Toddlers are famous for throwing tantrums, stomping their feet and screaming as tears roll down their chubby cheeks. It’s par for the course of life as a preschool teacher, child care worker or parent that you will have to cope with your fair share of developmentally-appropriate misbehavior, including hitting and biting. 

And yet not all small children get the benefit of the doubt when they act up in class or on the playground. Some of them get kicked out of school, perhaps derailing their education, according to

New report

That’s one of the unsettling truths exposed in the new report, Creating Equitable Early Learning Environments for Young Boys of Color: Disrupting Disproportionate Outcomes.” A 450-page collaboration between nonprofit research and policy organization WestEd and the California Department of Education that combines moving vignettes with practical tips and scholarly insights, the report aims to raise awareness of disparities in disciplinary practices in early learning and care programs. Since preschool suspensions and expulsions disproportionately impact children of color, research shows, particularly Black boys, this is fundamentally an issue of equity. Overall, Black preschoolers are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended than white preschoolers, according to federal data.

“What I commonly find in early learning and care is a disbelief that bias, racism and hate even exists because we’re talking about very young children, right?,” said Senta Greene, founder and CEO of Full Circle Consulting Systems, which partnered with WestEd on the report. “There’s a mindset that this can’t possibly be true because, after all, these are babies. It’s a tender spot within our profession. Our industry does not understand that the school-to-prison pipeline actually begins in early learning and care. The slope becomes very slippery early on.”

Most vulnerable students

Focusing on the most vulnerable students is a smart strategy, experts say, given how dire the problem is. One sobering fact is that preschool children, who regularly struggle to regulate their big emotions, are expelled at rates three times higher than children in K-12 settings, according to a report from the Children’s Equity Project, a research organization at Arizona State University. Does implicit bias set children of color up to fail?

“The California Department of Education has put a bold stake in the ground with this report, calling out systems of inequity that have persisted for too long for our young boys of color,” said Gina Fromer, CEO of Children’s Council San Francisco. “We cannot expect to improve the outcomes of our early education system without dismantling behaviors, beliefs and practices that have consistently left our tiniest African American community members without the support they need to succeed in kindergarten and beyond.”

The pandemic has raised the stakes even higher, some suggest, undermining the social and emotional stability of many children. Those students most at risk before Covid tend to be the hardest hit now in terms of learning loss, research suggests.

“Although the pandemic has impacted everyone, it has disproportionately affected our student groups that were already vulnerable—and who were made vulnerable due to historic and systemic inequities,” said Superintendent Tony Thurmond in a news release. “We know that Black students—particularly Black boys—are one of the most vulnerable groups.”

Exposing bias in education

In the wake of the pandemic, a time when teacher burnout has spiked, experts say it’s more necessary than ever to expose implicit bias. Raising awareness of the need for race and equity training is the main thrust of the report, which advocates see as a compendium of resources providing guidance for early childhood educators. 

“The development of this book is a courageous act of leadership,” said Joseph Johnson, executive director of the National Center for Urban School Transformation and emeritus dean of the College of Education at San Diego State University. “The book does an excellent job of unpacking many complex, challenging issues. … I believe the authors took great care in trying to tell the truth about the destructive power of exclusionary practices, the role of bias and racism on exclusionary practices, and the need for people at all levels of the system to embrace strategies that can promote change.”

Among the report’s other key recommendations are smaller class sizes and raising pay for early childhood educators. A smaller teacher-to-student ratio would take the pressure off teachers, raising a sense of well-being and lowering stress. The same can be said for raising pay in an industry that’s known for poverty wages. 

Strain has long been endemic to the early childhood education sector. Child care workers, predominantly women of color, are among the lowest-paid workers in the country, experts say. The median hourly pay for a California child care worker in 2019 was $13.43, while preschool teachers earned $16.83 and kindergarten teachers earned $41.86, according to data from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley.

California’s Master Plan

It’s important to note that many of these recommendations have been made before, notably in California’s Master Plan for Early Learning and Care, and many advocates suggest it will take a concerted effort to turn bold ideas into a tangible plan of action.

“I hope we will see additional efforts and funding to support ECE professionals to help ensure these recommendations are realized on the ground,” said Stacy Lee, senior managing director for early childhood at Children Now, an advocacy group that contributed to the report. “We also hope to see measures to ensure accountability so that we know for certain (that) young boys of color are indeed engaged, learning and supported well and not experiencing disproportionate bias or racism in any way.” 

These types of best practices may not stick, some experts warn, unless they are also fully integrated into teacher training programs from the start. 

“A report like this, as good as it is, won’t have any effect at all on practice or on preschool expulsions,” said Deborah Stipek, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and an early-education expert. “The effective practices described need to be deeply woven into teacher preparation and professional development. Just saying “do this” doesn’t make it easy.”

More accountability

Creating more accountability is key, experts say. Tracking the data, including creating dashboards to monitor suspensions and expulsions in the school system, would boost transparency and give educators a more accurate sense of the scope of the problem. Family engagement is another recommendation.

Another concern is that focusing on individual biases may distract from the broad and systemic nature of the issue. Some suggest that standard protocols of classroom management may actually trigger undue punishment.

“I’m not sure that I see the book leading people to grapple with the implicit biases that are ‘baked into’ how we provide early childhood services and education,” said Johnson. “Are individuals reacting to their personal implicit biases when they feel the urge to exclude boys of color who have difficulty staying seated “criss-cross applesauce” style?  Or are individuals reacting more to systemic biases when they feel the urge to exclude children if they think their supervisor will see children’s out-of-seat behavior as an indicator of ineffective teaching?” 

To better connect the philosophical with the practical, Greene is helping develop a series of online tutorials, and an abbreviated version of the reference book is also in progress. Both projects are attempts to make the resources more accessible for time-pressed educators, to heighten a sense of urgency about making early education more egalitarian.

“It’s time to stop postponing issues of equity,” said Greene. “We have the answers now. We know what we need to do. Now we just need to do it. The question is, why aren’t we acting on it?”

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Karen covers early education. She is an award-winning writer who comes to EdSource after covering lifestyle, parenting, health, housing, education and the arts for the San Jose Mercury News. She is a four-time...