By Ann Bailey, PhD
One of the most rewarding parts of my job as a program evaluator is interviewing early childhood professionals about their perceptions of the programs in which they work. I love talking with people who are in the field every day, and their observations often make me think differently about the work that we do at CEED.
Recently an educator told me a story about her work that stayed with me. She told me about a young child who was displaying challenging behaviors in his center-based preschool program. This child–let’s call him Ryan–was expelled from the program. Expulsions from preschool and child care, unfortunately, are not news to anyone in the early childhood sector. Walter Gilliam and others have been publishing research on suspension and expulsion in early childhood settings since 2006. As an early childhood researcher, I know that expelling a child because of challenging behavior is often a result of adult intolerance, adults not having the necessary skills to support the child’s needs, and/or implicit and explicit bias.
The educator explained, however, that in this case the reason for Ryan’s expulsion was staff retention. The program director told her that it was more important to retain staff than to work with Ryan to develop more appropriate behavior. The director explained that it is just too difficult to find qualified personnel these days. If a staff member became so frustrated with Ryan’s behavior that they decided to quit, the director would have trouble finding a replacement. Once a replacement was found, they would need to spend countless hours–and dollars–getting that new teacher the training necessary to do the job well.
I’ll be honest: my initial reaction to the story was judgmental. Ryan needed help learning new skills and behaviors through caring relationships with adults. I was incensed that he had been expelled. After a moment, however, my reflective training kicked in, and I realized that the story I had just heard was much more complex than it had originally seemed.
As CEED staff members, we do our best to put the tenets of reflective supervision into practice. In the words of the Alliance for the Advancement of Infant Mental Health, reflective supervision can “help professionals develop the capacity to shift perspective, address personal biases, set boundaries, and slow down, observe, and listen.” I thought about the other people who were involved in Ryan’s story. What might they be thinking and feeling? How might their needs and wants have influenced the director’s decision?
First, I thought about Ryan’s teacher. Early childhood professionals expect a certain level of challenging behavior from all children in their care, as it’s often the way young children communicate their needs. We know that some toddlers bite. Maybe it’s for attention; maybe it’s because they’re teething; maybe it’s because they’re frustrated; maybe it’s because they’re dealing with trauma. We can expect some preschoolers to hit, yell, cry, and “act out” for similar reasons.
Early childhood professionals must try to determine the root cause of behaviors like these; it’s their job. They must also help children learn appropriate, alternative communication methods. But as anyone knows who has worked with or parented young children, behavior changes don’t happen overnight. Success requires a lot of time, energy, and practice. And it usually requires all the adults in a child’s life to be coordinated and consistent in their responses to the child.
I pictured myself as the lead teacher in Ryan’s classroom. I’m in charge of 20 preschoolers in a room with one other adult. Let’s say that at least three children regularly display various challenging behaviors. I’m responsible for maintaining all licensing requirements, including the health and safety of all the other children. My job also includes helping all the children meet appropriate learning outcomes. That means I must implement an evidence-based curriculum and collect assessment data to demonstrate developmental changes.
I thought about everything that needs to be accomplished in a classroom like that. If I were Ryan’s teacher, how would I balance maintaining a safe environment where children could learn with addressing a few children’s behaviors? How would I prioritize these different, important tasks? Who would I prioritize?
The parents of Ryan’s classmates
Next, I thought about the parents of other children in Ryan’s classroom. How would I respond if my young child was the target of another child’s challenging behavior? How many times would I be expected to forgive and forget about my child being harmed by a peer before I started looking for a different provider? Even in the absence of physical harm, I would wonder how regularly occurring interruptions impacted my child’s learning and classroom relationships. Perhaps Ryan’s behaviors had been disruptive enough that classmates’ parents had become concerned.
Further complicating matters, many child care programs were forced to close during the pandemic because parents lost jobs or kept children home. This worsened an already critical shortage of providers. Now, as people return to work and demand increases, it may be next to impossible to find another provider if a parent is unhappy with their child’s experience. If I was the parent of one of Ryan’s classmates, I’d be daunted by the process of finding alternative care. Yet I might feel my family was being driven away by Ryan’s behavior.
The program director
Child care directors answer to many different people. On the most basic level, they must ensure that children are safe and that their program meets licensing requirements. If the program is part of a larger organization, they have obligations towards the parent company. They are, of course, responsible for the care and education of the children in their program and are answerable to their families. And they are also responsible for their employees.
