Data Void

New push to quantify, prevent preschool expulsions in Colorado

When Sarah Davidon’s son was in preschool in Douglas County, he would often bite or hit other kids. Once he pinched a teacher on the arm. Another time he punched her in the stomach.

Although the teachers tried to be patient with his outbursts, Davidon worried that the center’s director would ask that the boy be removed from care—what many might call an expulsion.

“There was a period when we were getting calls almost daily,” Davidon said. “[The director] was getting increasingly frustrated…She would say, ‘Other parents are getting upset and I have to decide if this can continue.’”

The irony is that Davidon is a faculty member of the University of Colorado School of Medicine who studies preschool expulsions and early childhood mental health. She’s also board president of the Colorado Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health.

In those roles, she’s well aware that the odds of getting expelled from preschool are higher than the odds of getting expelled from the K-12 system. A 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Education also revealed that minorities and boys are disproportionately expelled from preschool.

It’s statistics like these that prompted a recent federal push for states to address the issue, a process now unfolding in Colorado. Last fall, a letter from two top federal officials was sent to states urging the development of preschool expulsion policies, analysis of expulsion data, and scaling of preventive practices.

In addition, the recently reauthorized federal Child Care and Development Block Grant—the main source of funding for the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program—includes a requirement for states to publish preschool expulsion policies, and permits some grant funds to be used for teacher training around the issue.

Currently, that there are no statewide policies on preschool expulsion in Colorado or mechanisms to collect expulsion data from childcare providers. The two state studies conducted over the past decade show a decreasing rate of preschool expulsions—suggesting that preventive strategies may be working.

Still, advocates say two data sets with relatively low response rates aren’t enough to provide a full picture of the preschool expulsion landscape or make firm conclusions about the impact of prevention strategies.

“When it comes to data, we are in the dark and that’s one of the concerns,” said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

“We want to be able to advocate for strategies that mitigate the use of suspensions and expulsions. We want to be able to evaluate those,” but that’s difficult without baseline data, he said.

But Noel Nelson, CEO and president of the Early Childhood Education Association of Colorado, said requiring providers to report expulsions could add a new layer of unnecessary regulation and lead to state interference in a provider’s carefully considered decision.

“The decision to disenroll a child…is not taken lightly by owners, managers, teachers,” he said. “There’s just this assumption that providers are quick to disenroll and move on.”

Naming the problem

Preschool expulsions and the events leading up to them are worrisome for several reasons. For parents and providers, they are stressful, time-consuming, and potentially expensive. For children, expulsions can delay needed mental health services, threaten continuity of care and hinder positive social-emotional development.

Some experts say expulsions may also foretell a future of school struggles. Charlotte Brantley, president and CEO of Clayton Early Learning, said it’s likely that many of the children suspended or expelled from preschool will be the ones later suspended and expelled during the K-12 years.

“There’s bound to be a thread,” she said.

Despite disagreement among the state’s early childhood players about whether statewide expulsion reporting is needed and how much state oversight is necessary on preschool expulsions generally, most agree that any strategy should include training and other resources for early childhood teachers.

“You can have all the expectations in the world and if you don’t support early child care settings…you won’t necessarily get the results you’re after,” said Brantley.

State officials, child advocates, and provider representatives also agree that whatever happens around preschool expulsions in 2015 will rely on input from all quarters of the early childhood world.

“We’re naming a problem and we want to bring everyone to the table to think about what to do about it,” said Jaeger.

Limited data

Despite the lack of routinely collected state-specific data on preschool suspensions and expulsions, there are a few sources of information that help provide general outlines of the problem.

  • The 2014 data snapshot from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that nationally black students make up 18 percent of the preschool population but 42 percent of those suspended once and 48 percent of those suspended multiple times.
  • The same report found that boys make up 54 percent of the preschool population but 79 percent of those suspended once and 82 percent of those suspended multiple times.
  • A 2006 study co-authored by Davidon found that 10 of every 1,000 children were removed from licensed Colorado child care settings, compared to a K-12 expulsion rate of nearly three per 1,000 students. (The provider response rate to the study survey was 17 percent.)
  • The 2006 study found that home-based providers had higher rates of expulsion (35 per 1,000) than child care centers (six per 1,000).
  • A follow-up study in 2011 (not yet published) found a significant drop in removal rates from licensed child care—four per 1,000. (The provider response rate to the study survey was 17.9 percent.)

Davidon, director of community education with JFK Partners in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, called the reduction found in the 2011 survey good news. Still, she said, “What we still don’t do is collect information on this every year…We can’t stop expulsions from happening if we don’t know when and where they’re happening.”

There has been some talk about adding an expulsion category to the state’s electronic incident reporting system currently used to report when a child is injured at preschool or day care. But officials from the state’s Office of Early Childhood, which is housed in the Colorado Department of Human Services, aren’t sure that’s the way to go.

