A mom’s story about her son’s suspension from Pre-k

by Guest Author

by Brandi Byers

My son is a pre-kindergarten student at an inner-city public school in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a charming, energetic, precocious, 4.5 year old boy. I enrolled him in this preschool because I believe in the public school system. I am a former inner-city high school teacher. My husband and I chose the school for my son to attend for a few reasons: 1. Proximity and convenient location to our house. We can and do walk to his school. 2. The school has greatly improved from a failing to an excelling school. 3. The school offers a pre-kindergarten program that transitions kids into the elementary school.
 
My son, D, began getting into trouble about one month after being enrolled in the school. I have pulled seven reports from December 2016. Some of the incidents include:

  • “On multiple occasions, D has had to be spoken to for opening the bathroom door or peeking through them and laughing while another student is using the bathroom. Because of this we have decided that D will need to use the bathroom before or after all of his friends so that no other students are in the stalls while he is in the bathroom.”
  • “Another friend was bothering D at carpet. Rather than him [D] using words he slapped him in the forehead.”
  • “Another child was standing at the sink on the stool washing her hands. D walked up behind her and pressed his face against her rear end.”

 
After receiving multiple incident/behavior reports, I asked for a meeting to determine how I can better align and support the school and improve my son’s behavioral problems. I met with D’s teacher, behavioral specialist, and the pre-k school director. There was a consensus that D is a great kid but has a lot of behavioral problems with listening and being inappropriate in the bathroom. I was asked to keep a journal with his teacher that supported positive-only occurrences. I indicated to the team that I was tired of all the negative feedback every time my husband and I picked up D. Hence, the journal.
 
Fast-forward a few months later and D is getting into trouble again at school. One incident report stated “ D displayed defiant and disrespectful behavior when it was time to line up and come inside from the playground. He was told to go to the end of the line several times and told the teacher “No!” at least twice before finally following directions to go get at the end of the line. After coming inside, he was disrespectful again, ignoring the teacher when he was told to sit down. When he was asked if he heard what the teacher asked him to do, he was able to repeat the directions, but had chosen not to follow them.”
 
I schedule another meeting and this time more school officials attend the meeting (Director of Pre-K and my husband). I call this meeting because we received an incident report stating that any additional inappropriate behavior will result in a suspension. My husband and I told the team that we felt like the incident reports made us feel like we had a perverted, horrible, and defiant child and we are failing as parents. During the meeting we defend D and stated our son is 4.5 years old and your policies are for the age ranges of 3 years old to fourth graders. The Pre-K Director stated that she will sign the papers to suspend him if he broke the rules again. And that was that.
 
One month later, D was suspended. The report states “D was in the bathroom and before going into the stall, D pulled down his pants and started shaking his private parts toward another student who was in the classroom. When the teacher asked D what he was doing he said he was showing it off. When the teacher asked D what he was showing off he grabbed his genitals and pointed to it.” The action taken/consequences stated “D was talked to about appropriate behavior in the restroom and will result in a one day suspension. Any further inappropriate behavior or exposure will result in a 1 to 2 day suspension.”
 
At home, we practice appropriate behavior and have been walking on egg shells if my son comes out of the bathroom naked. We are trying to align with the school’s policies. We are fortunate as my work is family-orientated and allows me to miss work for this suspension. Other families are not as fortunate. They may not have the backup babysitters or financial capabilities to miss work. We are paying approximately $825 per month for this program.
 
During the meetings, I expressed that it is my expectation that the school is responsible for teaching our kids academics and social skills. They agreed but said there are policies that they must follow. I fear additional suspensions or expulsion may happen to D. He has a strong personality and will do what he wants unless he is immediately disciplined or re-directed.
 
I have a meeting scheduled with the assistant superintendent to discuss my concerns. My goal is to present the research that DEY conducts and to challenge this school to consider changing their suspension and expulsion policies for pre-K through second grade students.
 
