Pre-K expulsions: A sign teachers need more help?

For months, Nadine Anderson picked up her son from preschool dreading that day's report on his behavior. At 3 years old, Devandre had thrown things and pushed classmates so often that he was about to get expelled from his YWCA program in Worcester, Mass. No one seemed to know what to do.

On average, nearly 7 of every 1,000 children are expelled in a given year, according to the first nationwide study of expulsions in state-funded prekindergarten programs. That's triple the rate at which students are expelled from K-12 programs, says Walter Gilliam, an assistant professor of child psychiatry and psychology at the Yale University Child Study Center.

Over the past 25 years, access to preschool has grown dramatically. The number of states funding pre-K for at least some children has grown from 10 to 40. But in a quest to get the most return on such investments, policymakers are shifting attention to quality.

Expulsions are a serious concern because they may prevent the very students most in need of early learning from getting it. They may also signal, suggests the Yale study, that teachers in these programs need more support when it comes to handling behavior problems.

"When we fail to provide these supports, we place children and their families in a very difficult situation - where some children are bounced from one program to the next and parents may end up viewing their child as an educational failure well before kindergarten," Professor Gilliam said in a telephone press conference.

Survey results from nearly 4,000 teachers showed that the more access they had to help from mental-health consultants, the less likely they were to have expelled a child.

A program in Worcester began providing such consultation just in time to keep Devandre from becoming part of the expulsion statistics. A survey of four large child-care centers had found that 18 percent of 2- to 5-year-olds were at risk of being expelled because of "challenging behaviors" such as biting, destruction of property, and temper tantrums.

In response, the Together for Kids Coalition formed, with funding from local branches of United Way and The Health Foundation. Specialists in early childhood mental health observe students and meet with teachers and parents to come up with a plan so that children will get consistent messages at home and at school.

With this new structure, Ms. Anderson says, she dropped her defensiveness about Devandre's behavior. In meetings with the teacher and the clinician, she finally mentioned she had trouble getting him to go to sleep at night, and they offered her a tape of the calming music they played before naptime at the Y.

It worked wonders, she says. They also observed that being near certain kids made him more likely to act out, "so they'd redirect him right away. The lead teacher ... just gave him one of them looks," she says with a laugh, "and he knew to walk away."

Last fall, difficult family circumstances made Devandre's transition to kindergarten a rough one, Anderson says. But she carried over what she'd learned and kept in close touch with his teacher. Now Devandre is doing much better in school, and he loves all kinds of sports, especially soccer.

Together for Kids has reduced the number of expulsions, says Ann Flynn, assistant vice president of the United Way of Central Massachusetts. In addition, she says, "Teachers have become far more satisfied with their work, families have learned new ways to function with their children." Researchers have been measuring the program's effectiveness, and she hopes the state will fund an expansion.

The new national study shows that preschool expulsion rates vary widely from state to state - with a high of 21 per 1,000 in New Mexico to a low of zero in Kentucky.

Because Kentucky targets children who have disabilities or come from low-income families, it already provides a range of services, says Annette Bridges, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Preschool Program. The state also has five early childhood regional training centers. And highschoolers are enlisted to help preschoolers with social and emotional issues.

"Expulsion is not an option, so we make sure we have professional development for teachers," Ms. Bridges says in a phone interview.

Only a few states have programs in place to prevent pre-K expulsions. Public spending per child in K-12 averages about $9,000, but only five states provide more than $5,000 per child for preschoolers, Libby Doggett, executive director of Pre-K Now, said during the press conference.

Expulsion rates also varied significantly by gender and race - with preschool boys being expelled more than four times as often girls, and African-Americans expelled at about twice the rate of students of European descent (including Latinos). This is one of several findings that will be explored in a follow-up study, Gilliam said.

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