Jordana Ash, director of early childhood mental health for the Office of Early Childhood, said she’d like to focus on collecting “lead measures” that anticipate the possibility of expulsion rather than “lag measures” such as the expulsion itself.

“We’re very invested in understanding this phenomenon and understanding really what leads to a child being at risk of expulsion,” she said. “Our efforts will be capturing the right data.”

In terms of what lead measures the state might collect, Ash said the department’s data team and other stakeholders will need to consider that issue.

“That’s the work in front of us,” she said.

Tools for heading off expulsions

While the current spotlight on preschool expulsions is relatively new, some advocates have been working to address it for years. There are several strategies that seem to be effective, including teacher trainings focusing on children’s social-emotional development. These include programs like Pyramid Plus, The Incredible Years and “Expanding Quality for Infants and Toddlers.”

Ash, who studied preschool expulsion rates in Boulder County in her previous position, said the creation of a “warm line” that providers and parents could call to seek phone or on-site help with difficult child behaviors seemed to have an impact in the Boulder area.

Another option for providers is bringing in early childhood mental health consultants. The state funds the equivalent of 17 full-time positions. Such consultants observe classroom dynamics and help teachers adjust schedules, change room lay-outs, and otherwise tweak instruction to better handle challenging children.

That’s what helped in Davidon’s case. Her son, now a first-grader in the Jeffco school district, didn’t end up getting expelled from preschool. Instead, as things deteriorated during his four-year-old year, she called in a friend who worked as an early childhood mental health consultant in Douglas County.

The friend observed Davidon’s son in his classroom several times over a month and then provided the teachers and Davidon with input and suggestions. Some, like a smaller class size, weren’t doable, but others, like better preparing the children for transitions and taking a different tack when the boy got physical, were implemented.

Davidon’s son still had moments of bad behavior after that but the frequency and duration of incidents decreased, said Davidon. Part of it, was helping the teachers frame his physically hurtful behavior not as a personal attack but an issue that would deescalate with calm correction.

“I’m not sure if [he] changed…what I do think changed is that the teachers felt a little more confident in how we addressed things when they came up,” she said.

While research suggests that mental health consultation can help reduce expulsions, there’s concern that the state’s cadre of consultants is too small to help all the providers who could use support. Davidon added that most parents can’t be expected to know about, much less arrange such interventions as she did.

“I can’t imagine if I weren’t working in the field and I didn’t know some of these people, who I would have called,” she said.

All over the map

What do children need to know when they start kindergarten? You might be surprised.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

How many letters should kids recognize when they enter kindergarten? Should they be able to cut with scissors? How long should they be able to sit still?

Such basic questions seem like they should come with clear-cut answers, but parents and teachers — and even Colorado state standards — differ widely in their expectations for entering kindergarteners

Early childhood leaders in Larimer County discovered just how much variation exists after they surveyed 800 local parents, preschool teachers and kindergarten teachers in 2015.

“The answers were all over the map,” said Bev Thurber, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County. “A lot of times it was way above what research says is developmentally appropriate.”

Such findings spotlight the lack of consensus about what it means to be ready for kindergarten. The survey found parents and preschool teachers generally had higher expectations for youngsters than kindergarten teachers or state standards, suggesting that some parents and preschool teachers may be focusing too much energy on teaching academic skills to young children.

“Our concern is not only do you have this variability, but also this pressure on the academic side … when that’s really not the most important thing, especially at this young age,” said Thurber.

To help parents sort it all out, Thurber and a team of early childhood teachers and advocates created a new eight-page parent guide called “Ready Set Kindergarten.” Available in English and Spanish, the whimsically illustrated booklet gives parents tips for building academic and social-emotional skills — things like simple counting, recognizing the letters in a child’s name, naming feelings and taking turns. It also includes a month-by-month schedule for the pre-kindergarten year highlighting logistical details like registration windows and meet-the-teacher opportunities.

All three Larimer County school districts, — Poudre, Thompson and Estes Park — have agreed to use the guide, which is being distributed through preschools, elementary schools, doctors’ offices and libraries.

But some experts say too much emphasis on getting children ready for kindergarten relieves schools of their obligation to serve students regardless of their background or experience.

“It’s critical for schools to take responsibility for being ready for children – not the other way around,” said Sherry Cleary, executive director of the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute at the City University of New York.

Cleary reviewed the guide and worried that it would create unneeded stress for families and set up teachers to have unrealistic expectations for kids.

Thurber said many teachers and parents already have unrealistic expectations for entering kindergarteners, according to survey results. The guide scales those back, she said, and offers a more reasonable list of activities that are based on state standards and Colorado’s early learning and development guidelines.

