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What We’re Reading: Disrupting the Pipeline in Virginia

26 Sep 2018 by Allie Kallmann

The statistics around exclusionary discipline practices, like suspension or expulsion, are grim. Kids who get kicked out, especially repeatedly, are often already behind academically, become less engaged in school, and are monumentally more likely to drop out of high school. And while exclusionary discipline affects all students, it’s essential to keep in mind that children of color are suspended and expelled at rates disproportionate to their white peers. 

Research also shows that the earlier these forms of discipline start, the more likely children are to continue being suspended. In a 2015 report from the Center for American Progress (CAP), the authors describe the preschool-to-prison pipeline — the prevalence of early childhood exclusionary discipline and the policies that support it. Suspension or expulsion in early childhood settings set a negative tone at the very start of children’s school experience. Given what we know about its impact on later-in-school success, it’s surprising to note that preschool students are suspended at more than triple the rate of older students. In fact, a 2017 follow-up to this report pointed out that 250 preschoolers were suspended or expelled every weekday.

Exclusionary discipline practices are not only disproportionate and academically limiting. The evidence shows that they’re actually not particularly effective at curbing negative behavior. This does make sense on a certain level: children whose behavior warrants suspension once, especially at a young age, are likely to have persistent challenges to their behavior. However, if suspension and expulsion don’t address the problem, then the penalty for these behaviors isn’t corrective, supportive, or helping children learn. So what are the alternatives? How can we support children to learn to manage their own behavior? 

A recent study from researchers at Louisiana State University and the University of Michigan examined the predictors of out-of-school suspension in early elementary grades. Using data from 3,495 kindergarten and 1st grade students who had been identified as high-risk due to truancy, researchers identified behaviors and student characteristics thought to be related to suspension: aggression, defiance, disruption, lack of school engagement, lack of parental involvement, race, and gender. They followed these children over their next several years of elementary school to see whether these at-risk students were suspended, and how predictive these early-elementary characteristics and behaviors were. 

For boys, researchers found that aggressive, defiant, or disruptive behavior in early elementary school was significantly predictive of being suspended several years later. All else equal, Black boys were more likely than those of other races or ethnicities to be suspended later in elementary school. White girls were also less likely than Black girls to be suspended. For girls of all races and ethnicities, disruptive behavior and lack of parental involvement in kindergarten or first grade were both related to suspension several years later. However, there was no link between aggression or defiance and girls’ later experiences with exclusionary discipline. Ultimately, 16% of the children in this study were suspended in elementary school (including about 23% of the boys in a given year). While this is an at-risk sample and likely to be higher than normally expected, this is a shockingly high proportion of elementary schoolers that are losing learning time and developing even higher risks of dropping out. 

This study and the CAP report point to the same idea: especially in early childhood, it’s essential to address the cause of behavior. A recommendation given by CAP is to develop policies that prohibit early childhood suspensions. Several states and D.C. have done so, and Teachstone’s home state of Virginia has recently taken steps toward that goal! While the original state Senate bill had called for a total ban of these exclusionary discipline practices in early childhood, the law, which went into effect over the summer, limits out-of-school suspensions for children in pre-K through third grade to three days. What’s more, it calls on schools to seek out alternatives to suspensions for older children. 

There’s not a perfect solution to addressing misbehavior. Good-hearted, well-intentioned teachers and administrators have to balance keeping classrooms safe and productive for all students while supporting the needs of students with challenging behavior. We’ve blogged before about the promise of professional development to help teachers change their practice and reliance on exclusionary discipline, and we’re looking forward to seeing how this new policy breeds creativity, and keeps kids in classrooms. 

Citations: Adamu, M., & Hogan, L. (2015, October). Point of entry: The preschool-to-prison pipeline.

Center for American Progress. Retrieved from https://cdn.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/08000111/PointOfEntry-reportUPDATE.pdf

Yang, M., Harmeyer, E., Chen, Z., & Lofaso, B.M. (2018). Predictors of early elementary school suspension by gender: A longitudinal multilevel analysis. Children and Youth Services Review, 93. 331-338.