Kicked Out: UVA Researchers Probe Inequitable Preschool Discipline

September 27, 2022
A small child lays on the ground of a preschool classroom, drawing with a pink colored pencil

When a preschool student is suspended or expelled, it can have long-lasting effects on that child’s education. UVA researchers are working on ways to address the disruptions while keeping children in class.

University of Virginia researchers are trying new ways to fix an uneven preschool discipline system that subjects Black children, particularly boys, to suspensions and expulsions at disproportionate rates.

Last year, half of the 17,000 preschool students who were suspended or expelled nationwide were Black boys, even though they represented just 20% of the enrolled children. The startling statistic is from a brief from UVA’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching in Learning, or CASTL, where researchers examine the use of discipline and its consequences in preschool classrooms.

“Suspension and expulsion deny children access to critical learning opportunities, and too often this disproportionately affects boys and children of color,” Ann Lhospital, senior scientist at CASTL, said. “It sets kids up to experience negative outcomes that are short- and long-term.” 

Those negative outcomes include future suspensions, academic failures and even dropping out of high school. Removing children from their learning environment also does not effectively help them learn how to improve their behavior. 

“Ironically, kids are being kicked out for ‘challenging behavior’ without having the supports they need to develop healthy social-emotional skills that would help them be successful,” Lhospital said. 

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The CASTL researchers, based in UVA’s School of Education and Human Development, are partnering with organizations across Virginia to help early childhood educators support all children and, in doing so, are helping early educators identify and apply nonpunitive reactions to children’s behavior. The Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation project is designed to build adults’ capacity to foster social, emotional and behavioral development in children from birth to age 5, which can mean supporting children with disruptive behaviors in ways that keeps them in the classroom.

Suspensions and expulsions occur more frequently with preschool-aged children than K-12 students. Removal from a classroom is sometimes recommended by program staff, or even requested by parents. In other cases, parents and staff collaborate to decide.

Addressing Inequity in Preschool Discipline

According to the research team, inequities in preschool discipline can be the result of how adults interpret students’ behaviors, which then lead to more severe responses in some cases than others. Research shows this difference in reaction can be linked to implicit biases, especially racial biases, that are difficult to be conscious of, especially in high-stress environments.   

In a report assessing the need for this project, the researchers noted that even when considering other variables, Black students are disciplined at higher rates, indicating racial bias is a factor. 

“As humans, we all have blind spots and biases that can influence how we interpret others’ behaviors and our response,” Lhospital said. “This is particularly true in the case of disruptive behaviors, where emotions run high and teacher stress is common.”

Lhospital leans on a retaining wall and smiles at the camera

Ann Lhospital, of UVA’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching in Learning, says Black children, especially boys, receive suspensions and expulsions at a disproportionate rate. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

The research team at CASTL, in partnership with the Child Development Resource’s Virginia Infant & Toddler Specialist Network, are training consultants who help teachers reflect on the lenses through which they see the children in their classrooms.

And by helping them hone their observation skills, they empower teachers to see children’s behaviors in context and to address those behaviors more fairly. They also work with teachers to use effective, individualized strategies with children instead of employing exclusionary discipline practices.

For example, a consultant can help a teacher use child-directed play sessions, a technique known as “Banking Time,” with a child to improve their connection and reduce conflict.

“As teachers advance their abilities to interpret children’s behaviors and reflect on their own lenses,” said Ann Partee, research assistant professor at CASTL, the Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation project “supports teachers by gently pushing them to reflect on their own behaviors and teaching practices and the impact of those on children’s behaviors.

“It can be hard to think about what you can do differently as a teacher to meet a child’s needs when it seems like you may have tried everything,” she said, “especially if the relationship with a particular child is strained. The consultants help facilitate this reflection and analysis with teachers.”

While the mental health consultants do not diagnose a child or provide therapy to a child or family, they can make referrals to outside agencies to supplement their services. 

“We believe that partnering with adults to support children in the settings where they learn and grow is key to promoting wellness and preventing exclusionary discipline,” Partee said. “Educators and families are encouraged to discuss their concerns and requests for any referrals to mental health or other services with their consultant.”

The project, launched in 2021, received funding from the Virginia Department of Education to continue into its second year. Tamilah Richardson, the department’s director of early childhood learning, said this project will address the “concerning phenomenon” of uneven preschool discipline of some students, “particularly those who have been historically and are currently marginalized.”

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“Virginia stands the chance to be a national model for this promotive and interventive work in the infant and early childhood mental health space,” Richardson said.”

The team is bringing into its second year some important lessons learned. 

“Collaboration and partnership have become our think tank to delve deeper into the issues that impact providers, teachers, children and families,” said Dawn Wimbush, infant and toddler mental health supervisor at the Child Development Resources’ Infant and Toddler Specialist Network. “Sharing various perspectives has increased my understanding of our state’s needs and resources available. I am excited to be on a team working to support our most precious resource – children and their mental health.”

Among other tweaks, the team aims to have a more individualized approach to the duration of services offered to participating teachers, based on classroom and child needs, as well as testing the idea of providing services virtually.

“An aspect we want to tackle is to ‘crack the code’ on ways to best provide virtual consultation services,” Lhospital said. “We think a statewide model would be more equitable and efficient to make consultation services available virtually, and not just in-person to select areas.

“Our work at CASTL in the past decade or more has shown us the potential of video-based coaching and feedback, and we want to figure out how to best make this work for the diverse populations we’re serving,” she said.

Media Contact

Audrey Breen

Senior Writer and Research Communications Strategist School of Education and Human Development