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Equity and Excellence in the Earliest Years: Action on Expulsion and Suspension in Early Childhood Settings

Photo of two young boys playing with a game.By Shantel Meek, PhD, Policy Advisor for Early Childhood Development

Psychologists, neuroscientists and economists alike agree: The beginning years of any child’s life are critical for building the early foundation of health and wellness needed for success in school and later in life. As a community, we hold the responsibility of ensuring that children’s earliest experiences always foster- and never harm- their development, particularly during this highly sensitive and formative period. 

But what happens when 3- and 4- year olds go through the negative and stressful experience of being expelled from preschool? Recent data indicate that expulsions and suspensions occur at high rates in preschool settings, by some estimates, at even higher rates than in K12 school settings, an alarming statistic given that school expulsion and suspension are associated with negative educational and life outcomes, according to a well-established body of research. In addition, stark racial and gender disparities exist in these practices, with young boys of color being suspended and expelled much more frequently than other children. These troubling trends warrant immediate attention and partnership between researchers, clinicians, teachers, families, and policy makers at all levels.

Last week, the President and his Administration hosted the White House Summit on Early Education, which brought together federal, state, and local policymakers, mayors, school superintendents, corporate and community leaders, and advocates to highlight efforts across the country to expand access to high-quality early learning programs for our youngest learners. The Summit signaled collective action across sectors, and across America, in a variety of areas in early childhood education.

The day included a robust breakout session on equity and excellence in the earliest years, which discussed issues of expulsion and suspension policies, racial disparities, culturally and linguistically responsive practices, social-emotional and behavioral health, and enhancing preparation and development of the early childhood workforce. The U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Education announced the release of a joint policy statement on expulsion and suspension practices in early learning settings, complete with a set of recommendations that if implemented, may help make headway on the issue.

The recommendations include:

  • Developing and clearly communicating preventive guidance and discipline practices
  • Developing and clearly communicating expulsion and suspension policies and implementing those policies uniformly and without bias
  • Investing and continuously growing the skills of the early childhood workforce focusing on children’s social-emotional and behavioral health, strengthening partnerships with families, employing strategies to prevent and correct implicit or explicit biases, and conducting universal developmental and behavioral screening and appropriate follow-up
  • Setting goals and analyzing trends in data to assess progress in reducing expulsion and suspensions
  • Making use of free resources to enhance staff training and strengthen family partnerships

In addition, HHS announced over $4 million in investments to support preventive and intervention practices, including early childhood mental health consultation, a capacity-building practice for early learning teachers and families, with demonstrated effectiveness in reducing and preventing expulsions and suspensions.

Partners outside government also made several key commitments in this space. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics announced that they will release a policy statement on evidence-based early childhood social-emotional interventions, which will mobilize pediatricians around the country to strengthen the social-emotional and behavioral health of our youngest children. The Irving Harris Foundation announced a $3.5 million commitment to extend new support to the 15 U.S. based programs in the Harris Professional Development Network, a network of 18 early childhood and infant mental health leadership sites located in 10 States, DC, and Israel. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation committed $11 million, in part, to support the integration of child development, social and emotional skills building, and health supports within early care and education settings, at the national and local level.

Combined, these policy statements and investments will help bring us closer to eliminating expulsion and suspension practices in early childhood programs, but they will not get us all the way there. They are a first set of steps. To fully address these issues we need more longitudinal research to inform and strengthen intervention; we need policymakers at every level to step up and establish fair policies and make strong investments to enhance the quality of early learning programs; and we need stronger partnerships between early childhood programs, families, and the communities in which they live, including with pediatricians, mental health professionals, and education leaders.

The truest test of our economic and social longevity as a nation lies in the foundation that we set in our youngest children. We cannot afford- morally or financially- to exclude children from the high quality early learning experiences we know set them and our country up for success and a bright future. This issue warrants an all-hands-on-deck approach. Let’s get to work.

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