Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Suspension in the Early Years

In late March, the Huffington Post ran an article by Laura Bornfreund titled Why Suspension Makes No Sense in the Early Grades which summarized recent research on why suspension is ineffective in the early grades.  While working with Early Learning programs, I witnessed suspension being used for children as young as 2.  It is a common practice in our schools, both elementary and preschools, and the reasons for it's use are complex.

Historically, suspension has been seen as a method to motivate students into complying with how the teacher wishes them to behave.  The thinking behind this goes something like this- if you suspend a child they will realize how very egregious their behavior was, and will, never, never do it again.  While again, even in later years, research invalidates this as an outcome of suspension in most cases, it makes even less sense in the Early Learning years when children do not link a behavior they did yesterday to what is happening today. 

This brings me to the second reason suspension occurs so commonly in our schools which consists of the belief that the child wants to get a good education so if this is taken away from them they will behave so they can have that education they so desire.  While that sounds laughable printed out it is a common belief in our culture and for some no amount of evidence to the contrary can contradict it.  Even when the evidence against this continues to mount.  Not everyone values education or sees how it will benefit them. And in today's economy there are some strong reasons (I am a strong advocate of education for more than economic reasons) to think education may not be a benefit.  Secondly, young children cannot see the long-term benefit of their education. They live in the moment and in the moment of suspension it means they get to be home with Mom and Dad. 

Many teachers (and parents) fall back on suspension due to the fact that the skills for handling negative behaviors are simply not taught and as a result teachers are ill-equipped to handle them. Traditionally, many people think that children should just know what to do to as if this is somehow magically transmitted to them in the womb. This removes the burden off the adult to teach appropriate behavior and places it on the child for acting willfully disobedient.   While children do act willfully disobediently at times, removal from social and educational activities creates an easy way out for the teachers  rather than teaching the child appropriate behaviors, how to solve problems, and how to work with others (of course, if you look at politics you see the results of these skills not being taught!). 

Another critical factor of this issue stems from lack of resources such a Mental Health consulting, assessments of child's development, and parent education classes in Early Learning programs.  These resources facilitate Early Learning professionals supporting children with challenging behaviors and/or developmental issues.   However, availability of these resources exist in only a few programs, and often the availablity of those exist at a minimum.  I experienced  waiting, at least, 3 months to have my child's hearing and language development accessed when concerns about his speech arose following several ear infections.   Insurance covers hearing tests, but not language testing.

But regardless of the reasons, the use of suspension disregards all evidence of how young children think and learn. And it is up to us to respond to negative behavior in an age appropriate manner, and to demand the resources we need to effectively meet children's needs. This is a systems issue, and needs to be addressed in a comprehensive manner so that every child reaches their potential.

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