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November 17, 2014 - Kim Moore [see other posts]

Smiling Girl

Missed Opportunities

In March, the Secretary of Education announced a report from the Office of Civil Rights which determined that 8,000 public preschoolers were suspended at least once in 2011-2012, with black children and boys the most frequent recipients of the discipline.

This confirmed earlier research by Walter Gilliam of Yale University who found in 2005 that pre-Kindergarten students were being expelled (not suspended) at a higher rate than K-12 students. The Gilliam study shows Kansas at a rate of less than 4 expulsions per thousand but still higher than the rate of K-12 expulsions.

These suspensions and expulsions are not high absolute numbers but certainly reflect a problem. It is likely that those children being expelled and suspended are the very children least ready to learn the next year in Kindergarten. It is also probable that this problem, documented in pre-K state-run programs, is at least as rampant in early childhood programs for younger children. Teachers in younger child care programs are even less likely to be prepared to deal with difficult behaviors and probably have no real incentive to do so.

One way to respond to this problem is to provide behavioral coaching to early childhood teachers to implement practical techniques permitting maintenance of infants, toddlers, and pre-schoolers with difficult behaviors in a group setting. Through the Children's Cabinet, several years ago Kansas implemented mental health consultants functioning on a community or regional basis to advise early childhood teachers and provide episodic work with identified children; the program was effective in maintaining children in programs and in dramatically altering problem behaviors. In the last four years, Kansas has virtually eliminated these positions.

The issue of the social and emotional health of our youngest children has been on the back burner far too long. Research in brain development and new understandings of the interplay of nature and nurture (gene expression, chemical imbalances, trauma, resilience, etc.) provide great hope for addressing emotional and behavioral problems effectively in infants, toddlers, and pre-schoolers with low-cost, practical interventions.

A variety of barriers exist preventing application of what we know at the earliest opportunity where there is the greatest potential for success. The first is the failure of parents and other caregivers to have young children screened for social/emotional development in the same manner and consistency as they do for vision, hearing, intellectual and physical development. The screening being promoted in Kansas for this purpose is the ASQ-SE, an addition to the broader developmental screen, ASQ-3. The Health Ministry Fund and partners in ten communities are working to make ASQ-SE available to all Kansas children and parents. Another project, Kansas Initiative for Developmental Ongoing Screening (KIDOS), based at the KU Center of Public Partnerships and Research, is also bringing dozens of early childhood, mental health, academic and state agency leaders together to spread developmental screenings -- including the ASQ-SE -- throughout the state.

There is no stigma associated with knowing the social and emotional health of a child and, if a problem is identified, there is very often a known effective response. Of course, further work needs to be done to make sure the resources for response are available everywhere in Kansas. That is also work we are undertaking with our community partners, but state government, public education, and mental health centers will all need to play a role to make resources available and affordable for the better futures of all Kansas children.