As the holiday season approaches, many preschool children will get to spend extra time with loved ones during school breaks. But some Black preschoolers will not return to school because of the preschool-to-prison pipeline.
Black children, as young as preschool, are still expelled two times more and suspended almost three times more than their white peers. To be sure, since the groundbreaking Yale study in 2005 revealed the staggering expulsion rates for Black preschoolers, anti-disciplinary legislation for young children has been enacted in several states and preschool educator access to mental health consultation services has increased.
But all preschoolers aren’t actually winning.
Studies examining the effects of preschool mental health supports often center on non-Black children in non-public preschool classrooms. This is problematic because the majority of suspensions and expulsions are occurring in public preschools and are targeting Black children. Undeniably, there may be racist arguments suggesting that Black children are suspended and expelled more frequently because they are more violent, or disobedient, or defiant. These statements are not only false, but they lack compassion and fail to acknowledge the persistent marginalization experienced by Black children.
Plus, it implies that children are the problem—but really, the adults are. And solutions require changes in adult behavior, as well as policies.
First, school administrators need to implement anti-racist hiring practices and professional development because the expulsion of Black preschoolers is likely influenced by implicit (and sometimes explicit) biases. For example, young Black boys and girls commonly experience adultification, or being viewed as much older than they are, which results in harsher treatment. Furthermore, there must be honest conversations regarding accountability. Schools need to audit preschool disciplinary data and identify instances when adults are making harmful decisions for Black preschool children. Instead of removing the child, let’s work on removing the biases toward Black children. To be sure, there are thousands of extraordinary educators who actively engage in anti-racist practices and those educators are needed in preschool classrooms.
Second, we need policies that provide mental health services to educators in public preschool classrooms with Black children. While legislation is helpful, laws without the appropriate fiscal resources needed for school-based mental health personnel will likely result in the same negative outcomes for Black children. School psychologists are one example of school-based mental health professionals who could and should provide early childhood mental health consultation services.
School psychologists receive extensive training in development and understand the social-emotional needs of children. For example, most preschoolers will likely demonstrate some tantrum behavior. As a matter of fact, “meltdowns” should be expected. School psychologists have the expertise to work with educators on effective ways to respond to these developmentally appropriate outbursts. School psychologists are also well-equipped to work collaboratively with teachers as well as families, which is critical given the importance of family-school partnerships and the unique knowledge families hold about their child. And finally, school psychologists are already present in schools, however, many are not called upon until the situation has become dire and everyone involved—teacher, parents, and child– are exasperated.
Public educators are often under enormous pressure to attain outrageous goals with minimal resources and very little pay. But the well-being of Black preschool children can no longer be ignored. Public preschool classrooms must serve as safe spaces for Black children, and harming Black preschool children should never be allowed, under any circumstances. And let’s face it, expelling and suspending 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old children is very harmful.