When I see the 4-year-olds at my school bouncing down the hallway, I see students ready for anything! Excited about school and soaking up a world of knowledge, they are just so cute! So, when I read the Center for American Progress’ (CAP) recent piece, “4 Disturbing Facts About Preschool Suspension,” my heart dropped to the pit of my stomach. Nearly 7,000 3- and 4-year-olds were suspended or expelled [PDF] from U.S. public preschools during the 2013-2104 school year. This is unconscionable. I am already angered and frustrated by the disproportionate number of students of color that we push out and suspend from our K-12 schools, but ostracizing preschool students is even more disturbing — and counterproductive.
Suspensions of young children are not just a national problem; we see them in Minnesota too. According to an October 2015 Star Tribune article, a kindergartner was suspended for playing with ChapStick and then fleeing the classroom when told to stop, despite a Minneapolis moratorium on suspending kindergarteners. Furthermore, the article detailed local disparities in suspensions. When will the Minnesota Legislature and local districts effectively address this inequity? There are alternatives to suspensions that are more effective than this harmful, exclusionary practice; they must become a priority for our school leaders and legislators.
Pathologizes normal child behavior
Suspending young children pathologizes normal child behavior, and these suspensions can be driven by racial bias. It is not abnormal for a preschooler’s frustration to be expressed through physical conflict, as any parent can tell you. When preschool students are suspended for a physical conflict, it sends the message that something is wrong with the child, sometimes leading to medical intervention, even though it is part of a preschooler’s normal social development. I see this firsthand with my 3-year-old son, who will soon start preschool. He pushes his sister and hits me when he’s frustrated — not because he is a bad kid, but because he is still learning how to express his frustration. My son, who is white, will likely not have to worry about being suspended. If trends continue, his black peers won’t be as lucky, as they are nearly four times more likely to be suspended.
Studies suggest that what we treat as a student problem may actually be an adult one. Research suggests that implicit racial bias — bias that teachers and administrators aren’t even conscious of — can drive preschool suspensions. The recent eye-tracking study that came out of Yale University [PDF] shows that teachers observe African-American children more closely than white children because they expect challenging behavior. This contributes to the disproportionate number of African-American students we suspend while we should be setting up early learners of color for success. Starting on their first day of school, we are effectively sending the message to students of color that school is not for them.
And the impact of school suspensions is far greater than a few hours or days missed from school. Not only is the way they are disproportionately given out a civil rights issue, but when we exclude students from the classroom, they are less likely to graduate. A Texas study found that students who had been suspended or expelled were twice as likely to drop out compared to students with similar characteristics at similar schools who had not been suspended. When students don’t graduate, their chances of falling into the criminal-justice or social-welfare systems increase. Along with the human cost, this takes an economic toll on our state, depleting our workforce and tax base.
School districts and the Legislature must address this issue by providing training for school personnel. This training should target all staff, not just teachers, and focus on addressing our implicit biases, implementing alternatives to suspensions, and using respectful and positive redirection for students acting out. Even as someone who is aware of this issue, I, too, would benefit from these trainings and continue the work of undoing my biases. I’m also embracing alternatives to suspensions that are based on relationship building with students. We need resources and policies in place that support implementation of these alternatives; without them, our efforts will be inconsistent and we will fall short.
As the CAP article says, “preschool should be a welcoming place where children grow and develop normally, free from society’s stereotypes and prejudice.” It’s time we, the public, our school districts, and our Legislature make the changes necessary to allow school to be a welcoming place that encourages growth and development for all students. As my own child starts preschool this fall, this is what I want for him and all his peers.
Teresa Fenske is a fourth-grade teacher at Valley View Elementary School in Columbia Heights.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)