A Probing Mind

Researcher Gilliam Unravels Data Behind Preschool Expulsions, Offering Hope for Improving Outcomes for Children of Color

(March 2, 2017) – Exhibiting a probing mind brimming with questions and a persistence to match, Yale University researcher Walter S. Gilliam, Ph.D., detailed how he came to learn that children of color, particularly black boys, were getting pushed out of preschool at rates disproportionate to their peers.

Before the sensational headlines of his groundbreaking work made the press in 2016 and before the Congressional Black Caucus took up the cause of implicit bias in 2007, Gilliam’s scientific investigation was borne from observing many expelled preschoolers with challenging behaviors who were being brought to his child development laboratory at Yale. He wondered, “Does this happen a lot? What does the research say?”

The renowned researcher and professor told his story to a captivated gathering of Head Start leaders at MHSA’s 26th Early Childhood Learning Conference. Back in 2002, Gilliam said his curiosity led him to devise a study of 4,000 randomly selected classrooms to ask the question, How many preschoolers are expelled in a year? (At that time, his examination was still broad, not limited to a particular subgroup.)

Then the surprising results came back. On average, preschool teachers reported expelling 6.7 children per 1,000. One teacher reported expelling six out of 16 children in one classroom. A program in downriver Detroit reported a 28-percent expulsion rate.

Next, he looked at data from 16,000 school districts to compare expulsions from K-12 classrooms. Stunningly, the K-12 rate at 2.1 children per 1,000 was significantly lower than the preschool rate. The headline became: “Preschool children are expelled at three times the rate of K-12 students.” Michigan had one of the lowest expulsion rates; all but three states, however, had preschool rates higher than their state’s K-12 rate.

He rationalized: “Why was expulsion so common in preschool? Because it’s so darn easy.” While children are required to attend school in the K-12 grades, preschool attendance is voluntary, he said. But expulsions in preschool carry a heavy toll. Most youngsters don’t return, starting their formal academic careers further behind their peers and then staying behind.

For Head Start, the subject is of particular interest because program guidelines prevent expulsions. “When children get expelled, where do you think they end up? In Head Start,” he said. “This has been the trajectory to bring them to you.”

Digging up unpublished research, he further uncovered likely predictors for expulsions. Teacher job stress was most frequently cited. Also, teachers screened for depression expelled children at twice the rate of those not suffering from depression.  “I worry as a field we don’t talk enough about self-care,” Gilliam told the audience. “You are not helping these babies if you are not in a good place.”

His team held focus groups to further explore the “why” behind the numbers. They learned that teachers were making predictions about children’s potential actions. They also found that teachers were more likely to remove bigger children from a classroom out of worry they might hurt others, for example.  “That led us to the notion that this is not about child behavior (alone) but an adult decision,” he said.

Further exploration found that black preschoolers were expelled at twice the rate of white children. And if a child was black, a boy, and bigger than peers, that combination led to the highest predictor for expulsion. Gilliam’s landmark report, released in June 2016, showed significant disproportionality between black and white children with black preschoolers 3.6 times more likely to be suspended or expelled then their white peers.

Some assumptions could be made, he continued. Boys, for example, are more susceptible to acting out because of certain stresses. And children of color in general have higher stressors than other children because of economic vulnerabilities, among others. They are also more likely to attend programs that are not licensed or of high quality. But, Gilliam wondered, “Is it possible that bias can account for some of it?  If it’s an adult decision, are there factors that impact those decisions?”

To find out, Gilliam’s team interviewed preschool teachers from across the country at a national early childhood conference. Their experiment involved teachers watching a video in which four children – two boys and two girls from black and white races – were filmed at play in a classroom. The children were child actors, but the teachers didn’t know it. Using optic tracking sensors, they recorded who the teachers tended to keep their eyes on the longest. “Overall, the teachers spent more time looking at the black kids, especially the black boys. We found that to be true for white and black teachers.”

The study found that there was strong evidence of implicit racial bias among preschool teachers. Its importance is highlighted by the fact that half of those suspended or expelled from preschool are black children, even though black children make up just 19 percent of enrolled students. When later told about the results of the implicit bias test, all but one of the subjects agreed to allow researchers to use their personal results, even if unfavorable. “That gives us hope when only one teacher said she wanted to withdraw her data because she was deceived. Of 135 teachers, pretty much all of them said, “Yes, that’s true.”

Gilliam, a former public school teacher, himself, said that biases occur in all people and is in part a function of how the brain works as it seeks to differentiate information. “Good people have biases. The difference is when those biases hurt kids. We need to get to a point where we’re comfortable talking about this. If we don’t, we will continue to do damage to the children who are with us.”

The future is looking brighter, however. Besides raising awareness, Gilliam said it is proven that when teachers have access to behavior consultants, it decreases the likelihood children will be expelled. This lends itself to taking advantage of the services of mental health professionals who exist in local communities. Later this month, Gilliam’s team will return to Michigan to help train early childhood mental health consultants in new measures for teacher-child interactions that take a subtle look at equity and inclusion. They’re currently working in Florida.

Gilliam said Connecticut was the first state to ban preschool expulsions; Michigan is currently working on a plan to do likewise.

Besides public speaking, Gilliam works as the psychology director for the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, Yale School of Medicine. Gilliam said that the new Head Start Performance Standards create important expectations for developing new responses to young children with challenging behaviors.  “Head Start is leading the way in eliminating costly preschool expulsions and suspensions,” he said.