The “Have you Heard” podcast covers various public education topics. Recently hosts Aaron French and Jennifer Berkshire aired the episode titled “Kindergarten Suspensions: Yes, It’s a Thing.” The thought of suspended kindergarteners seems absurd, but it’s happening more than you think, especially in urban areas.

In the podcast, French and Berkshire focus on the story of 5-year-old Malik Cross, who was suspended from his Boston-area public school 16 times in kindergarten. Malikka Williams, his mother, said Malik was getting sent to the dean’s office for arbitrary reasons such as “wiggling on the rug, not tracking the teacher with his eyes or for laughing when a friend whispered in his ear.” Malik, being a 5-year-old, was confused about why this behavior warranted a trip to the dean’s office. This confusion, coupled with his diagnosed social-emotional development delays and inability to self-regulate his emotions, led to meltdowns. During his meltdowns, Malik kicked, spit, hit, and ran out of the building; all offenses for which the dean suspended him. By the time he was suspended 16 times in four months, Williams knew something needed to be done.

Unfortunately, Malik’s school was run by a non-profit management group that did not have to follow the Boston Public Schools code of conduct requiring schools use suspension as a last resort. A recent report shows that Malik’s school had one of the highest suspension rates in Massachusetts and it had suspended more kindergarteners than any other school in the state.

Malik is now happy at a different school in the area, and has only been sent to “the reflection room” to regulate his emotions once. As for his old school, the management group has said they will no longer suspend kindergarteners, but they have yet to say what they plan to do as an alternative. So what could have Malik’s school, and other schools in the country who suspend kindergarteners, done differently?

In Dr. Frances Stetson’s Q&A sessions with Clay Whitehead after her “Inclusion is for Every Learner – Or Is It?” webinar, she was asked “What is the most important thing administrators and educators can do to reduce instances of inappropriate identification of students of color for special education or disciplinary action?” Here is her reply:

I’ve been speaking a great deal recently to principals about this subject, and one of the things that I would say is first, teachers must be equipped with knowledge of social issues and acceptance of cultural differences. Do they understand cultural proficiency and white privilege? Do they understand that if they have a negative or biased attitude toward a student that the child will recognize this and feel a sense of dislike or rejection from their teacher?

Schools also need to keep better records, analyze data, and drill down when necessary. For example, administrators and therapists should be analyzing data to determine if there are particular teachers or grade levels submitting an inordinate number of referrals for students of color. If this is happening, administrators and therapists should talk to these teachers or grades and have an honest conversation about their referral patterns. Ask them the reason why they are referring these students and then provide them with the support they need to change their practices, such as individual coaching.

Dr. Stetson talks more about this in her white paper and resource kit, both of which can be downloaded for free. You can also download the “Lost and Found: What Works (and What Doesn’t) for Behaviorally Challenged Students” resource kit and the “Changing Minds: 5 New Ways To Tackle Tough Challenges in Behavioral and Mental Health” eBook for free in PresenceLearning’s online resource library.

Schools looking for ways to evaluate and then serve students they suspect have social and emotional developmental delays can use PresenceLearning’s online assessment services and online behavioral and mental health services. With the right support, students with social-emotional development delays can learn to better regulate their emotions and easily succeed.

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