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California Preschools Wrestle to Comply With State’s Tightened Suspension Rules

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Danielle Jorgenson, known to students as Teacher Dani, works with students in a garden during a preschool class at Los Medanos College Child Study Center in Pittsburg, California, on Feb. 15, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Like many babies born around the time of the COVID-19 shutdowns, 4-year-old Cole grew up watching Cocomelon and Bluey.

The popular kids shows kept him entertained while his mom, Grace McPherson, helped his older sister with distance learning. However, too much screen time and social isolation took a toll on Cole’s development. His mom said he was “pretty much nonverbal” when he was 3 years old.

So last fall, McPherson enrolled her son in a preschool in the Bay Area town of Oakley to help him catch up. The first day went smoothly. But on the second day, not long after dropping him off, the school called McPherson to pick up Cole because he refused to sit at circle time and was crying inconsolably.

“They said that he’s not ready for preschool, and I was just shocked,” she said.

The preschool director suggested coming back when Cole was more ready to follow directions, McPherson said. But she had made up her mind: she’d rather forfeit the $400 deposit for his tuition than return to a preschool that couldn’t support her son through a tantrum.

“I felt like they were just passing the buck,” she said. “And it’s just, ‘Here you go, here’s your child back. Figure out something else.’”

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The school never told McPherson they suspended her son when they asked her to take him home. Still, their experience would be considered a suspension under a state law designed to limit exclusionary discipline in early childhood education.

Suspending or expelling children from preschool for hitting, biting and other challenging behavior is surprisingly common. It happens way more often to Black children, boys, and children with learning differences than others, according to the most recent federal civil rights data.

California recently toughened rules around exclusionary discipline at preschools and child care centers that receive state funding, but implementing them has been tough for providers who are still dealing with stressed-out teachers, kids with fewer social skills and other long-lasting effects of the pandemic.

“The intention is good, but in actuality, there just aren’t the resources there to help support these preschool programs to do it in a really effective way,” said Nina Buthee, executive director of EveryChild California, an association of publicly funded early education programs.

‘What it means to exclude a child’

California is among 24 states with laws limiting preschool suspension and expulsion, according to the Children’s Equity Project at Arizona State University, because studies have found that children who are removed from their classroom or sent home from school as a form of discipline tend to repeat the pattern in later years and become disengaged from school.

“It’s not acceptable,” said Adonai Mack, a founding member of Black Men for Education Equity, which advocated for the law. “There should be no reason why a young child in their earliest development is excluded from an educational opportunity.”

Grace McPherson spends time with her son Cole, 3, at Los Medanos College Child Study Center in Pittsburg on Feb. 15, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

A 2017 law requires state-funded preschools to pursue and document ways they tried to support children with challenging behavior before resorting to expulsion. Another law passed in 2022 prohibits expulsion and suspension and applies to both preschools and state-subsidized child care programs for infants and toddlers.

The rules specifically prohibit teachers from sending children to another room or home in the middle of the day because of their behavior. That would be considered suspension. Teachers also can’t encourage a parent to unenroll from a program, and suspension or expulsion can only be used as a last resort when serious safety concerns exist.

The California law outlines one of the clearest definitions of suspension and expulsion, said Walter Gilliam, executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska.

Gilliam said teachers often don’t realize they’re suspending or expelling a child when they advise parents to find another school that’s “a better fit” or when they repeatedly ask parents to pick up their child early, creating an inconvenience that could lead parents to look elsewhere for more reliable child care.

“When we’re not very clear about what it means to exclude a child, then we run the risk of local implementers thinking that an exclusion means one thing and policymakers thinking that it means a completely different thing,” he said.

Danielle Jorgenson, known to students as Teacher Dani, cheers for students as they jump during a preschool class at Los Medanos College Child Study Center in Pittsburg on Feb. 15, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

To ensure accountability, California law requires teachers to document ways they try to support children with challenging behaviors, such as setting behavior goals along with their parents and referring them to mental health consultants. Parents have the right to appeal a suspension or expulsion to state authorities.

To help make the policy work, lawmakers increased funding for preschool and child care centers that provide early childhood mental health consultation services — such as marriage and family therapists, social workers and child psychologists — for kids, their families or teachers.

But Buthee said the law is placing demands on preschools and child care centers that are stretched thin by staffing shortages. Teachers sometimes get caught between providing one-on-one support for an ill-behaved child and ensuring there are enough adults in the room for the rest of the class.

Requiring teachers to keep records of how they dealt with a child acting up “feels like a gotcha policy” and makes a bigger deal out of what might be an age-appropriate behavior.

Members are also telling her they have a hard time finding early childhood mental health consultants.

“To actually find an individual in their community who is able to come in for an hour or a couple hours a week on a pretty short-term basis is very challenging,” she said.

Building trust in a child’s life

Linda Brault with the education research organization WestEd has seen this, too. She trains preschool teachers to work with children with challenging behavior.

“Right now, the stress level of the provider, and the fact that so many people haven’t gotten time to go to a training because they don’t have substitutes, or they’re working two jobs or whatever … I think we really have to address that,” she said.

Danielle Jorgenson, known to students as Teacher Dani, works with Cole, 3, in the garden during a preschool class at Los Medanos College Child Study Center in Pittsburg on Feb. 15, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The issue is crucial because the more stressed a teacher is, the more likely the teacher is to discipline a child. When teachers do have enough professional support and training to respond to a misbehaving child, Brault said, they tend to stay in their job and have fewer problems in the classroom.

“There is documentation and data that says children who are expelled and suspended in early childhood have a tendency to continue that pattern, so we really want to interrupt that,” she said.

McPherson eventually enrolled her son Cole at the Child Study Center, a preschool on the campus of Los Medanos College in Pittsburg, which is also a training ground for early educators. For the last decade, the school has been working hard to prevent suspensions and expulsions by meeting children where they’re at emotionally and developmentally.

Cole’s teacher Danielle Jorgensen said when he first got there, he had trouble communicating.

“He would try to tell us something. We couldn’t understand him. So he would fall to the ground, kick and scream,” she said.

She said she would get on the floor, take deep breaths and try to understand him. If you discipline a child while their brain is not able to think and process, she said, you’re not helping the child learn how to self-calm.

“A lot of the things that we work on here is teaching them that it’s OK to have emotions and how to deal with them,” she said.

Jorgensen can take the time to work individually with Cole because there were enough interns in the room to watch over the other children, thanks to the preschool’s unique relationship with the college. She said she also tries to build relationships with parents and their kids to foster trust because once children feel safe, their brains are more open to learning.

McPherson said in just a few months, her son’s vocabulary exploded.

“His confidence, his ability to make friends, just overall his growth was extraordinary,” she said.

Getting her son reliable child care allowed McPherson to go back to school. She enrolled at Los Medanos to get a certification to teach middle school. She also received a grant to lower Cole’s preschool tuition, and in turn, she had to take a child development class and volunteer as a helper at the preschool.

She said the class gave her a greater appreciation for conscious discipline, a series of strategies used at the Child Study Center to teach social-emotional skills.

“It really starts with the attuned, calm, trusted caregiver, teacher, parent in the child’s life. That really sets the tone for the relationships that the kids are going to have,” she said.

For more information about California’s laws and how to prevent suspension and expulsion in early child care and education programs, check out https://preventingchildcareexpulsionca.org/.

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