As schools and childcare centers re-open in North Carolina, what will be the same and what will be different?
We know that young children, particularly those in communities with fewer resources, have been experiencing massive disruption in their usual routines. We also know that parents have been feeling significant stress related to health and financial well-being of their families. The combination of unstable environments and stressed caregivers is likely to increase child social and emotional needs. However, research shows that Black children are treated differently than White children in early childhood classrooms in disciplinary responses to challenging behaviors, particularly preschool suspension and expulsion.
Prior to COVID-19, several groups in North Carolina including the North Carolina Partnership for Children, Educational Equity Institute, and the National Black Child Development Institute focused their attention toward this issue and the staggering numbers. A report from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (2014) stated, “racial disparities in out-of-school suspensions also start early; black children represent 18% of preschool enrollment, but 42% of the preschool children suspended once, and 48% of the preschool children suspended more than once.” More recent data has confirmed this trend in North Carolina: 47% of preschool children suspended once and 56% of preschool children suspended more than once in 2015-2016 were Black.
There are many reasons why Black children are targets of harsher discipline. Recent research suggests that implicit racial bias plays a key role in these disparities. A study led by Walter Gilliam at Yale’s Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy found that early education staff tend to observe Black children more closely, especially when they expect challenging behaviors. Educators unknowingly, and sometimes knowingly, carry stereotypes about Black children that influence who is disciplined and how harshly. These stereotypes are the result of false narratives about Black children and families that we have absorbed as part of our socialization within society. Black children are perceived as criminals; threatening and aggressive; older than their actual age and less innocent than their White peers; or girls are perceived as loud and sassy. Unfortunately, very few studies have examined racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions, and the data available in North Carolina is very limited.
Our team at the Jordan Institute recently explored how to improve the quality and availability of data to better track and understand racial differences in North Carolina. Findings from our recent JIF early childhood data report included results from a “data roundtable” on suspensions and expulsions in early childhood. We report: the reducing suspensions and expulsions round table was prepared to frame the issue as one of race equity and identified racial disparities in the treatment of children of color. We wondered: How can early childhood data systems be used to perpetuate or remedy existing disparities?
We suggest two next steps are needed: 1) better data collection, and 2) better training and preparation for the early childhood workforce. Improving data collection in early childhood settings related to COVID-19 and school closures is certainly on the radar of policy makers. We need to know where children are and when they are not in the classroom, which includes suspensions and expulsions.
The NC Division of Child Development and Early Education developed a 2017 Suspension and Expulsion Policy Statement that recommended “Early childhood programs can implement evidence-based practices to prevent challenging behavior including, consultation with the family, and consultation with early childhood mental health specialists, behavioral consultants, and licensed therapists.” Effective tools, interventions, and strategies exist, but they are not being used consistently throughout the state. More resources are needed to support services like the Healthy Social Behaviors Initiative available statewide through the NC Child Care Resource & Referral Council.
Last, and perhaps most importantly, early educators and policymakers need opportunities to examine their own assumptions and worldviews about child behavior and discipline practices as part of training and preparation. We must all reflect on our biases so that we can begin to collectively develop better policies and practices that are focused on the root causes of the inequities rather than instituting band aid interventions that do little to address the complex history of racism within the educational system.
Without these two pieces in place for school re-opening, we are likely to perpetuate and even exacerbate the disparities in treatment for Black children in North Carolina. Let’s make sure our systems, administrators, and teachers have the tools they need to begin correcting this injustice.
2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection: A First Look (Washington: U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, December 2016), https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/2013-14-first-look.pdf
U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights Data can be found accessed at: https://ocrdata.ed.gov/StateNationalEstimations/Estimations_2015_16
Data notes are available at https://ocrdata.ed.gov/Downloads/Data-Notes-2015-16-CRDC.pdf
Gilliam, W. S., Maupin, A. N., Reyes, C. R., Accavitti, M., & Shic, F. (2016). Do Early Educators’ Implicit Biases Regarding Sex and Race Relate to Behavior Expectations and Recommendations for Preschool Expulsions and Suspensions? New Haven, CT: Yale Child Study Center.
National Black Child Development Institute Toolkit: Stop the Madness: Purging the Preschool to Prison Pipeline. Available at https://www.nbcdi.org/news/stop-madness-purging-preschool-prison-pipeline
Zero to Three Prevention Expulsion from Preschool and Child Care resources and videos. Available at https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/series/preventing-expulsion-from-preschool-and-child-care