HARTFORD - Educators and leaders of early childhood advocacy groups met at the Legislative Office Building Tuesday to discuss ways to prepare young students for success.
“Setting Young Children Up for Success: Decreasing Suspensions by Investing in Social and Emotional Development” dealt with the importance of keeping students in their classrooms.
Walter Gilliam, director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, was the keynote speaker. Gilliam, an associate professor at Yale School of Medicine, criticized the practice of kicking young students out of their classrooms.
“No matter what we call it, it’s still the same thing. It’s telling kids they can’t be here, kicking them out, and it basically represents a total breakdown of the educational system, saying that we’re going to give up on you as a child before you even get above what most people consider the beginning of school,” Gilliam said.
Gilliam said studies show child-teacher ratios, hours of program service per day, job stress and access to behavioral resources are all potential factors for why young students are suspended or expelled.
“Those are the four bigger predictors of expulsion rates. What do all four of them have in common?” Gilliam asked. “None of them have anything to do with children … They’re program variables, they’re adult variables, they’re our variables.”
“Expulsion is not a childhood behavior, it’s an adult decision,” Gilliam added.
Many members of Tuesday’s roundtable spoke on similar themes. Increasing training and professional development for teachers so they can better understand and deal with young children was a common idea, and some discussed the importance of screening children to identify how their needs may be different from their peers’.
Kelly Grant, director of pupil services for the New Britain school district, spoke on some of the things New Britain has done in recent years to keep the city’s youngest students in school. Grant said each student has three settings: school, home life and community.
“If we don’t look at all of those components, then we’re not going to ever move that child forward. So we have really looked at a shared responsibility mantra - ‘whole child development,’” Grant said. “It isn’t just about academics.”
Grant said New Britain has made strides when it comes to suspensions, even while lagging in per-pupil funding.
Earlier this year, the district initiated full-day preschool for 4-yearolds, allowing 120 the option. The district also provides busing for all preschool students.
Grant said the district’s attendance teams play a huge role in making sure the youngest students have an opportunity for an education.
“We have people going out and doing recruiting of children not attending preschool. That’s unheard of in many school districts, but again, we’re looking to educate families, we’re looking to figure out what the barriers are and we’re looking to get them into class so we can make a difference with our kids,” Grant said.
The district has a social and emotional learning curriculum that has been implemented in grades pre-kindergarten to 3.
“Behavior is an attempt to communicate. It isn’t something that we just treat punitively. We are really teaching pro-social behaviors,” Grant said.
Merrill Gay, a member of the city’s Board of Education, said he liked what he heard.
Gay mentioned the Ana Grace Project and the work Nelba Márquez-Greene does in New Britain schools. Through her organization’s “Love Wins” campaign, Márquez-Greene promotes love, community and connection among young students in the district by building “soft skills” like compassion, listening and understanding.
“It’s telling that they had someone from New Britain present. We’ve made some strides in educating and guiding our youngest students,” Gay said.
Skyler Frazer can be reached at 860-801-5087 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.