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Perspective | Children in the gap: The space between preschool expulsion and special education

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“I feel like everyone has given up on him,” a grandmother told me after her grandson was asked to leave his third child care center in 18 months. This grandmother has been working with her son, a single father, to raise his 4-year-old son.

Another parent shared with me that because her child was delayed in potty training, he couldn’t move into the 3-year-old classroom — but he couldn’t stay in the 2-year-old classroom because he was too old. She shared that the teachers weren’t supporting her potty-training efforts, and that the director was quick to ask them to leave the program until he was potty-trained.

In my role in publicly-funded early intervention, I speak to many families in the referral process for special education. The stories I shared above have become increasingly common.

Though concrete data on preschool expulsions is nonexistent, preschool expulsions seem to be increasing in my own work. The children expelled do not always qualify for special education based on state criteria. These children are falling through the gaps, leading to further hardships for parents, families, and communities.

A lack of quality child care, rejection from early childhood programs, and financial stress due to missed work are combining to cause toxic stress for families.

And these situations are causing a negative beginning to students’ educational journeys.

The root cause

The landscape for child care in North Carolina is dismal. With long waitlists, programs have no financial consequences when expelling children.

Though demand is high, there is inadequate funding for child care programs to expand or for new programs to open. In fact, programs are at risk of closing altogether when stabilization grants run out this summer.

This broken market and the resulting staff shortages have created a culture of “just getting by” in many programs. Insufficient funding often means limited professional development opportunities for child care teachers. Increased teacher turnover and insufficient staff training can lead to decreases in quality, lack of understanding of child development, and increased risk for children.

There is also no accountability for suspensions and expulsions in licensed child care in North Carolina.

The Division of Child Development and Early Education’s Early Childhood Suspension and Expulsion Policy provides recommendations “for preventing and severely limiting expulsion and suspension practices in early childhood settings.” The policy then states the reasons why suspension and expulsion should be limited and references free resources to support programs and families in addressing children’s behavioral health, but isn’t clear on accountability measures.

The solutions

There are many actions that should be supported to cause change in the culture and quality of child care in our state.

The first — and vital — component for creating change in child care is increased funding to support programs to specifically increase wages and provide benefits such as health care. Investing in child care teachers will result in a decrease in staffing shortages and staff turnover.

Another solution is to provide increased meaningful professional development for educators of young children. This could come through statewide training opportunities and/or increased funding for programs so they can provide meaningful training for their staff.

Another needed strategy is to connect families with wrap-around support through meaningful relationships with social services, community resources, and faith-based support groups.

Finally, we need a way to hold child care providers and programs accountable for supporting families and sustaining care to children.

Mandee LaCroix

Mandee LaCroix works in a publicly funded preschool program that serves children with exceptional needs. LaCroix holds a master’s in early education leadership and family and child advocacy from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and is a National Board Certified Teacher in Exceptional Children.