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Expulsions aren't help
By Anika Trancik, Special to the Times
Published September 1, 2007
Children are back at school, but how many will be allowed to stay?
Some preschoolers are getting tossed from our schools precisely when they need attention and care. A young mother recently told me, "That was a crisis situation; my child was expelled from preschool and it happened right in the middle of my divorce." These kinds of cases happen too often in Florida. With the start of a new school year, a surprisingly large number of parents are worried that their young children will be turned away due to disruptive behavior.
A 2005 Yale University study revealed that the Florida preschool expulsion rate is 18 times greater than expulsion rates in grades kindergarten through 12th grade. Communities need to ask: What have we done to help children who are at risk of being expelled from preschool? According to the mother mentioned above, her child did not get the help he needed during one of the most stressful times of his life.
In January, the nonprofit Children's Forum suggested a legislative priority should be to commission an evaluation of the frequency, cost and impact of expelling preschool children from child-care and prekindergarten programs in Florida. As a researcher, I normally support the collection of data and find that other reports and recommendations by the Children's Forum are extremely useful. But I find this to be insufficient. We already know that quality child-care programs are a good investment. A 2006 report says when support and education is provided to teachers and parents of children with behavior problems, there is a savings of $3 to $17 for every dollar spent.
My own research, supported by the University of South Florida, revealed that approximately 12 of every 1,000 children attending faith-based child-care centers in a local Florida community were unable to remain in the care of their prekindergarten programs. Child-care directors had made referrals to access formal mental health services (an early childhood mental health consultation program) and informal ones through their faith-based community (meetings with the pastor, social events). Despite these referrals, 7 in every 1,000 children referred to faith-based services and 4 out of every 1,000 referred to formal mental health services did not remain at the child-care center. The reasons why they didn't stay aren't clear, but these numbers correspond to the statewide rate of 6.64 children per 1,000 expelled in Florida preschools in the 2005 study.
So the good news is that formal and informal behavioral consultation is taking place; the bad news is that the number of children who are turned away from child-care programs continues to be shockingly high.
What should we be doing differently? In addition to continually evaluating and improving our formal behavioral consultation services, we must also strengthen the informal support local community organizations provide children and families. One way to champion the existence of these informal resources is to create connections between formal behavioral consultation services and community-based organizations. Potential connections include building relationships with faith-based personnel who provide counseling services, maintaining contact with child-care directors and bringing together groups that serve as a bridge between faith and social services, such as food banks and financial assistance programs. Also, formal mental health service providers should offer community-based organizations opportunities for education on healthy mental development in young children.
Policy recommendations to strengthen the informal supports provided by local community organizations include financial support - so formal mental health services can hire someone to facilitate connections among community contributors who support the well-being of children and families - and the creation of mechanisms to bridge formal and informal mental health services.
If we want to keep our children in school and save thousands of dollars, providers of formal mental health services need to build connections with informal assets that already exist in our communities.
Anika Trancik lives in Safety Harbor and has more than 10 years of experience working with preschool to school-aged children. She is receiving her doctorate degree in child clinical psychology from the University of Washington and has completed her internship at the University of South Florida, Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute.