Over the last few years I've found myself attending any presentation at special education conferences that addresses research behind the disproportionality of students of color and disability are suspended and expelled in the early years. As someone who follows the data on this trend, as well as a teacher in the schools, I frequently wonder what is going on. I've never been in a school where, at any given moment, I watch how a teacher interacts with a child and think "Oh, that teacher is being racist." I truly believe the majority of teachers out there have no idea their actions may be contributing to the broader statistics, and that every teachers acts in the moment based on what she thinks is best.
This belief makes this problem difficult to fix, because it means we can't just tell people "Hey, stop discriminating against kids." First we have to figure out what is causing the discrimination in the first place.
One presentation I attended this winter at the Council for Exceptional Children's Conference in Indianapolis was on this phenomena. The researcher looked at preschools in her area and examined their teacher and administrations specific beliefs and practices around suspension and expulsion. She was hoping to get to the bottom of what's happening in these schools when preschools make these decisions.
One trend she found deeply resonated with me, because I know it to be true in practice. Much of the time, teachers and directors use out of school suspension or expulsion to address the child's family, not the child. Although these teachers are directors realized that these practices do not work to change the child's behavior, they did feel that they could get the family's attention or force the family to realize a problem with the child through the suspension and explosion practice. She also found that the teachers and directors shared that despite this belief, they often saw that it rarely caused a change in parent behavior.
I've certainly seen this happen in my own world. There have been times parents refused to acknowledge a child's misbehavior in school, blamed us for their child's behavior, or refused to problem solve with us to find a solution. I've seen principals (and agreed with them in the moment) regrettably decide to suspend a child only because it would force the family to come in and talk with us. It happens.
Now that I'm a parent of an active child who sometimes has difficulties controlling her emotions in preschool, I've had the opportunity to be on the other side of the "that child" table. I've been lucky to work with teachers who respect my opinion, and allow me to talk through how we can problem solve this behavior in school. As a teacher I speak their language, so I know what they are leaving left unsaid. I also know how to reframe my emotions and make suggestions that build a team between myself and the school - instead of emotionally reacting and telling the school where to stick it. But I've had 16 years of practice in having these conversations. I also have a cultural fit with the school, and support the values they are hoping to instill in my child. And even then, I get off the phone feeling slightly sick and panicky.
I cannot control what my child does at school. We spend a lot of time at home talking about calm down strategies. We put structure and rules in place. I've taught her conscious discipline breathing techniques, and sent her to school with visual reminders of how to use them. We've practiced using them. Practiced taking a break. Practiced using our words. But when she walks in those doors there is nothing more I can do. And no matter what the school says, I feel helpless and judged.
So think about being another parent - one who attended school in an inner-city, whose parents may have received similar "there is a problem with your child" phone calls. A parent who learned not to trust the system, or any of those teachers who look like they mean well. If there is no trust, and all the parent hears the school say is (even if the school says it as nicely as possible) "Your child is ruining my classroom" or "Your child doesn't belong here." How are you going to move forward? Do you trust the teachers? How do you begin to problem solve with these teachers?
And let's be honest - not all teachers are willing to listen to parents and get ideas of what works at home. In talking with parents we often use a top-down approach. "Your child needs to X. At home you need to enforce the limits. Have rules. Establish routines" etc, etc. Just saying that implies we don't believe they have rules and routines at home.
Let me tell you - when you come to that table for the behavior talk - it is nearly impossible to not feel judged. And my daughter has the nicest, best, most amazing preschool teacher in the whole world.
What about parents who aren't from this country? Whose culture was to let the school handle it? To draw a line between school and home?
Or families whose rural backgrounds are built around a child's ability to work and farm, and not sit on the carpet in schools and listen to a book?
What about families with two working parents, trying to make sure they can pay the bills, save for college, and somehow get their child to sports activities after school? They barely have time to fit their own lunch into their daily schedules. It may not be that they don't take the school seriously - it's trying to take care of their child long term verse short term.
The realization that most of these suspensions are originally designed to be wake up calls for families stuck with me. We have a problem in how we are connecting with families, how we build a team between ourselves and the parents. And some parents may scare us a bit. They may be scared of us, and therefore come on too strong or too tough - which scares us. It may be that we don't treat all parents equally, and we make assumptions of what goes on inside children's homes.
Hearing this research studies findings that teachers and preschool directors acknowledge that suspension and expulsion do not change behavior, but that they use it to communicate with parents needs to be a wake up call for all of us. We need to spend time thinking about our perceptions of parents and re-think how we build partnerships. We also need to spend more time thinking about what we can change in the classroom to meet the needs of these kids, instead of wanting the home environment to change. Whether we approve or disapprove of the home environment, it is rare that we are able to actually change what is happening outside our classroom walls. So let's dig deeper into what we can do ourselves.