Sunday, February 11, 2018

Will Olympia protect our youngest learners from removal?

Advocates identify 6 things the state could do. Two bills in play touch on some of them

Excluding young children from learning is surprisingly common - even though it doesn’t fix the problem, is developmentally inappropriate, and causes long-term harm and expense.

So, will state legislators act to stop removing young learners from school?
  • One bill skirts around a key issue: Just how unprepared most child-care and early learning providers are when it comes to accommodating and working with children with disabilities.
  • The process involved in trying to pass another bill captures how much school administrators cling to the practice of removing young learners instead of improving professional capacity to support early childhood development and combat bias.
Many people are surprised to learn just how common suspension is for preschoolers, kindergartners and children in grades 1 to 3. In Washington last year, 6,000 K-3 students were suspended or expelled. Nationwide, preschoolers are removed from learning at three times the rate of students in the K-12 system.

And the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 National Survey for Children’s Health (NSCH) revealed children with disabilities made up 75 percent of preschool removals, even though these 3- to 5-year-olds only account for 12 percent of preschoolers. 

The national children's health survey also flagged a practice that families of children with disabilities are all too familiar with: The “soft suspension” of asking parents to come pick up their child early. This is something families experience in preschool and child care settings, and in K-12. There are legal protections that come into play when disciplining children because of their disability or denying them access to public accommodations. So instead, schools and providers do it informally.

But whether formal or informal, the message children and their families get is the same: You don’t belong here.

Compounding this, research shows exclusionary discipline is developmentally inappropriate for young children. Children in preschool and the early grades need to establish ties with teachers and other classmates. Excluding them severs those ties. Children who are removed from learning environments are also more likely to experience academic failure and hold negative attitudes toward school.

A report that analyzed the NCHS results summarizes the problem:
 “The consequences of this disciplinary reality are devastating. Suspensions and expulsions lead to lost learning time and also deprive children, especially those with disabilities, of valuable opportunities that can help them overcome early challenges.  Moreover, removing children with disabilities from classrooms can deprive them of crucial services available under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).”

- Suspensions Are Not Support: The Disciplining of Preschoolers with Disabilities

So why are we alienating our youngest learners and denying them the education and support they need? What would work better?

Based on research, advocates have identified these strategies:

1. Prohibit suspensions and expulsions across early childhood settings. 

A bill that would do this for children in kindergarten and grades 1 and 2 (SB 5155) has been stuck in Rules for a year. Rules is where a committee decides whether and when to bring a bill up for vote, and whether amendments should be offered. The bill would ban suspensions in kindergarten and grades 1 and 2 unless the student brought a firearm to school. It passed its policy committee last year but hit resistance in Rules. There is a striking amendment (that is, a new version of the bill) that would allow schools 10 days of informal removals. That means a student could be removed for a half day every other week in the school year. This effectively does nothing to stem the practice of asking families to pick up children with disabilities. You can read the bill report, including testimony given last year, here.

2. Develop alternatives that proactively address children’s emotional and behavioral needs

What would be helpful? Ask lawmakers to adopt the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendation that educators assess children at risk for expulsion for developmental, behavioral, and medical challenges. This could connect children and families to intervention services.

Ask lawmakers to promote the use of school-based counseling and mental health programs as an alternative to exclusionary discipline by providing funding and technical assistance to schools and early learning providers.

Assist schools and early learning providers in learning and adopting de-escalation strategies and multi-tiered supports.

There are no requirements for Washington schools to use evidence-based preventive, restorative or other practices that support students in meeting behavior expectations. The bill that wants to stop suspensions in the early grades (SB 5155) would only encourage districts to use these strategies.

There is another bill, HB 2861, that would establish an advisory group to develop a 10-year strategy to expand training in trauma-informed child care and reduce child-care expulsions. Unfortunately, the legislation fails to address the fact that trauma is not the leading cause for expulsions in the preschool years; disability is. If the state wants to reduce child-care expulsions, then it needs to offer technical assistance and develop training to help early learning providers understand how to accommodate and support children with disabilities.

3. Invest in teacher professional development
The state is starting to invest in professional development again, but how that time is used is something educators or schools determine locally. Most professional development in Washington is funded by local levies as “enhancement.” The state assumes that professional development for special education is covered by special education funding.

4. Reduce teacher stress

5. Empower teachers with tools to fight implicit bias

6. Promote meaningful family engagement

There is nothing to stop local school districts from implementing these strategies. But this session, the state could also step up. If these issues matter to you, consider writing or calling your legislators.
  • You can find them here: The hotline number is 1-800-562-6000.
If you wish to comment on the bills mentioned in the this post, click on the following:
  • Comment on SB 5155 - Concerning suspension and expulsion of children in kindergarten and early elementary school
  • Comment in HB 2861 - Expanding provision of trauma-informed child care and reducing expulsions

- Ramona Hattendorf,
Director of Advocacy, The Arc of King County