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Is there room for any children here? A response to the epidemic of early childhood expulsions from pre-schools

This July, the American Academy of Pediatrics made a bold plea.

http://www.aappublications.org/news/2016/07/27/Expulsion072716

They called for “drastic reductions” in early childhood expulsions.

This may come as surprising news for you, if you are not following the explosive rise of very young children being kicked out of their pre-schools.

How bad is it?   Well, compared to chance of being expelled in school, grades K-12, the chance of a younger child being expelled from their local, friendly pre-school is over 3 times greater!!

Not only is the world’s largest society of pediatricians upset, so is the US Department of Health and Human Services, and the US Department of Education.

Perhaps one of the best statements on this whole situation came from the co-director of Docs for Tots in NYC, “Expulsion is not a child behavior, it is an adult behavior.”

I like this statement, because it makes this the key question:  What is going on with the directors and teachers of early childhood programs?  And avoids the obvious mistake of asking:  Are children behaving worse?

There is no evidence that children’s behavior is any worse in the last years, rather, it appears that early childhood education programs are struggling more than in the past to connect to all children in their program, including children with aggressive styles, learning disorders, and emotional challenges.

One concern I have is with a many year trend away from childhood, during childhood.   The AAP is right now considering a publication on the importance of play in the development of a child’s mind.    But school has moved away from play and towards increasing the cognitive demand on children at younger and younger ages.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this phenomenon is in what was once kindergarten.  The word kindergarten literally means a garden of children, and its original concept was that this would be a place where children could gather to learn how to be with a group, gently try out various activities, be enticed by a program centered on play, and be nicely introduced to the whole concept of being in a classroom to learn many hours a day.   Kindergarten was once a time of playing in the sand box, playing with blocks, playing some grown up activities, like minding a store or going to work, but the central theme was play, and the atmosphere was light-hearted and open.  There weren’t many kids expelled from kindergarten in this approach.

Now we have all seen kindergartens evolve to become a full-scale academic year of learning, more like the first grade of some years ago than the fun room of kindergartens past.  Surely there are many, many gifted kindergarten teachers who can engage the lively joys of playful 5 year olds, but the demands are far more formal, the move to reading far more early, the exposure to evaluations and tests far more prevalent.   The move is one from play to regimentation.

I fear that this move from play to regimentation has now spread to early childhood education programs.  It’s not that academic curricula are being imposed as much as an overall sense that there are specific expectations from the children, that they behave very much like we expect kindergartners and 1st graders now to behave, more like adults than young children.   The tendency is that once a child enters a program, even in the pre-school age, they should sit still for instruction.

This is a very,very different expectation from how pre-school once was approached.  Like kindergarten, but even more so, pre-school or nursery school (catch the garden concept again?) was a place of exploration and emergence.  No assumptions, no expectations, really it was a play room, staffed by teachers who expected to mainly help the children play.  Children would determine their favored activity, and then play. Very much like young children do at home the world over, right now.

In the play room, the staff expect trouble.  Some kids like to play by biting, screaming, pushing, or other such activities.  Pre-school programs once expected such behaviors, this is what 1, 2, 3, and 4 year old kids do.   And, they would be prepared to deal. They even expected and knew how to manage kids who want to run around and shout rather than sit still for circle time at age 3.

The spread of regimentation brings along with it a much stricter sense of expectation.   Now the 3 year old who wants to run around during circle time is no longer playful, he (often he) has a “diagnosis,” maybe even “ADHD.”  Something must be wrong with the 2 year old who bites.  He or she is no longer a typical 2 year old still unaware that there really are other people who they can hurt, now he or she is “aggressive,” and may even have a “conduct disorder.”

More and more, young kids no longer fit in what once was a space for young kids.    And so the expulsion rate has jumped so high the US government and the AAP are hitting the alarm bells.

Surely there are very, very young children with ADHD, and even some with conduct disorders, but more than 3 times as many high school students, I seriously doubt that.

Here is to a return to the centrality of play in the development of the human mind.  It has never ceased being the most powerful activity to promote brain function, but it is less highly regarded.   Let’s bring play, playful teachers, and playful kids together in our pre-schools, learn once again how to handle the biting 2 year old, the running 3 year old, the pushing 4 year old.   I am not supporting such behaviors, but I am supporting adults learning once again to expect such behaviors, and in early childhood to address them effectively through the medium of play.

BOTTOM LINES

  1. The chance of being expelled from pre-school is growing rapidly, a relatively new experience.
  2. Preschoolers are now over 3 times more likely than school aged children to be expelled.
  3. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the relevant US Federal agencies are concerned and have spoken out to change this.
  4. One reason for this trend emerging might be a growing level of regimentation, more formal expectations, and a decline in playfulness in many pre-schools across the US.
  5. I would like to see a return to the centrality of play, particularly in any program that a young child enters prior to kindergarten age, and with it a good combination of fun and whimsy along with deep knowledge about how to work with 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 year old children.

To your health,
Dr. Arthur Lavin

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