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Suspensions, expulsions: What we’re getting wrong

Monday, June 11, 2018

Forty percent of all the students who are suspended or expelled in Illinois are infants and toddlers. And 53 percent of all students who are expelled in North Dakota are in the same age group.

Ruminate on that for a minute. Infants and toddlers.

While many of us are gobsmacked by such statistics, consider that boys are much more likely to be suspended or expelled. And African Americans? They top the list.

It’s not to suggest that educators who suspend young children are bad, but it is to say they are misguided.

“Why is this happening?” questioned Rosemarie Allen, the keynote speaker at the Special Education Symposium in Des Moines. “It’s because the teachers don’t feel like they have the tools to address the behavior. Teachers feel that they need suspension in their tool box. But think about it, a tool repairs and uplifts, and suspensions do not. Suspensions cause harm. We have to see it for what it is: Suspension is a weapon, and weapons cause harm and it’s destructive.”

Allen, an assistant professor in the School of Education at Metro State University of Denver and a leader in early childhood education for over 30 years, said excessive use of suspensions boils down to implicit bias.

“If you say you don’t have implicit bias, you’re in denial,” she said. “We all have them.”

Think about it. Since birth, we are taught to see the world through a particular lens. And through that lens, we are taught to react to certain perceived actions.

“The implicit bias is an unconscious process that we all go through as human beings,” Allen said. “We size people up without knowing it. It was one of those protective factors we developed as humans to stay safe. .But stereotypes have seeped into our unconscious selves. We are not using facts, but the stereotypes. In times of stress, implicit bias is more likely to occur. Let’s say you have 20 students running around not paying attention. Your unconscious bias will probably assume it is the boys who are being problems. We need to figure out how to bring unconscious bias to our consciousness, so that we can stop and think about it and do something about it.”

If you’re aware of your unconscious bias, Allen said, you’re half way there to changing course.

“To say, ‘yes, I’m biased’ is the hardest thing ever to do because research tells us we think we should be better than that,” she said.

In working through unconscious bias, Allen speaks of Tucker the Turtle, a concept used in many early education settings.

“We encourage children that when they get really upset, they should go into their shell,” she said. “When you go into your shell, you take three deep breaths, think about why you are upset and come up with three different solutions. When they come out, they are equipped to handle the situation. This works for kids, but it also works for us. During those times, just stop, go into your shell, take deep breaths and ask, ‘am I seeing this situation clearly?’ Think about your response to their behavior, who you are responding to and why.”  
Another aspect to consider is being aware of your hot buttons.

“It is said that behavior is defined by the person who is most annoyed by it,” Allen said. “What annoys you may not annoy me.

“Sometimes hot buttons are cultural and personal. I grew up in a family where if an adult called you, you went to them right away. That was my experience. But when I was a teacher, I had this little guy named Connor. When I said ‘Connor?’ he answered back, ‘What?’ He didn’t come over to me. I repeated myself, and he repeated the same response. I could tell he looked baffled. We had a misunderstanding. I was expecting him to come over to me, and he was expecting that I would ask a question.”

A big issue facing most of us in a rural state is that many of us were raised in racial or cultural isolation, which can lead to misunderstood words or behavior. Those misunderstandings can be mitigated by adopting what Allen calls “engaging in not knowing.”

Allen cites her own husband as a classic example.

“My husband grew up in the segregated south,” she said. “Today, we live mostly among whites. One time we were sledding on a hill and my husband kept calling out to my son, saying ‘get out of the way’ of the others on sleds. I didn’t understand why he was doing that. None of the other parents were doing that.

“The next day, we talked about it, and he said that when growing up in the south, he was taught to always get out of the way of white people. For me practicing not knowing, it allowed him to work through it and see it. And it enabled me to understand his behavior. He didn’t know he was still carrying around those thoughts. It was amazing, one of those epiphanies.”

Allen used another example of where a young Asian child isn’t eating her food.

“You may be thinking she doesn’t like American food,” she said. “But in some cultures, parents feed their children until they are age 4. So you are not only misinterpreting her actions, but the child may also be going hungry.”

Just as actions can be misinterpreted, so, too, can behaviors.

“Biting can be perceived as very serious – it becomes a behavior that has to be stopped,” Allen said. “So that biter gets a lot of attention. What we are doing is promoting it because we give it so much attention. Remember, all behavior conveys some message. When they can’t talk, they bite or whatever, because they are perhaps hungry or wet. Inconspicuously, you need to examine the behavior and determine what the triggers are.

“You also have to understand the behaviors of students. Is an eight-month-old pulling someone’s hair? That’s what eight-month-olds do. We have to stop looking at children’s behavior through an adult lens. Look at the root cause of behavior. Sometimes it could be nothing more than a developmental milestone.”

All schools should have a behavior management model in place, Allen said, something that provides ongoing professional development.

“Even if we understand the behavior, we have to teach the students pro-social skills,” she said. “So a school leader should work with staff on teaching children to behave. We always tell kids, ‘you need to share.’ But that means nothing if they don’t have the coping skills. You have to teach them what we mean. Role play, practice. School leaders can support teachers in promoting social competencies.”

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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on January 18, 2022 at 7:39am.