What's Wrong With These Tiny Terrors? / What you can learn from the grassroots movement to lower the preschool expulsion rate in North Texas
Megan goes to school in a laboratory. Her Dallas classroom has all the staples of preschool classrooms across America – storytime rugs, an emotions poster and a generous dollop of happy – except for the two-way mirror that allows parents and clinicians to study Megan and her peers.
The 5-year-old is one of a handful of test subjects in Momentous Institute's Launch program, a therapeutic preschool for kids who've had a rough go at other preschools and childcare centers. Megan seems docile as she plays on a patterned rug with the clinical coordinator, but mom Solana (not their real names) reveals that her daughter wasn't such an angel at another school. On a far-too-regular basis she would receive complaints about Megan. “She would push kids in line. She wouldn't do the work. She had smashed a child's finger,” Solana recalls. "I felt like I was getting a migraine every time I got a phone call."
Megan's teachers were as frustrated as her mother — and so was Megan. At night, Megan would tell Solana, "Mommy, I'm not going to school tomorrow."
She almost got her wish. Before landing at Launch, Megan nearly became one of the many local little ones who are asked to leave their preschool programs due to misbehavior. That group is larger than you might think; and, according to local educators, it seems to be growing.
In a 2005 study, Dr. Walter Gilliam of Yale University discovered that in Texas and across the U.S., the expulsion rate is higher in pre-K than in all other grade levels. Though it's been a decade since Gilliam's legwork, local teachers and childcare directors confirm that his findings still ring true in North Texas preschools — both public and private — and educators are scrambling to pinpoint the problem and make changes in the classroom.
"Where it used to be just a handful of children, it is becoming increasingly difficult to manage children's behaviors," laments Barbara Winham, director of a Fort Worth childcare center, who speculates that higher stress levels are to blame. She and other directors admit that the tried-and-true methods of discipline don’t seem to be working anymore.
Enter Launch where clinicians are testing new ways of responding to “problem kids” like Megan.
The results from Launch’s laboratory can’t come fast enough for educators. "I feel like if we had more research on this subject right now that we could reach out to more families and make these children successful in life,” Winham says. “I worry about when they get into school what problems they're going to have and who we are raising."
For the record
When a Texas public preschool releases a family from the program, the decision is strictly off-the-record, because technically preschool expulsion isn’t legal in our state public schools. No other details are provided in the Texas Education Code, no protections for desperate families, no options for harried administrators. Because the law is so unspecific, schools can suggest that a student be removed from the program without legal repercussions, and parents have little legal recourse if they don’t comply. So on paper, expulsions don’t happen to pre-K kids. But in reality, students are still kicked to the curb, potty-trained or otherwise.
The lack of legalese means an alarming lack of accountability. How many Texas children are asked to leave publicly funded preschools each year? We don’t really know beyond Gilliam’s estimate. We don't know exactly why these students are asked to leave, and we don't know what happens to them afterwards.
But if the law is skimpy at best for public preschools, it's nonexistent for private and for-profit institutions. "They have pretty much carte blanche to just kick out anybody they want for whatever reason they want," explains Watt Black, Jr., Ph.D., clinical associate professor in education policy and leadership at Southern Methodist University. Not that administrators expel kids willy-nilly; expulsion is "always a last resort," Winham stresses. "When we work so hard to try to redirect and change these children's behaviors and it just doesn't work, it's really heartbreaking for me. I never like to do it,” she adds.
Winham emphasizes that at her center, expulsion is only on the table with extreme behavior, like repeatedly endangering other children or themselves. "They tend to run — run from you, run out the door," Winham says. "They'll throw chairs, wooden blocks and really destroy."
Such acute emotional outbursts (also called emotional dysregulation) can stem from stress, and Winham and other educators have noted heightened stress levels among their preschool pupils. For a lot of families, the stress is financial; in fact, a notable uptick in the number of parents seeking therapy services after the economic crisis of '08 prompted Momentous Institute to introduce the Launch program.
Financial hardship bleeds into every aspect of family life, says Leticia Sullivan, clinical trainer and consultant for Launch. When parents string together two or three jobs to try and put food on the table between shifts, their children lose the consistency they need for healthy emotional development. "They didn't know from moment to moment what to expect," Sullivan says. "It created a lot of uncertainty and lack of rhythm in their lives. So when they came into class and they had to follow structure, they were so unprepared mentally."
Though financial strain begets a unique kind of toxic stress, high-income families aren't immune to emotional dysregulation. Casey Call, Ph.D., assistant director of education at the Texas Christian University Institute of Child Development, explains that today’s upper-crust kiddos suffer from an epidemic of overcrowded schedules, as well as environmental changes like divorce or moving, all of which can unravel emotions.
When children feel stressed or unsafe, a hormone called cortisol takes over the brain, shutting down executive functioning and switching all power to the amygdala, the brain's instinct-driven "alarm system," explains Sullivan. The amygdala then defaults to one of three modes: fight, flight or freeze. Those kids who default to fight or flight express their distress by lashing out or running away. The kids who freeze, on the other hand, simply go blank, and teachers can't figure out how to fire up the engines again.
Unless the executive functioning is back in charge and the social-emotional piece is in working order, children will not be successful in the classroom. “This is the crux of all learning,” says Cheryl Mixon, Ph.D., director of the Excel for Success initiative at Camp Fire First Texas. “We've become really focused on more the cognitive development skills, but you have to have the social-emotional in place or you can't do very much in regards to the cognitive.”
Mixon and Call often see dysregulation among kids with undiagnosed special needs, which can wreak havoc with children’s self-regulatory systems. Fort Worth mom Jessica (last name withheld for privacy), whose daughter Keira attends the child development center at Camp Fire, did not know until just weeks ago that her child has a sensory integration issue. Keira had been kicked out of more than one childcare center (Camp Fire is Door No. 5). And even at Camp Fire, her daughter's behavior was bad enough to summon Jessica to the office for a chat nearly every day.
