Children under seven are suspended from classrooms at an alarming rate in Connecticut for behavioral outbursts. This happens without proper planning to address the emotions causing these outbursts, and without consideration for how this will impact their schooling. Keeping students in the classroom is vital to a supportive and successful community. In order to do so effectively, we must ban exclusionary discipline and increase social-emotional learning and mental health resources in our schools.
Exclusionary discipline, including suspension and expulsion, removes or excludes a student from their usual educational setting or learning environment, and is often a result of behavioral outbursts or classroom disruption. Additionally, exclusionary discipline is often coupled with racial and socioeconomic disparities. This disproportionately affects low-income students and students of color, and directly contributes to the school to prison pipeline. Studies indicate that young children who receive even one disciplinary sanction are more likely to experience academic failure, eventually become involved in the juvenile justice system, and drop out from school.
Throughout the 2019-20 school year, Connecticut schools reported over 1,100 suspensions amongst students pre-K through second grade, with Hartford and Bridgeport leading the state with more than 50 suspensions each. Excluding children at such a young age does little to address the root problems that lead to their behavior, and instead makes the classroom feel less welcoming and students feel less supported. When students are ostracized from the classroom and from their peers, it not only affects their learning and academic performance, but it creates a disconnect between students and their school community. Once students return to their learning environment, they are often focused on the aftermath of exclusion and trying to fit in with their peers again, rather than focusing on their academics, thus impacting their futures and their long-term relationship with learning.
As a parent and educator in Hartford, it is deeply troubling to know that traumas exacerbated by a pandemic are further intensified when students are removed from classrooms at such a young age. These young five, six and seven-year-olds have been socially isolated for over a year. Yet, they are expected to comply and regulate themselves without giving them or their teachers the appropriate tools to support them. Removing students from the classroom without understanding the root causes and triggers for their behaviors puts a band-aid over the dilemma.
Building more meaningful educator-student relationships gives students the outlets they need to improve and manage their mental health. While Hartford has begun restorative and social-emotional learning (SEL) professional practices, the trainings do not extend to the entire school community. Classrooms are impacted when educators lack the expertise and knowledge to address situations with the appropriate strategies that will promote relationship-building, problem solving and healing. Staff across all schools need proper restorative, SEL and culturally responsive training to teach and empower their Kindergarteners, first and second graders to express themselves in a healthier way conducive to growing academically, socially and emotionally.
Additionally, when there are too few teachers in the district and classes are being combined, shuffled and collapsed, students who need a strong sense of consistency and structure suffer. Hiring more educators, more social workers and more mental health professionals provides the opportunity for a lower student-to-staff ratio, the ability to individualize more effectively and teach with decreased disruptions.
As an instructional coach in Hartford Public Schools, and as a parent with elementary-age children in the same district, it is incredibly important to me that our students are receiving the education they deserve. An education engrossed in an inclusive, culturally responsive environment attentive to their individual needs. It is imperative that we ban exclusionary discipline for young children in our districts, and instead integrate restorative and preventative social-emotional learning practices into our schools with support, time, and tools to implement them effectively. I strongly urge the current state task force to consider recommending the banning of exclusionary discipline for students under age seven.
Rhey-Fisher is a literacy coach in the Hartford Public School District.