Stopping the Preschool-to-Prison Pipeline

Ramapo for Children teaches strategies to help our littlest learners succeed

Head Start
(Image: iStock/Christopher Futcher)

CGI America, the U.S.-focused division of the Clinton Global Initiative, addresses significant domestic challenges through what it calls Commitments to Action. Many Commitments to Action, if not most, are carried out through cross-sector partnerships.

CGI America recently held its annual conference, out of which several exciting big ideas in education have emerged. Once a week over the next several weeks, BE Smart will explore one of the big ideas that resulted in a CGI Commitment to Action.

It may startle you to learn that in 2011–2012, black children—who make up 18% of children enrolled in preschool—comprised 48% of those who received an out-of-preschool suspension.

The idea of preschool suspension may seem ludicrous to you. Unfortunately, it is a very real problem, one that some have called the beginning of racial inequality.

Preschoolers who are suspended—just like their older counterparts—develop weak attachments to their learning environments, teachers, and peers. Preschoolers whose behavior truly warrants suspension are children in need of help. Fortunately, there are organizations addressing this serious problem.

Ramapo for Children, which provides direct service youth programs and training programs for adults, helps children who experience obstacles to learning. Its work is predicated on the belief that all children want to do well and succeed.

Ramapo is partnering with several other organizations in its CGI Commitment to Action—a three-year commitment—to end preschool suspensions in New York City. Ramapo and its partners will provide professional development services to 150 pre-K sites that have been flagged for needing additional behavior management support. To learn more, I recently spoke with Ramapo’s Stacey Alicea and Rebecca Hershberg.

How does the Ramapo for Children program work?

We provide training workshops, as well as coaching, to reduce exclusionary disciplinary practices. Our workshops address a group of educators or caregivers. With coaching, Ramapo coaches go to individual classes and teach educators how to meet students’ needs.

Behavior is a form of communication. Disruptive behavior indicates that a need is not being met, or a skill is lacking. The assumption is that all kids go to preschool wanting to do well. It’s up to teachers to meet students’ needs and teach students skills so their behaviors and aspirations can align. We’re not a clinical organization—we don’t diagnose. The core of our work focuses on adults and on building supportive and attuned relationships between the teacher and the kids.

What is an attuned relationship?

Let’s say a child runs inside with a dirty can and excitedly says, ‘Look what I found!’ A non-attuned response would be, “Put that down! It’s gross!”

An attuned response honors that the child is coming from a place of curiosity, openness, and excitement. You might respond by saying, ‘Wow, that’s a shiny can you found. It looks pretty dirty, though, so let’s look at it outside.’

It’s being aware of the child’s experience and tuning into it.

To build healthy relationships between the child and the teacher, the teacher needs to base their responses on what the child is putting forward in the interaction.

Research has shown that attuned relationships can be a buffer for kids who may be encountering difficult things in their homes or communities.

Attuned relationships do a lot to create the brain structure that promotes later learning, but this is missing in typical early childhood teacher training.

Saying ‘this kid doesn’t know how to behave’ isn’t helpful. As the adult, it is my job to understand what this child needs. An attuned relationship meets the child where the child is.

For more about Ramapo for Children, visit its website. For more about its CGI Commitment to Action to end preschool suspension, go here.



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