Sunday, August 17, 2014

What is a school to do?

There have been a number of shock / horror stories and reactions to a recent story about a three year-old who has been suspended from preschool five times. All have focused on his age and his color. None that I have seen have considered the position in which the teacher(s) and school have found themselves.

We do not know the full and complete story. We only have what is reported. On the face of it, similar behaviors from this little boy attract significantly different and uneven responses compared to the same behaviors in others. The implication, and in some reports, the reason given is that this comes from his race.

Any news report of necessity must be brief, to some extent rushed because of deadlines, and selective both because of what is selected in, or included, and what is selected out, excluded. This last point is critical. Witness accounts, reporter observations, journalist phrasing all depend on a multiplicity of interacting factors, not the least of which is a sense of prioritization in the moment.

As an administrator, my first question is whether an incident is impulsive or deliberate, or premeditated. The former, such as lashing out when a toy is taken, requires counseling, explanations and time because this is a significant element of what is known as "executive function". The latter, such as picking up a block and walking over to strike another child, or choosing a particular child or type of child, requires discipline.

Managing and controlling impulsive actions and reactions are what we as parents and teachers are in the business of teaching. School policies and procedures should reflect this. However, I have two caveats. The first is that when the impulses are repeated too many times. In this case, a deeper problem may exist and professional assistance is required, such as counseling and/or a psychologist's intervention.

The second is where safety is a concern, such as where one child is bigger and stronger than another. In this case, the teacher should manage spaces, objects, groups, activities and so on.

What the news reports do not show is whether the boy's actions were impulsive or deliberate, separate incidents or repeated, random or targeted at specific individuals or types of children. We do not know if the child was defiant and non-compliant, or simply lost in his activities or thoughts and unaware of others around him until someone intruded intow what he saw as his space. We do not know whether the program tried to educate as they should, or had a more "zero tolerance" type of approach.

Finally, we do not know if he is simply a high-energy boy, active and noisy and prone to large gesticulations, being asked to fit into a feminized environment.

Before we rush to condemn the program and/or its staff, and before we assume that the suspensions are racially-derived, we need to know about its approaches to the behaviors of young children, especially boys, and how it interprets these behaviors.

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