Researchers at the Yale Child Study Center recently released a report stating what early childhood professionals have long known: The shift from focusing on social and emotional development to academic learning in preschool has had a devastating effect on a number of children. Although a number of 4- and 5-year-olds walk away from preschool as strong prereaders, many children are simply walking away - or, more accurately, they are being shown the door.
According to the study, "Prekindergartners Left Behind," the number of young children expelled from early learning programs for various behavioral issues is three times the expulsion rate of K-12 students. Expulsion rates were also higher in private and faith-based preschools than in programs run by Head Start or other organizations, though the report emphasized that center-based access to a behavioral consultant cut the expulsion rate by nearly half. Teachers, caregivers, and parents are all discussing the latest report and its implications.
Why are preschoolers being expelled at such a high rate? Is the problem the children, the family or the staff?
Maybe the problem is not one of out-of-control children or poorly prepared teachers; maybe the problem is the way preschools are currently structured. The recent focus on meeting academic standards at the preschool level - a focus that now overshadows the development of social and emotional skills - is like building a house without a foundation. In order to be ready for kindergarten, a child needs to learn more than her ABCs and numbers. The original objective of preschool, after all, was fostering self-mastery and developing the skills needed to enter a school setting. If a child has not learned to control her body, to sit at a desk and raise her hand, how can we possibly ask her to follow a lesson plan?
Preschool staff expel children not simply because they can, but because teachers have academic objectives that must be met and group dynamics that must be maintained. Managing a room of 20-plus 3-year-olds is virtually impossible when dealing with a disruptive child who needs the attention of every adult in the room. Limited support options are easily exhausted. Expulsion is a last, sad resort, and never a simple choice.
Where do we go from here?
Teachers need help. They are being asked to do too much to meet the goals of literacy, language, and mathematics development recommended by the No Child Left Behind Act. They are being asked to teach basic socialization skills as part of the general "school readiness" curriculum. They are sometimes asked to take the place of family in that socialization process. They are doing all of this, yet they're being paid on average less than half of what a public kindergarten teacher makes. For the majority of these teachers, that wage puts them - and often their families - below the poverty line or in the low-income bracket. There is no structure or financial incentive in place for early childhood educators to learn about social and emotional strategies when dealing with severe behavior. They don't make enough money, in most cases, to pursue additional education which might give them those skills. And even if they do manage to earn that higher degree, they're unlikely to see a significant rise in their salaries.
Parents need help. There are families who find themselves - and their children - in an out-of-control household, as anyone can attest who has watched the baffled parents on the recent pop-culture TV phenomenon known as "Super Nanny."
Children need help. Parents and teachers must better understand the emotional landscape of childhood development; they need training and resources to help them know how to modify behaviors and how to decide when intervention is needed. As it is, most two-income families are struggling to pay the cost of child-care (and preschool often serves as that, albeit with some added academic structure); can we ask them to pay more so that teachers can be better trained? Many preschool teachers are juggling too much with too little support; can we ask them to work harder?
The direction of early childhood education may have lost its balance between academic development and social and emotional development. Can we - as legislators, as educators, as parents and early childhood advocates - work for that balance? Can we step up to better provide the resources and training that teachers and parents need? Social and emotional development for 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds should be given an equal priority alongside literacy, math, and language development. We are asking of children and of many early childhood educators to deliver too much too soon, and often without adequate resources.
The expulsion rate is a reflection of that.
Barbara Atkinson is Associate Editor of Earlychildhood NEWS. This piece was originally published in The Christian Science Monitor.