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One out of every 10 kids in preschool in Missouri is expelled. Why is that and how do we fix it?

Quinn Dombrowski | Flickr

Nationwide, there are more expulsions in preschool than any other grade level.

We need to have schools ready for children, not children ready for schools.

In Missouri, one out of every 10 preschool-age children is expelled. Deeper into that statistic, African American boys are three times more likely to be expelled than other children in preschool.

That's according to Steve Zwolak, the executive director of the University City Children’s Center (UCCC) and the CEO of LUME Institute, which is building an approach to early childhood learning that will combat statistics like these.

“We need to have schools ready for children, not children ready for schools, particularly in preschool,” Zwolak said on Tuesday’s “St. Louis on the Air.” “We need to be prepared to receive children who are coming from many different backgrounds. And we need to tool up teachers on what that really means for them.”

Last November, President Barack Obama signed the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 2014 into law. Part of this legislation required states to develop plans to reduce preschool expulsions. This subject has been on the backburner since a 2005 study from Yale’s Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy found that preschoolers in state-funded pre-K programs were expelled from school at more than three times the rate of older students. The study also found that the likelihood of expulsion decreases significantly if behavioral consultation is available in-classroom with a mental health professional.

Credit Aine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio
Steve Zwolak.

That’s part of the change that Zwolak advocates for through LUME Institute. Zwolak said that teachers are not trained enough to “handle the mischiefs kids get into,” in the classroom. “The first reaction is to expel them,” Zwolak continued. Time-outs and other traditional methods of punishment are not resonating with the kids of today.

What gets a preschooler expelled today?

The chronic hitting of teachers and other children as well as foul language are the most common offensives that get preschoolers expelled from school today, said Zwolak, calling this type of behavior “angry love.”

“Children are lacking the ability to develop relationships,” Zwolak said. “When children come into schools, they’re so desperately looking for somebody to love them, it’s so plain and simple, and what they often know is this angry love. They come in kicking and punching and spitting and calling people whatever they want to call them … and they’re just ways to keep adults engaged.”

There's a sense of desperation, of hanging on to the teacher, and the only way to hang on to a teacher is to engage them in physical contact.

Zwolak said that teachers have to be taught to treat “angry love” with a concept he calls “ruthless compassion.”

“There’s a sense of desperation, of hanging on to the teacher, and the only way to hang on to a teacher is to engage them in physical contact,” Zwolak explained further.

Why are preschoolers engaging in this kind of behavior?

While tuition for the UCCC ranges from $253 to $263 a week, Zwolak said that kids aren’t coming to the center only with affluent backgrounds. Families of children who come to UCCC have incomes that range from $5,000 to $250,000. The center also partners with YWCA Head Start and Youth In Need Early Head Start Programs, programs of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that provides early childhood services to low-income children and their families, to bring students to the center.

“The issue does manifest itself across all sort of economic barriers, it’s just that ‘angry love’ manifests itself differently in some more affluent families, where there are more resources,” Zwolak said. “We have families who just don’t have the resources and early intervention was not something they had available to them.”

What happens to preschoolers when they are expelled?

The biggest question, Zwolak said, becomes “who is taking care of them?”

“When we expel kids or send them home, the question is ‘Will they be any better when they come back?’” Zwolak continued. “Part of the problem is that when kids are sent home, they are punished … not discipline, punishment. Kids are coming in desperately looking to get their needs met. We’re looking at children with fractured attachments, kids who do not know how to develop relationships. We’re seeing more and more children getting that.”

Zwolak said that 90 percent of the brain is developed by 5 and that early childhood educators influence a new generation every five years. He said that more resources need to be put into ending preschool expulsions because of this. 

When you look at the amount of dollars invested in children under 3, it is like 2 percent of our gross revenues.

“When you look at the amount of dollars invested in children under 3, it is like 2 percent of our gross revenues,” Zwolak said. “When you have the greatest impact [by age 5], we’re investing, from the government perspective, the least before age 3 and the investment increases by 18 or 19 years of age.”

What are solutions?

  1. Teacher training. “We have to provide more sustainable professional development for teachers,” Zwolak said. “Children are walking into their classrooms with something called ‘adverse childhood experiences,’ things that have been passed down for generations, and it manifests itself in behaviors. They have long-terms health impacts. Teachers need to understand what the experiences are.”
  2. Language development. Zwolak referenced the “30 Million Word Gap,” a well-documented study that showed by 3 years of age, there was a gap of 30 million words between children in the wealthiest and poorest families. 
  3. Working with parents. “If we help teachers grow to another level of understanding about these concepts, they can do therapeutic triage in the classroom, and work with parents because parents trust teachers. Early childhood teachers have to reclaim the field of early childhood.”

Want to know more about this topic?

Join in a Twitter chat tomorrow night at 7 p.m. with St. Louis Public Radio, the Nine Network, Focus St. Louis and American Graduate, as they discuss school discipline across all ages. Likewise, you can join these organizations as well as parents, students, community leaders at a 90-minute community town hall on Wednesday, Oct. 28 at 6:30 p.m. at the Nine Network. The discussion will be broadcast on “St. Louis on the Air” at noon on November 5. 

“Early childhood is in the worst shape it has ever been, I have over four decades in the field, but I think it is the best opportunity,” Zwolak said. “Right now. This is it. We can’t miss it.”

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
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