Photo: Micaela Bedell for Strategies for Children
Photo: Micaela Bedell for Strategies for Children

“Massachusetts public and charter schools suspended kindergarten and pre-kindergarten students 603 times in the 2014-15 school year,” according to an analysis done by public radio station WBUR that was reported on its Learning Lab website.

“Students in their first year of school were sent home for offenses that included hitting, disrupting, disrespecting, throwing things and fighting,” WBUR reports.

This is a drop from last year’s reported numbers, but these numbers still mean that hundreds of children could face lasting educational challenges.

Among the risk factors that led to these suspensions: “Last year, students with disabilities were suspended at more than twice the overall rate: One in 16 was sent home.”

In addition: “Black students are suspended almost four times as often as their white classmates.”

A related Learning Lab blog post adds that a study of 15,000 Kentucky children found a partial explanation for the achievement gap between black children and their peers: “as much as 20 percent of the difference may be due to a single cause: getting suspended from school.”

Another complicating factor: “Experts say trauma makes suspension more likely — and more damaging,” the Learning Lab’s website says.

“What a traumatized child craves the most is connection. Feeling connected, having relationships with that educator who can really help the child feel safe,” Susan Cole, director of Boston’s Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, told WBUR. “When a school responds by actually removing a child, it has quite a devastating effect.”

Cole added that children often behave badly as a way to say, “Help, I’ve been traumatized.” And she advises against suspending them.

Massachusetts isn’t alone. The national prevalence of suspensions prompted the U.S. Departments of Education and of Health and Human Services to issue a policy statement on the problem, which says in part:

“A child’s early years set the trajectory for the relationships and successes they will experience for the rest of their lives, making it crucial that children’s earliest experiences truly foster – and never harm – their development. As such, expulsion and suspension practices in early childhood settings, two stressful and negative experiences young children and their families may encounter in early childhood programs, should be prevented, severely limited, and eventually eliminated.”

And as we blogged last year, suspensions and expulsions have also gotten attention from academics:

In a 2007 report, Walter Gilliam, a Yale professor of child psychiatry and director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, wrote:

“‘Severe behavior problems during the preschool years are a meaningful predictor of continued behavior problems, poor peer standing, and academic difficulties during kindergarten.’

“The good news, however, is that, ‘high quality early education and intervention programs may prevent severe behavior problems in young children, especially for those from low-income communities and families.’”

Writing on WBUR’s Cognoscenti website, writer and developmental psychologist Suzanne Bouffard calls for strong classroom management.

She writes: “Good classroom management starts — but does not end — with engaging children in activities that use their hands and captivate their minds. Young children are built to explore; they need to move frequently and do new things every day. They should not be expected to sit at desks all day or remain silent while eating lunch or walking in the halls. Those expectations set young children up to fail.”

Providing behavioral and mental health services is also essential. As we blogged last year, early educators will find useful information in a mental health guide that focuses on young children. It’s called “Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Resources and Services: A Guide for Early Education and Care Professionals.”

Training is another key need. In one of its articles, Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child explains, “Existing intervention programs could better address the effects of toxic stress if they incorporate training and expertise in the identification of young children with serious, stress-related, mental health problems (as well as mothers with depression) and have ready access to expert assessment and mental health services as needed.”

And Massachusetts has Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation programs that “address and support the social-emotional development and behavioral health of children in early education and care and out-of-school time settings.”

At the national level, the response to pre-K suspensions has been varied.

“Cities and states throughout the U.S. find different ways to stop suspending young kids. Connecticut and Minneapolis ban kindergarten suspensions. Houston’s school board is considering a similar move,” WBUR adds.

“Massachusetts policymakers haven’t gone that far. But in 2014, a new school discipline law went into effect.

“The law requires principals to notify superintendents in writing before any out-of-school suspension in kindergarten through third grade.

“Some advocates question whether that part of the law is followed. But others credit it for a drop last year in kindergarten suspensions. The 603 reported kindergarten and pre-kindergarten suspensions from 2014-15 are about half as many as the year before.”

At the federal level, a newly filed bill filed seeks “a partial ban on suspensions and expulsions of preschool students in public programs,” according to the Washington Post. The bill “prohibits suspending or expelling pre-kindergarten students except in cases involving weapons or drugs or when a student threatens or causes ‘serious bodily injury.’”

As Bouffard says in her Cognoscenti article, “Kindergartners and preschoolers are counting on us to help them do and be their best. Ending suspensions is a vital step, but it’s just the beginning.”