The chats didn't go well. "I felt like I was being put down as a parent, like I wasn't doing my job," Jessica admits. "It made me feel stressed and overwhelmed and depressed," which in turn rubbed off on her already-in-distress daughter. Jessica and Camp Fire were close to calling it quits, but Jessica was tired of preschool hopping and desperately wanted this relationship to work.
When new director Kimberly Howard, M.Ed., took the helm a few months ago, Keira finally received the individual attention she needed. Working together, Howard and Jessica discovered Keira's sensory disorder and developed strategies to make her feel safe in the classroom. "It was a lot of work — on Mom's part, on the teacher's part and on me supporting both," Howard explains. "We're working through not just what we're doing here at school, but we're working through what's going on at home."
Building a bridge
Keira’s success has hinged on the willingness of director, teacher and parent to buy into the same strategies and give her a consistent set of routines and expectations across the board. “Mom’s doing things at home; we’re doing things at school,” Howard says, and in the six to eight weeks since they began attacking the behavior problem on two fronts, Keira has done a one-eighty. “Two weeks ago, I walked into the classroom and … Kiera was actually the one setting the table that day. And she did such a good job. She put a napkin down at every place, she put a fork on every napkin, she put a plate at every place and she put a cup at every place. Two months ago, that would not have happened.”
Jessica reports from the home front that “all [Keira] wants to do is help Mommy pour milk and set the table. She's doing a lot of things she's never done.”
That’s the key to keeping kids in preschool programs, says Howard: building a bridge between the home and the classroom and providing the same individualized support and stability in both.
What keeps pre-K teachers from building that bridge with their misbehaving students?
"Some of the teachers have told us the biggest challenge is 'I don't have time to do this,'" Call says. Between large class sizes and increasingly rigorous curriculum requirements, teachers are now too squeezed to spend the kind of time it takes to bring a child (or more than one) back from the brink. And when a teacher feels overwhelmed, she's really in no position to help a child who also feels overwhelmed.
"The teacher needs to be regulated themselves," says Sullivan. "They need to be in a state of calm when they're dealing with the children that are so under stress."
Amber Welguisz, director of a KinderCare center in Fort Worth, adds that better professional development can make the difference for a teacher who’s at a loss to help a dysregulated child. The social-emotional focused training she’s received in recent years, both through her company and from Camp Fire, has helped Welguisz implement no-cost techniques in her classrooms to alleviate disruptive behavior. These techniques, such as adopting a soothing tone and making appropriate eye contact, also translate easily to the home for families who are working toward better behavior.
“They're doing the same things at home that we're doing here, so there is that consistency,” says Welguisz.
Both Camp Fire and Launch provide training and support for parents to ensure consistency for their families, but sometimes the kids conduct their own parent training because they’re excited to share their newfound success. “We have children here at 3 who are teaching their parents to self-regulate,” Sullivan reveals. Solana says Megan guides her dad through breathing exercises when he gets upset. "She'll take her dad's hands and say, 'Daddy, we need to breathe.' And so they breathe together."
In addition to deep breathing, both programs use other exercises designed to teach children to recognize and regulate their own feelings, as well as little routines that provide the structure these kids crave. Camp Fire looks to Conscious Discipline, a comprehensive social-emotional classroom framework, for guidance; recommended techniques include personalized morning greetings and nursery rhyme-like “I love you” rituals that promote positivity among the kids.
But not every technique will work for every child. “There isn't any magic out there,” explains Carol Hagen, Ph.D., director of the University of North Texas Child Development Laboratory. Her teachers constantly collaborate (with each other and parents) to tweak their techniques for handling each behavior problem that arises, because each child comes from a different background and has a unique set of inborn personality traits. “Doing our best, being a good model is important for kids and their families.”
A better state
The Launch program is only three years old, but already teachers and clinicians are bubbling about the positive results coming out of their laboratory, mainly in the form of now-thriving preschool students who were written off by other programs. Megan hasn't graduated from the program yet, but she's already a success story. Whereas she previously dreaded school, the 5-year-old now actively participates, hugs her classmates instead of hurting them and doesn't break down when things don't go her way. "She's happier, more content," her mom reports. "At home too. You can see it change."
Eager to help other families stop the preschool hopping, Momentous Institute and Camp Fire have separately begun local grassroots movements to change North Texas classrooms, one teacher or preschool at a time. Both organizations offer workshops and training to help educators understand what causes dysregulation in kids of the 2010s and what their caregivers can do. "We're trying to teach [educators] that there are other strategies that might help them better than what they've done before," Sullivan says.
On a legal level, the state certainly has room for tweaks in the public sector. "If we're not going to technically expel [preschoolers], at least we should be able to keep records on the attrition in those programs and why that's happening," asserts Black. Spelling out the terms of preschool non-expulsion could also entail better guidelines for administrators, including what to do instead of removing children. In addition, Black suggests, the state could adjust the recommended 22-to-1 student-teacher ratio to a more manageable number, as well as provide access to early childhood mental health consultants to help relieve the burden on overwhelmed teachers.
For privates and for-profits, the fix is about as clear as current preschool expulsion guidelines. The Texas Education Code cannot — and perhaps should not — easily regulate non-public preschools. But state law could dictate certification requirements for pre-K teachers and directors, as well as training requirements for childcare licensees, a measure Welguisz and other directors would support.
No matter what the state does or doesn’t do in the long run, parents can keep from adding to the statistics now by partnering with their child’s teachers to make sure social-emotional development is on track, inside the classroom and out. “It begins at home,” Mixon says. “That's where it all starts.”
Published June 2015