Op-Ed: When we suspend them, we fail our youngest students

I have a client who was suspended so often that there were months where he was out of school for more days than he was in school.   He was also frequently placed in restraints.

This child, seen as so dangerous that he had to be either excluded from school or tied up, was 5 years old.

Op-ed submit bugA special education consultant discovered that the boy had a serious speech and language disorder.  He didn’t respond to direction because he had trouble processing what his teacher was saying.  My client needed help, not discipline.  Once he got the right services, his behavior improved dramatically.

Variations on this story play out every day in classrooms of Connecticut’s youngest learners.  Last year, 1,217 students under the age of 7 were suspended from Connecticut schools, according to a report just released by the state Department of Education, and most of those were out-of-school suspensions.

The problem is even worse than that statistic suggests. Many of those 1,217 students are suspended multiple times. I see in my own caseload that suspensions are undercounted. Parents are frequently called and told to come pick up their misbehaving child, without the incident being recorded as a suspension.

The problem is getting worse. Last year, 607 kindergarteners were suspended one or more times, a jump of 157 from the prior year.

Several bills before the legislature would ban out-of-school suspension for children younger than 8.  These proposals recognize that young children with problem behavior are often in need of help, that being excluded from school sets them up for academic failure, and that a culture of exclusionary discipline harms every child in a school.

Young students are frequently suspended for what I would characterize as tantrums. There is no question that their behavior can be extremely difficult to handle and can even be a safety concern. But if a 3-year-old (yes, I actually had a 3-year-old client, suspended from a public pre-K) is that out-of-control, shouldn’t we be looking for an underlying cause?

Many of my young suspension clients have experienced trauma or have special needs. Simply sending them home is not going to address their problems or improve their behavior. Schools need to develop stronger partnerships with community mental heath agencies and with in-home providers who offer assistance to their clients in the classroom.  These services are free and accessible.  Supporting young students with complex needs in the classroom takes a team effort. In Connecticut, we need to be much better about building those teams.

We send our children to school to learn to work and play well with others. I would argue that these things are as important as learning to add and subtract. When a child has trouble learning arithmetic, a good school will offer extra help or see if there is some special need that is holding back the student. Why should learning good behavior be any different?

There is a clear correlation between school suspensions, academic failure and dropping out. Kids cannot achieve in school when we exclude them from the classroom.  The heavy use of suspensions in the lower grades puts students behind when they are just getting started.

The use of suspensions contributes to our achievement gap. Three quarters of suspensions of students 7 and younger are imposed on minority students, according to state data. Exclusionary discipline – suspensions, expulsions and student arrests – is more heavily used in our poorest school districts. The state Department of Education found that suspensions of young students were occurring at high rates in charter schools, mostly located in our cities.

Schools say they suspend students for the sake of their classmates, who deserve a safe, orderly learning environment. But new research shows that when schools suspend at a high rate, all children suffer.  A 2014 study showed that standardized test scores were lower in schools that suspended students at high rates, compared with comparable schools. This was true even for students who were never suspended. The authors hypothesized that “the excessive use of exclusionary discipline creates a culture of control that impedes the success of all students.”

Great schools value and support every student. That is what every school in Connecticut should aspire to do. Reforming discipline policies for our youngest students would be an excellent place to start.

Kathryn Scheinberg Meyer is a staff attorney at the Center for Children’s Advocacy.

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