youngest learners, by focusing on strategies called for from the field, and supported by consultants and an advisory group from across the Minnesota ECE landscape. 

One of the participating organizations is The Family Partnership (thefamilypartnership.org), who for more than 144 years, has successfully partnered with families and individuals to remove barriers to success for those who have experienced deep poverty and trauma. They represent two of the nine child development sites engaged in the 80x3 cohort. The Family Partnership sites serve children who often have mild to moderate delays due to trauma. One breakthrough strategy they have developed is a custom curriculum called Executive Functioning Across Generations. Taking a multigenerational approach acknowledges that the caregivers influencing child development were also influenced by their own caregivers.

Cassaundra Davis, director of The Family Partnership’s North Minneapolis preschool, emphasized that “Teachers leaving the field will tell you that one of the reasons they leave the field, other than pay, is the feeling that they are not equipped to help the kids who are in their classrooms.” Her concern is shared among the numerous early childhood leaders and educators that informed the 80x3 strategies through surveys and focus groups. 80x3 aims to address the needs called for within the field by:

  • providing reflective support to participants to help leaders move from problem solving to perspective taking and lay the foundation for staff to demonstrate the same skills in their work with young children;
  • providing co-designed professional development that is reflective of the participants’ wisdom and their self-identified needs; and
  • contributing to organizational change management and advocacy efforts that allow for creating sustainable changes.  

80x3 aligns with the Minnesota’s Knowledge and Competency Framework. The document calls out three specific expectations for those involved in decision making around the role of understanding the impact of intergenerational, historical and racial trauma on children, families and caregivers. Early childhood education professionals will:

  • promote policies and practices that buffer the impact of historical and intergenerational trauma on children and families;
  • promote the cultural humility and self-awareness of staff as it impacts interactions with families and the children in their care; and
  • promote policies and culturally sensitive practices that buffer the impact of racial trauma on children, families, and caregivers.

Community Collaborations such as 80x3 invest in adults, in order to help strengthen the skills needed to resolve conflict in a way that minimizes harm to both children and adults. Community efforts and collaborations that increase healing-centered engagement and learning from a cohort of organizations that have demonstrated that they are committed to culturally relevant and trauma sensitive practices, can interrupt the cycle of suspensions and expulsions. Instead, children’s educators and communities can focus on building the capacities of children, families, and early childhood professionals and programs. 

References

Ginwright, S. (2020, December 9). The Future of Healing: Shifting From Trauma Informed Care to Healing Centered Engagement. Medium. ginwright.medium.com

Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain. A SAGE Company. 

Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. (2013). Understanding implicit bias: The state of science. The Ohio State University 

SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach (n.d.). Youth.Gov. youth.gov

Understanding and Eliminating Expulsion in Early Childhood Programs. (2022, April 21). ECLKC. eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov

Perry, B.D. and Winfrey, O. (2021). What happened to you? Conversations on trauma, resilience, and healing. Flatiron Books.

 

Author Bios

Jamie Bonczyk (she/her) lives with her family in Richfield, Minnesota, where she works with Greater Twin Cities United Way (www.gtcuw.org). She comes to this work as an awarded early childhood education leader known for creating social-impact networks, change initiatives, and partnerships that create sustainable health and education outcomes for children, families, and educators. Jamie is a systems-level thinker adept at translating vision and strategy into operational plans. 

 

Dianne Haulcy is the president and chief executive officer of The Family Partnership, a high-impact multicultural Minneapolis nonprofit focused on clearing the path to success for individuals and families impacted by low-income, systemic racism and adversity. She assumed the lead role in July 2022 and oversees a $10 million organization with 100 staff. Haulcy is a well-known advocate and leader with 25 years of non-profit executive experience. Over her career, she led five early childhood programs all serving inner city, low-income diverse populations. Most recently, she served as senior vice president of family engagement at Think Small.  The Minnesota Public Radio Little Moments Count Early Risers podcast Haulcy created and hosts discusses how to talk to young children about race and racism. In two seasons, the 14 episode series has attracted 40,000 downloads. Among her many leadership roles, Haulcy serves as board chair of the Northside Achievement Zone. She holds a master’s in public affairs from the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota and a bachelor’s degree from Spelman College. 

 

Thuba Nguy?n (she/they) is an early childhood education specialist and an internationally published author. She published her first children’s picture book, “My Daddy Tells Me...” in March 2022. Her credentials include an associate degree in early childhood education with a specialization in special needs, and a bachelor’s in early childhood education leadership. She is the workforce curriculum coordinator for Child Care Aware of Minnesota and is a teacher at the University of Minnesota Child Development Laboratory School. Nguy?n is an active member of the University of Minnesota BIPOC Mental Health Collective planning team. Nguy?n is the owner of Children of the Collective Arts Academy, LLC, a small business offering services ranging from DEI training, consultations, workshops, speaking engagements, and author visits to early childhood settings and service centers/programs.