The Yale Child Study Center recently released a report saying that 5,000 preschool children are expelled each year.
Although the study did not describe the kinds of behavior that triggered expulsion, anyone who has visited a preschool knows that controlling a room full of 4-year-olds can be like herding cats!
We also know that preschool teachers can be poorly paid and trained, and might lack the skills to handle complex behavior problems. Indeed, the study showed that when teachers had access to psychologists or consultants, the expulsion rate was cut in half.
Over the last several years, I have spoken with many teachers and developmental psychologists. Most report that the children in today’s classrooms are more difficult. And why? Partly because children are overstimulated, overcontrolled and overmanaged.
The nature of preschool has also changed.
Preschool used to focus on teaching small children the skills they would need in kindergarten: socializing, sharing, tolerating disappointment, and learning to function in a group. Today, many preschools are focused on academic achievement. Children are spending more time in chairs learning their ABCs. This is inconsistent with brain development at this age and could be contributing to the dismissals.
Perhaps part of the problem stems from poorly prepared teachers, overly structured schools, and unreasonable external demands. But expulsion? Walter Gilliam, lead author of the study, suggests the data might say more about schools than children. I agree.
I recently got some insight into school policy when I spoke to a third grader who had just been suspended from school. She had carved a heart in the bathroom door with a pen. I called the school principal who explained: “That’s destruction of school property, and we have a zero-tolerance policy.” Most teachers I spoke with supported the policy, saying that a child who defaces school property must learn a lesson. I doubt we would have a problem with overcrowding if we suspended all children who had carved their initials on a desk!
I agree it is important to learn from mistakes. But what is the lesson this girl learned?
When she returned to school, the children made fun of her, her friends wouldn’t talk to her, and she told me that she hated herself for what she did.
And why is this happening? Schools are under unreasonable pressure. Parents want to make sure their progeny get all the attention they need. Our government creates pressure requiring children to take tests, and schools often lack the funds they need to produce the mandated results.
When individuals or institutions experience great stress, they may act to diminish the short-term problem while doing long-term harm. Suspending a child will help teachers and administrators who feel anxious in the face of disruptive behavior. But it does nothing over time to help reverse the trend in suspensions.
We do the same thing in families. When a child’s behavior distresses us, we generally holler, then lecture, and then punish. It works for the moment, but the behavior generally returns.
At the time of the “crime,” my little friend had just discovered that she really liked a little boy in the class and was too embarrassed to tell anyone. She declared her love in a bathroom stall, not understanding that she was destroying property. How much everyone could have learned if that child could have talked about how to manage her feelings while she was repainting the bathroom door.
Children must have consequences for their behavior. The penalties should be clear and consistent, and delivered without anger. But when small children are being suspended in large numbers, a long-term solution demands that we look at our behavior.