I put myself in the director’s shoes. If I was in charge of a child care center, I would be highly attuned to the risk of my staff experiencing burnout. The World Health Organization states that burnout results from “chronic workplace stress” and has three main symptoms: “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.”
Clearly, child care professionals have difficult jobs. They work long hours and are poorly paid; our society also does not give their work the respect it deserves. It should come as no surprise when people who feel unsupported in their work of managing children, including children with challenging behaviors, leave their job for something with less stress and better pay.
Research shows teacher retention is associated with better outcomes for children. As director, I would do my best to keep my staff for the benefit of the children in their care. Furthermore, it isn’t easy to find a replacement when a child care worker quits. Pre-pandemic, turnover rates in child care programs were already between 26-40%. In November 2020, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) reported that of 6,000 survey respondents, 69% stated that recruitment and retention had become even more difficult.
My first instinct had been to blame the director for failing to support Ryan and try multiple solutions to a complex problem. But as I reflected on the sometimes competing pressures on directors, I realized that Ryan’s case presented a genuine dilemma. Ryan desperately needed support and consistency, but the other children in his class also needed their teacher and deserved a calm environment in which to learn and grow. Neither they nor Ryan would be well served if their teacher left. Did Ryan’s needs outweigh those of the other children? Should the director have prioritized supporting Ryan over supporting a staff member?
When a child is expelled from an early childhood program, it is disruptive not just for the child but for their parents. We’ve already seen how difficult it is to find a spot given the severe shortage of providers. I wondered: when Ryan was expelled, how did his parents cope? Were they able to find another high-quality provider, or did they have to settle for a program they didn’t like as much? How long did they have to wait until a spot opened up? Unless they had support from family members, their work schedule might have been disrupted. They might have lost income or even left the workforce altogether.
Then I wondered if the pattern would repeat itself. A child who is expelled from one educational setting often continues their challenging behaviors in the next, risking another expulsion. Would this happen to Ryan? If I were his parent, how would that make me feel? I might be angry or even embarrassed. I might feel powerless to help my child. Or I might come to believe that Ryan was being treated unfairly by the adults who were supposed to help him grow and learn. If that was the case, where would I turn for help?
I spent a lot of time thinking about Ryan. We know that for children, healthy learning and growing occurs in the context of quality relationships with important adults in their lives. Ryan, for example, will likely only succeed in changing his challenging behaviors when he receives specific, consistent, age-appropriate support from those important adults.
What if Ryan ends up going from provider to provider without the opportunity to develop a meaningful relationship with an educator? Will other adults in his life, such as family members, have the knowledge, skills, and capacity to provide the kind of support he needs? How will disruptions in his early years affect his academic trajectory going forward? Will he learn to dislike school because of his experiences in child care? Will he develop quality friendships with peers? There are just so many unanswered questions.
No easy answers
Although perspective-taking helped me move beyond my knee-jerk reaction to Ryan’s story, I didn’t come up with a solution for this difficult situation. On the contrary, I ended up with more questions and concerns than when I started.
I’m concerned about the crisis in recruiting and retaining early childhood workers. Staff are experiencing intense burnout because the expectations of them are just too high. They can earn more and experience less stress working at the local big box store. Leaving the child care sector is a rational decision under such circumstances.
I worry that there will be generations of children who experience expulsion more regularly than consistent care. I worry that the children who need high-quality care the most will be expelled rather than have access to relationships and settings where they can grow and learn. Will their progress towards developmental milestones be affected? What behaviors should providers expect to see from these children? Will their attachment to adults beyond their parents or guardians suffer in the long term?
I’m concerned about parents, too. They need high-quality care for their children while they work. When problems arise, I worry that parents will be unable to work with providers to solve them. Will they have other child care options? Will they have the knowledge and skills–and the bandwidth–to advocate for their children? Will setbacks like expulsions impact parents’ relationships with their children?
I’m concerned that Americans don’t understand that quality child care is essential to creating a qualified workforce, a thriving economy, and a functioning society. What does it say about our priorities as a nation when retaining staff and keeping a program’s doors open must take precedence over a child’s need to learn social-emotional skills?
I wish I had easy answers to these questions. My heart aches for children like Ryan who need support. But I can take the perspective of the teacher who is charged with caring for a whole classroom of young children. I can also consider the viewpoint of the director whose livelihood, as well as that of her employees’, depends on the program remaining open. And when I think about the work that we do at CEED–asking the questions and doing the research to untangle these complex problems–I feel hope that they are solvable.