The key to reducing the number of children expelled from preschool might be to focus on their teachers, says a national study released Thursday.
Yale Professor Walter S. Gilliam, who reported in 2005 that Connecticut had one of the highest rates of expelling preschoolers in the nation, found that preschool classes with longer days, more children per teacher and teachers who report high levels of stress have higher rates of expulsion than those of other classes.
Gilliam, director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University, also found that providing teachers with access to early childhood mental health consultants for pupils with behavioral problems — something that Connecticut does — can significantly reduce problems that can lead to expulsions.
In addition to providing access to those consultants, the report recommends keeping ratios at or below 10 pupils per teacher and allowing teachers to work reasonable hours with breaks from children.
Chief among the recommendations was a basic premise: Instead of expelling children, programs should determine a child's needs and provide for them or move the child to a more suitable program.
"Prekindergarten and preschool programs are about school readiness, helping children become ready for elementary school," Gilliam said. "If there was ever a child who needed help becoming ready to succeed in elementary school, it's a child whose behavior problems are such that it would cause a teacher to no longer want that child in his or her classroom."
Gilliam's research drew widespread attention in 2005 when he found that more than 5,100 children in state-funded preschools nationwide had been expelled in the past year, a rate three times higher than children in kindergarten through 12th grade. In Connecticut, he found, 12.3 of every 1,000 children in state-funded preschools were expelled, the seventh-highest rate in the nation.
The new study linked expulsion rates with increased student-teacher ratios. In classes with fewer than eight pupils per teacher, 7.7 percent of teachers reported expelling a pupil in the past year. That figure rose as the ratio increased; in classes with 12 or more pupils per teacher, 12.7 percent of teachers reported an expulsion in the past year.
Expulsion rates also increased along with teacher job stress. Only 4.9 percent of teachers reporting low stress had an expulsion in the past year, compared with 9.3 percent of teachers reporting average stress and 14.3 percent of those with high stress.
"Being a preschool or a child-care teacher can be a very stressful job," Gilliam said. "Anyone who takes care of 20 or more preschoolers for 6 to 8 to 10 hours straight every day with no break away from the children certainly [has] my respect and admiration."
Gilliam also linked expulsion to the length of class days. Children were expelled from only 7.1 percent of half-day preschool classes, compared with 9 percent of school-day programs and 13.2 percent of extended-day programs.
That finding might be especially relevant in Connecticut, where Gilliam said that preschools have the longest days and school years by far among the 40 states that fund preschool.
Long days are encouraged by state policy; to be eligible for the most funding per child, preschool programs must be open for 10 hours a day, 50 weeks a year.
Gilliam said that the length of the days might not be the cause of the expulsion rates; perhaps children who need 10 hours of care come from higher-risk backgrounds than those in shorter programs. The findings came as little surprise to Tina Mannarino, supervisor of early childhood education for New Haven public schools. In New Haven, children with behavioral problems are matched with social workers, and outside counselors are brought in when necessary. Preschool classes have at least one teacher for every 10 children, teachers receive training on managing difficult behaviors and many preschool classes are half-days.
In Mannarino's five years in the district, no preschooler has been expelled. "We found that overall, we don't have many problems," she said.
Gilliam did not compile new data on state expulsion rates, but he praised Connecticut as one of the few states to provide teachers with access to early childhood mental health consultants, and the only one with data to back up its effectiveness.
That program, the Early Childhood Consultation Partnership, provides mental health consultants to struggling preschoolers, and it has significantly reduced troublesome behavior, Gilliam found in a study released last year.
The state recently doubled the program, which began in 2002 and is funded by the Department of Children and Families and run by a Middletown company called Advanced Behavioral Health.
Twenty consultants are now available to preschool programs; they are expected to serve 200 children and 150 to 175 classrooms a year, said Elizabeth Bicio, who manages the program.
State Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein, who has long been concerned with expulsions, called for more mental health consultants for preschool programs.
"If we can intervene in preschool, what an incredible opportunity to help families and children," she said.
In a statement, Gov. M. Jodi Rell said it was gratifying that a national researcher identified a state program, the Early Childhood Consultation Partnership, as a promising practice. "The resources we place into programs like these today will pay dividends in the future," she said.
Shelley Geballe, president of Connecticut Voice for Children, a child advocacy group, said that the findings related to teaching conditions were not surprising for anyone who has raised kids; caring for many children for many hours or while under stress can leave someone with a short fuse.
She echoed Gilliam's notion that preschools are expelling the children who need attention the most.
"All of the preschool programs are really about getting kids on track to success once they hit kindergarten, so if you throw the kids out who most need help, it's really quite counterproductive," she said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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