Three Years Old, Black and Suspended

It’s time to intervene with alarmingly high preschool suspensions.

In the classroom, teachable moments are those unplanned occasions during which learning occurs, when lessons are sparked by real-life interactions that could never be predicted.

The epidemic of suspensions imposed on black preschoolers presents just such a teachable moment for teachers and school administrators.

The tally on preschool suspensions is startling and distressing. Black children make up 18 percent of the nation’s preschoolers, but they represent nearly half of the children in that age group who are suspended more than once. Even a preschooler can see those numbers don’t add up.

It’s widely known that black students across all grade levels are suspended (and expelled) three times as often as their white peers. What’s less understood is that the practice of defaulting to zero-tolerance “get-tough” suspensions and expulsions is trickling down from middle and high schools into preschools.

Researchers and activists have cautioned educators and criticized these policies, yet the practice continues with disturbing results—like 4-year-olds put out of school for temper tantrums.

“The first step is awareness, and that’s a huge step at the preschool level,” says Tunette Powell, whose 3-year-old has been suspended five times this year. The research is powerful. A city council member in the District of Columbia, calling preschool suspensions “ridiculous,” introduced a bill to curtail the practice after a report drew awareness to the fact that district schools suspended preschoolers 181 times during the 2012-13 school year.

More superintendents are also raising the alarm about this issue. The School Superintendents Association and the Children’s Defense Fund teamed up to study district-wide school discipline policies, and determined that nine out of 10 superintendents “believe there are negative consequences to the use of OSS [out-of-school suspension] in their districts.”

While tackling excessive suspensions from a policy standpoint is essential, so is shaping teacher practice and providing professional development, something Powell sees as lacking.

“We see all of these studies, but the people we don’t see using all of these studies are teachers in the classroom,” she points out. “None of the preschool teachers at my son’s school have seen the research.”

Powell contrasts the national push for early childhood education and the coming influx of new preschool teachers with the lack of cultural competence training at the preschool level. “We all carry these implicit biases,” she says. "What’s missing is the opportunity to learn and grow and do better for kids. When we’re sending kids home at this age, 3- and 4-year-olds, it’s saying we can’t do anything with you. You’re already rejecting them at this early age.”

Helping teachers get in touch with their biases is crucial to changing the nature of student interactions. Denver Public Schools made an intentional decision to design training and curricula to guide teachers to continually address their biases, implicit and explicit. The comprehensive program urges teachers to ask themselves key questions that get at the core of engaging with students of all races and ethnicities at any age, such as:

  • Do I call on you?
  • How do I view your skills and abilities?
  • Am I connected to you?
  • How do I advocate for you?

Preschool suspensions are prevalent and racial disparities exist, but the numbers don’t explain why. For that, educators have to look more closely at themselves—a hard look at their own biases, beliefs, values and preferences.

“If you can see what you’re doing wrong, then it becomes knowledge,” says Powell. “I’m not here to badmouth. It’s a system we created. We’re all products of it. So how can we change it?”

Anderson is an education writer and activist for educational equity. Follow her on Twitter @mdawriter.

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