“This is what experts have said is developmentally appropriate,” Thurber said.

“I completely buy in that schools have to meet kids where they are at,” she said. ”However, within that, there is a certain anxiety among families when you have all these differing expectations.”

Karen Rattenborg, executive director of the Colorado State University Early Childhood Center and an assistant professor at the university, saw the disparity in expectations when she analyzed the survey data.

Take letters, for example. State standards say kids should recognize at least 10 letters when they start kindergarten, specifically the letters in their name. Survey results showed most parents and preschool teachers believed entering kindergarteners should recognize more than 20 letters. Kindergarten teachers opted for a lower 11-20 range.

The same dynamic held true for counting — about half of parents and preschool teachers thought kids should be able to count higher than 20 while state standards say 10 is enough.

In some cases, both preschool and kindergarten teachers placed a high value on tasks that state standards and other common benchmarks don’t mention. Both groups rated cutting with scissors as the second most important fine motor skill for entering kindergarteners, but state standards and the state’s early learning guidelines are silent about scissors.

“It’s things like that where we had these a-ha moments,” said Rattenborg.

In some cases, there was agreement. For instance, the vast majority of both preschool and kindergarten teachers said the ability to communicate needs and wants was the top communication skill kindergarteners need.

Rattenborg said the diversity of views made one thing clear.

“We realized having a common guide throughout Larimer County would be helpful for virtually everyone involved,” she said.

Diane Umbreit, a kindergarten teacher at Kruse Elementary School in Fort Collins and a member of the committee that conceived the guide, agreed.

Over the years, she’s seen plenty of confusion and anxiety among parents. Some push their kids hard to acquire new skills before kindergarten. Some want to do learning activities with their children, but aren’t sure where to start.

Others, she said, are “shocked that their child needs to know the letters in his name.”

Umbreit said of the new kindergarten guide, “Hopefully, it evens the playing field.”

Teaching teachers

How a Memphis pre-K giant is changing the way early childhood educators are taught

PHOTO: Porter-Leath
Porter-Leath's new training program places emphasis on early literacy.

Morgan Bradley thought that teaching children at her church’s Sunday school would have prepared her to work in early childhood education.

But the recent college graduate was shocked by all she learned at a recent training at Porter-Leath’s new Early Childhood Academy.

“I thought I knew how to work with little kids, but I didn’t know how much a child’s brain develops during those years before kindergarten,” said Bradley, who will be helping in a Head Start classroom through AmeriCorps. “I’m realizing now how necessary good teaching in pre-K is to getting a baby ready for kindergarten, especially when it comes to using my words to build a child’s vocabulary.”

Bradley is one of more than 500 educators who will go through Porter-Leath’s training this year in an effort to boost the quality of early education instruction in Memphis. Porter-Leath is the city’s largest provider of early childhood education and has a partnership with Shelby County Schools for Head Start and other services, including training.

The program comes as Tennessee grapples with a low literacy rate and mixed quality of early education programs. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has emphasized the need for better early childhood education across the state for Tennessee to improve as a whole.

Porter-Leath’s trainings are held almost monthly and revolve around four tenets: socio-emotional learning; literacy; health; and STEAM, or science, technology, engineering, art and math.

The socio-emotional and literacy pieces are what make the program different from usual professional development for early educators, said Rafel Hart, vice president of teacher excellence for Porter-Leath and the training program’s leader.

“When we think about professional development in early childhood, we think about training on CPR and first aid,” he said. “That’s important, but Teacher Excellence focuses on classroom practices. How do we make our quality of instruction better?”

A Memphis organization since 1850, Porter-Leath serves about 6,000 children in its preschool program and employs 670 people. It serves students in some of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods who may be dealing with the trauma of food or home insecurity at early ages. This makes training teachers in socioemotional learning especially crucial, said Hart.

Porter-Leath’s program draws from organizations like Acknowledge Alliance that trains teachers to help students regulate their emotions and learn self-awareness.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
AmeriCorps members who will work in Porter-Leath classrooms are among more than 500 educators to go through the training.

“I’ve been in early childhood for 25 years, and socioemotional learning is rarely used,” Hart said. “That’s a tragic mistake we’re correcting. Students can’t grow to develop strong academics if their emotional health isn’t growing first.”

All new Porter-Leath and Shelby County Schools early childhood educators will go through this training, but it’s also open to and encouraged for longtime teachers.

Kelly Thieme, a former literacy specialist and now Porter Leath instructional coach, is especially excited to see the focus on literacy.

“A lot of people don’t understand literacy starts from birth, and speaking to children makes reading and literacy easier,” she said. “We go through current research on how young children learn to read. To me, this helps us and others understand that we’re not just babysitters; it helps us professionalize our profession.”