By Michelle Salcedo, M.Ed., author of Uncover the Roots of Challenging Behavior: Create Responsive Environments Where Young Children Thrive
“I don’t know how to help them. But I do know it is too early for the world to give up on them.”
With those words, a woman recruited me to be a teacher in the childcare center she ran in northwest Detroit. They had started to see an influx of children who came to them after having been kicked out of other preschool programs. Over and over, tearful and desperate families stood in her office in search of a childcare setting for their children. Over and over, she saw firsthand the toll that a preK expulsion takes on families and children.
A report from the Foundation for Child Development shows that children are kicked out of early education settings at (at least) seven times the rate of expulsions in older grades. When looking at these numbers, we are faced with two possible opposing conclusions. The first is that there is something inherently wrong with young children; so wrong, in fact, that they are unfit for early care and education settings. The second is that there is something in the way we are structuring our preschool programs that is not conducive to supporting all children’s developmental and educational needs.
Of course, this is a simplification of a complex issue. But if we are going to shine an honest light on this issue, a good place to start is by taking a critical look at the environments we are creating for young children. We must admit that asking our youngest children to spend eight to ten hours a day in classrooms, following an external routine and sharing space, materials, and attention with a whole bunch of other children, may be hard for many kids. Instead of taming children to fit into the environments we want to create, we can focus on creating classrooms that are more conducive to their developmental needs.
In broad strokes, there are three categories that we can address in creating appropriate early learning environments for our youngest children.
1. Build relationships with children.
For young children, all learning happens in the context of a relationship. We need to pay attention to the structures we create and how they might interfere with building relationships.
- Simple actions like looping (keeping caregivers and children together for—at least—the first three years instead of moving children to a new classroom based on age every few months) builds strong attachment. These attachments prep the child’s brain to deal with strong emotions, demands, and challenges that will come later.
- Moving children between classrooms to meet staffing needs or a constant rotation of teachers can also interfere with developing strong attachments. As much as we can, we need to try to keep the same children with the same teachers, especially in their early years.
Teachers should be as intentional about building strong relationships with children as they are about teaching concepts such as letters, numbers, shapes, and colors. When we don’t pay attention to attachment and relationships in the earliest years, we may inadvertently be contributing to children’s challenging behaviors in the future.
2. Create environments that are conducive to children’s learning and development.
An interviewer once asked Dr. Seuss what children want from books. He replied, “The same things we want: to laugh, to be challenged, to be entertained and delighted.” It applies to more than just books. We are less likely to have to expel a child if we pay attention to those three areas as we create learning environments. As we critically examine learning spaces, ask the following questions:
- Are your classrooms joyful places? How do teachers build in opportunities for fun and laughter?
- Do teachers plan experiences that truly engage children’s brains in age-appropriate problems that are interesting and hands-on?
- What materials and experiences do you have that entertain and delight children?
It is important that we look at our learning spaces through the eyes of the children we serve. If we are not paying attention to what children need, they will communicate that to us through their challenging behaviors.
Bonus! Download the Classroom Factors Observation Form from Uncover the Roots of Challenging Behavior: Create Responsive Environments Where Young Children Thrive. Use this form to record your observations of ten critical classroom factors that might be contributing to challenging behavior.
3. Be aware of implicit bias.
Dr. Walter Gilliam and his team at Yale University have provided the early childhood field with some important and disturbing research about the role of implicit bias in preschool expulsions. From the very minute they enter some of our classrooms, young children of color, especially boys, are at a disadvantage. They are more likely to be singled out for monitoring, their behaviors are likely to be judged as more aggressive and problematic, and they are disciplined more often and more harshly. We owe it to all children to examine what drives our behaviors in the classroom. We are all human beings and we all come into the classroom with biases, hot buttons, preferences, and beliefs. As early childhood professionals, we are called to be reflective and to constantly challenge ourselves about these beliefs and work to not let them negatively influence our interactions with children.
This topic of preschool expulsion is deep and complex, and we will not solve it in one blog post. But maybe we can agree on this: There are children who are more challenging, but while they sometimes can turn our classrooms into chaos, they are too young for the world to give up on them.
Michelle Salcedo, M.Ed., is the chief academic officer at Sunshine House Early Learning Academy, a chain of over 120 childcare centers located across the United States. Her articles on young children frequently appear on the Sunshine House’s website and in the popular childcare journal Exchange. She has worked in the field of early childhood for over thirty years, starting as a “teacher’s helper” in her younger brother’s center. She has served as a teacher, director, trainer, and family educator in numerous childcare settings across Michigan, South Carolina, and Spain. She lives in Greenville, South Carolina.
Michelle is the author of Uncover the Roots of Challenging Behavior: Create Responsive Environments Where Young Children Thrive.
We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.
© 2019 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The view expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.
I wholeheartedly agree that is too early for young children to be given up … in fact, I believe it’s never too late and in an ideal world, no one would give up on anyone, ever. This post reminded me of one year I was given a child in preK who came into my classroom, after being expelled in 2 other preschools. I was sad and shocked that a four year old had been expelled twice already. He was one of the most verbal and playful child I have ever met. I see hope and potential in every child, every person I meet. I try to see the best and bring the best out of others; being empathetic and connecting from one human being to another regardless of age. One of the things in college I learned in a sociology class that had embedded to me, was when I learned about self-fulfilling prophecy. I truly feel teachers, families, educators should all look at children with a positive self fulfilling prophecy— starting with little steps to no immediately scold a child and show the child immediate dismay because the child can feel your energy or feelings towards them. If they expect everything they do to be frowned down upon, they may continue to do it. When you try to understand why they did something “wrong” and try to find the good in it, such as “You took an extra goody bag home and put it in your cubby? Is there a reason why you did it?”, in which the child may proceed to say with trust and honesty on his eyes, “Yes I took an extra goody bag for my little brother at home.” What would happen if a teacher reacted by saying “ You stole that! No wonder you were expelled” the child would feel sad and misunderstood, but maybe the child had been treated that way all his life, that he no longer tries to explain his true intentions? What would happen if a teacher asked why, rather than assuming? The child may have hope to share again because someone understands him, finally and asking him, believing that there may possibly be a good reason he did that. The teacher can explain she or he understands why they did that and it was kind of the child to think of his brother, but there may be a more polite way of taking home a goody bag, by possibly simply asking (and if none are available, the teacher can guide the student to perhaps make something for his brother instead or discover ways to share the one he already has).
Thank you so much for the article reminding teachers to never, ever give up on a child! I enjoyed reminiscing my teaching days!