Study: Illinois pre-K programs need help to reduce expulsions

Study: Illinois pre-K programs need help to reduce expulsions

(Ill.) As one of the few states that has passed legislation to reduce pre-Kindergarten expulsion rates, Illinois early education programs’ understanding of the law and their confidence in complying with its stipulations greatly varies, according to a new study.

Under the law, programs are required to report on the characteristics of all children served by their program, as well as turnover and utilization of resources. Only when a program has shown that all available resources have been exhausted and that administrators made substantial efforts to retain a child is it now permitted to transfer the child to another program–and even then, only with parental permission.

Researchers from the Social-Emotional Teaching and Learning Lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that more needs to be done to ensure that preschool center administrators and in-home care providers are aware of the law and understand its requirements.

“As of January 1, 2018, programs funded by the Illinois State Board of Education or licensed by the Department of Children and Family Services must make every possible effort to retain a child, document their use of any and all available resources, services, and interventions,” authors of the report wrote.

However, the noted, “The ease with which respondents were able to generate hypothetical workarounds indicates that there will need to be careful planning for accountability systems and anticipation of concealed expulsions once the annual data collection and reporting process is finalized.”

About 17,000 preschool aged children are expelled or suspended from preschool each year, according to U.S. Department of Education data. Research has repeatedly shown that boys and black children are significantly more likely to be expelled from early learning programs.

Children are often expelled due to an inability to manage behaviors or emotions that can be disruptive to a classroom setting and difficult for educators to deal with. Such behaviors can include biting, throwing chairs or inconsolably screaming, authors of the University of Illinois wrote. They also noted that the children expelled because they struggle to manage their strong emotions are exactly the children who can benefit the most from preschool.

The Illinois Public Act 100-0105 that went into effect last year stipulates that expulsion cannot be the first or only option explored in any state-licensed child care or early education program. Instead, programs must document that all resources and supports have been exhausted–especially mental health consultations and services–prior to planning the transition of a child out of their care with a parent’s consent. It also calls for programs to address implicit bias in disciplinary practices.

Using survey responses collected from 154 program administrators throughout the state, as well as follow-up telephone interviews with 25 administrators, researcher found that nearly half of all programs had sent at least one child home and about a third of programs had suspended or expelled at least one child between July 2017 and August 2018.

Although averages remain relatively low, researchers said there were several extreme cases.

“One program reported that there were two times as many early dismissals due to behavior than children enrolled in their program,” authors wrote. “Another suspended the equivalent of half of its students in the year-long period. Finally, a different program expelled nearly a third of its total enrollment.”

Prior to expulsion, respondents indicated that their programs would attempt about seven interventions–often trying one or two in the classroom before reaching out to families for an initial meeting. Only 28 percent of administrators responded to a hypothetical scenario presented by researchers that they would request the services of a mental health consultant, while 40 percent said they refer families to early intervention.

To increase access to mental health consultations, researchers said policymakers could look into increasing the flexibility in service models through the use of remote observation systems and video conferencing–especially for rural locations.

Researchers also recommended expanded and targeted dissemination of information regarding the law’s components to privately funded and home-based programs, in which administrators appeared to be the least informed. Early learning programs would also benefit from having model responses including a menu of possible resources or supports that could be implemented prior to expulsion.

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