The day D was suspended I took him to the zoo. He was not sick, had to burn energy, and it was a beautiful day. According to the school officials, it is for the safety of the other children that my son does not get an opportunity to be around them. He felt isolated. He cried when he went back to school because he got out of line during line up. Does a one day suspension fix his personality and curiosity? How do I get school officials to change policies? How do I help my son be successful when he is in the care of others? Please advise.

RESPONSE FROM DR. DENISHA JONES, DEY ADVISORY BOARD MEMBER AND ASSISTANT PROFESSOR AT TRINITY WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY IN WASHINGTON, DC
When I taught kindergarten, I had a little boy that exhibited similar behaviors to D. When we took them to the bathroom he often engaged in inappropriate behaviors with his private parts and we repeatedly had to correct him and remind him about proper behaviors when using the restroom. After a while he stopped engaging in these troubling behaviors, and I never really thought about it again until now. Not once, did I or the principal, think that suspension was the answer for this young boy. We were concerned that repeated engagement in inappropriate behavior in the bathroom might warrant intense intervention, but we never thought that suspending him was the answer. It was my job as his kindergarten teacher to work with him to change his behavior. Suspending a five-year-old does nothing to change the negative behavior. How can we expect children to learn if our answer is send them home for 1 or more days? They learn in school with their peers. They learn from repeated modeling and guidance. I am disturbed that after a few incidents, this school decided suspension was the appropriate response. 
 
If preschool is not the place to help a child learn to engage in inappropriate behaviors then where is the place? The goal of preschool is to socialize children and prepare them for kindergarten. If children who fail to exhibit the right behaviors are suspended, then the preschool has failed to live up to its mission. Granted there are some behaviors that are so dangerous they may require immediate removal of a child from a setting with other children, but nothing that I read in this parent’s description warrants this kind of response.  I understand that preschools have a responsibility to protect all children but they also have duty to teach children the prosocial behaviors they need to be successful in life.  Unfortunately, D has learned that the preschool would rather remove him for a few days then teach him. This is a sad lesson to learn at such a young age, and I fear it is causing great harm to D, his family, and the other students.  

RESPONSE FROM GERALYN BYWATER MCLAUGHLIN,    CO-DIRECTOR OF DEFENDING THE EARLY YEARS AND TEACHER AT MISSION HILL SCHOOL IN BOSTON, MA
There is a lot happening here – including the important question of “How do I help my son be successful when he is in the care of others?” Rebuilding trust between all the adults would be a huge first step. It sounds like the adult relationships here have deteriorated, and the child needs support from both sides -and solid working relationships to feel safe, secure and successful. It might take a neutral third party to help make this happen.

As a preschool teacher, I do keep track of incidents, to help determine if there is a pattern, what the triggers are, and what the child is trying to tell us. Are the incidents increasing? Decreasing? These reports are not to criminalize the behavior, but to help us understand what is happening. And understanding the child’s development over time is critical. Is the child immature? In need of attention? Confused about something they have witnessed? It takes a team that includes both the family and the school (and sometimes a pediatrician) to figure out what is going on and how to best support the child.

When we look at child development, we know there is a big difference between a three-year-old, a four-year-old and a five-year-old. Policies should reflect these differences. And for sure “No Excuses” policies do not work. In my experience, alt
ernatives to prek-suspension include working within the school to find a new plan for the child (for a day or part of a day). Seeing the child in a different setting (such as another classroom), can help shed light on the situation. How does that child act with other students? Older students? Different role models? With a different teacher? There are also times when a class needs time to heal and re-establish a culture/community, so having the child be in a different classroom can give his peers a chance to regroup.

Lastly, children communicate the best way they know how. Determining the message the child is trying to send, and then teaching a new replacement behavior/way to communicate, is key. And it does take time. 

Also see “Here’s Why Preschool Suspensions are Harmful” by Dr. Diane Levin and Dr. Denisha Jones, published in Education Week, Feb. 23, 2016.