Discipline, Assistance and Bullies in a Preschool Classroom

Cross-armed and teary-eyed parents sat across from me, listening to me speak about the issues in their children’s classroom. They took a deep unified breath after I stated clearly, “There’s no such thing as a bully in a preschool classroom.” One parent stood to walk out before their partner asked them to stay. It was a tense room, tense because parents tend to get overwhelmed with fear and anger when they imagine that their three year old may be in danger of being hurt. In this meeting I was asked by the preschool to handle a tension that had been growing incrementally for months between the parents, teachers, and school directors over the behavior of one child whom had been singled out as the problem. What the families were there to understand was the preschool’s decision to help this young child by allowing them to remain enrolled.

The child was going through hardships at home and had recently been diagnosed with sensory processing disorder and possible ADHD symptoms. The preschool, one that I love and respect, was attempting to help the child and the community at the same time. The parents of the children that this child had hit and had bitten, where there trying to understand why the school was not protecting their children. The teachers, caught in the middle, were there to hear me explain that the patient stance the school directors were taking was so that the community could move in a trajectory that could help all children through all their setbacks and needs. This is common in a preschool setting. It is common in schools. The dilemma of helping one child who has hit a bump in the road that tends to create waves through the entire microcosm of the school. How does the school help the child, train the teachers to keep all children safe, and educate the parenting community so they do not feel threatened by the ups and downs of a classroom’s issues and setbacks?

The Problem

The primary barrier in these types of scenarios in a preschool is the teachers’ and parents’ level of knowledge and training on social emotional development. A survey done in 2015 by the Zero to Three organization found that parents believe children reach self-control markers earlier than brain science tells us they do. Multiple studies have also found that preschool teachers tend to confuse normative rough and tumble play with aggressive behavior and most of the times this is heightened when the child is a person of color. Also, many parents and teachers are not aware that most children under 18 months will express frustration and anger by biting, hitting and pushing. All of these are examples of the problem in many early childhood settings where the caregivers are not well versed in normative social emotional development that is then seen as challenging behavior, oppositional behavior, and/or aggressive behavior.

A second barrier is the lack of support and professional development for early childhood educators to manage and include children with learning differences or developmental delays. The CDC states that 1 in 6 children has a developmental delay and less than half of them are diagnosed in the early years. For those teachers who do not know how to help and assist a child with a developmental delay, a popular choice to keep their classroom manageable is to remove or isolate the child with the delay. Many children who have differences will be isolated from their peers in an effort to keep all children “safe” including the child with the delay. However, that defeats the social purpose of a classroom and can create emotional and psychological issues for a child who already has an academic and/or developmental delay.

The sad truth is that children that are seen as violent or “not progressing” are often isolated, mismanaged with physical restraints, asked to leave, or suspended from their early childhood setting. In my work I have seen all of these outcomes. In my day to day in the field I have counseled parents whose children were inappropriately restrained when their children had episodes of anger and/or tantrums, that to the well meaning teachers seemed violent and intrusive to their classrooms. Once more, this is an example of not having enough training. Most behavioral practitioners will tell you that if you have to use restraint, your intervention is not working. Yet, there is a myth out there that restraint is the way to go when a child is emotionally dysregulated and tantruming. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The result is that often the family then bounces from school to school, never truly getting the intervention and help their child needs. We know that interventions given in the early years are more effective than interventions given in the school age years. The prognosis is more positive and effective, and when schools do not give guidance to parents in an early education setting to attain help for their child, the long term repercussions increase.

There is not enough research to state with clarity how these moments in a preschool classroom affect the other children. It is an area that needs to be researched primarily because most teachers often respond inappropriately to a dysregulated student in an effort to not “disrupt the classroom.” Since they are worried about the other children, they then remove or restrain the child who is seemingly “out of control.” When you observe a preschool classroom you will see young children feeling concern and empathy for the child who is crying or screaming. You will see children with leader qualities attempt to gently tell their friend to calm down by saying, “It’s okay, you feel better soon,” or the shy ones getting close to the teacher and pulling her slightly towards the child who is overly upset in an effort to feel safe. Now imagine the message these kind and empathic children receive when the child is removed, restrained or punished. A simple A + B equation in their concrete minds tells them that when they are angry or sad, the teacher will reject them. This creates a lack of safety and a lost opportunity for teachers and students to learn how to manage emotions and enhance their emotional intelligence.

The Solution

The best way to decrease the suspensions and the mismanagement of children’s normative behavior in the classroom is to increase education on normative development for parents, and to increase and change licensing requirements for early childhood teachers to include social emotional learning courses and special training on monitoring development. They also need training on inclusion in the classroom for children with learning differences and developmental delays.

Screenings like the Ages and Stages and DECA need to be part of the process of evaluation and progress-keeping for all early childhood centers. Training of the majority of the faculty and the staff of early childhood centers can be an amazing way to truly benefit from the information obtained from these screeners. Most schools who are part of the Early Head Start and Head Start programs have a disabilities coordinator who manages and helps parents maneuver the system and help create interventions at school and at home. It would be wonderful if local and state mandates would require and fund these services for all early childhood centers licensed by the state and local governments.

We need to educate schools and families around the requirements and the rights given to them and their children by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Part C and part B of that act requires that treatment and interventions be available for children birth to 22 years old. Too many families are unaware of those services and find themselves alone in the process of attempting to have their schools give them the services promised.

The most salient solution is to build a community and maintain a culture in the early childhood centers where parents teachers and directors are all working together to achieve the best outcomes for the children. It goes back to the repeated sentiment of “it takes a village” to raise a child. It’s repeated because of its validity. Building a space where parents and teachers hold the child, and school teachers and directors hold young parents through the early struggles of raising a child, can only bring about positive outcomes.

In the end we must remember that these big topics and issues are multi-dimensional. We all fantasize that one clean answer will fix an issue, but usually the answer is a “yes and…” rather than “this is the way.” What we must all get used to is being open to finding solutions and helping one another as a community rather than operating only in individualistic and uninformed ways. We also need to understand that as humans we are complex and the solutions to most setbacks are equally so.

Originally posted on MomsRising.org June 20, 2019.