Young children are being suspended and expelled from school at alarming rates. Preschool children are suspended three times more than kindergarten through 12th grades combined.
In Illinois, 40% of childcare centers reported suspending infants and toddlers. Yes! Those are children who have not yet turned three years old. African American children are only 19 percent of the preschool population, but comprise nearly half of all suspensions. You may be wondering what can these kids possibly be doing to be suspended and kicked out of school so young? Surprisingly, many of them are engaging in typical child-like behaviors. I was one of those children.
From the time I entered school, I was suspended at least seven times a year. I was suspended for things like digging a hole in the playground to see if China was really on the other side of the earth. For that, I was labeled “destructive.” After a unit on maps, I climbed on top of the school auditorium so I could get a birds-eye view, and after the fire department and police department got me down, I was suspended, and for that, I was labeled “incorrigible.”
There was this one time, I took all the baby dolls’ heads, arms, and legs off. I just wanted to see how the body parts fit together. But for that, I was labeled a “demon.” They actually told my parents I exhibited demon-like behaviors. Then, there was this one time I snuck into the boys’ bathroom; I wanted to see how they got to pee standing up. And for that, I was labeled “sexually perverted.”
Now these are all childlike behaviors, albeit from a very curious child, but childlike nonetheless. Let’s look at behaviors. What is it that children do when they get upset or they’re deemed out of control? They scream, cry, hit, cuss, fight, throw things. That’s because they’re kids! Kids are going to be kids. They don’t have the capacity to handle such intense emotions.
Let’s take a look at what adults do when they get upset. Kick, scream, cry, fight, cuss, throw things. The list is exactly the same, and while we can expect kids to be kids, as adults, what’s our excuse? My friend Walter Gilliam says, “Suspensions are adult decisions.” Suspensions are adult behaviors. But what if we changed that behavior? What if we shift our thinking, focusing on the behavior of adults rather than focusing on the behavior of children? What if my teachers would’ve seen me as a geologist rather than being destructive? What if they would’ve seen me as a scientist, rather than being a demon? Or a future doctor interested in anatomy, rather than seeing me as sexually perverted? The key to managing the difficult behaviors of children is to manage our own behavior as adults.
How many times have you seen an adult scold a child for screaming while also screaming, “Don’t you dare talk to me like that!” Right? Or how often have you seen them scold a child for hitting while also hitting? “Don’t you dare hit your sister again!” Or sometimes we even exclude children for excluding children. “Oh, you don’t want to play together? Just go to your rooms!” The behavior that we give the most attention to is the behavior that we are promoting. This is Tayvon Tayvon’s mother was being called at least three times a week to pick him up from school for misbehavior. He was only four years old at the time.
I went to school to observe and I was struck by how eager Tayvon was to please his teachers. At one point, the teacher called all the children to the rug for circle time. “All right everyone, circle time, come and sit criss-cross-applesauce.” Tayvon ran over and he sat perfectly criss-crossed with his hands in his lap, and he wanted the teacher to notice. He craned his neck, she didn’t notice, and he craned again, as if he was saying, “See me teacher, see me.” Again, she didn’t notice, and being only four, he became frustrated and gave up. He stuck his legs straight out in front of him, leaned back on his hands, and it was at that moment the teacher noticed. “Tayvon, you are not sitting like a learner; leave the circle and go sit at the table!” Wow! Children who are suspended are ten times more likely to enter the juvenile justice system. They are more likely to drop out of school, have low achievement, and be suspended again, and again, and again.
And this is the beginning of the preschool-to-prison pipeline. Children rise to the expectations of the adults in their environment, whether it’s negative or positive. When we pay more attention to negative behaviors, we will get negative behaviors. But when we pay attention to those behaviors we want to see in our classrooms or in our homes, we will see those behaviors more often, and it’s because children care what we think about them. They actually want us to like them.
The key is for us to be self-aware. When we’re aware of ourselves, then we come to know what our hot buttons are, what our behavior is, and how we respond to the behavior of others. We come to understand what pushes us, we understand our body language, and we come to understand our tone. And these things are really important to know because behavior is defined by the person most annoyed by it.
Now, for me, it was my daughter Jasmine when she was just 15 years old, a teenager. She had the smartest, sassiest mouth I’ve ever seen or heard. She was quite clever and witty too, but that smart mouth, oh my goodness. My husband didn’t understand why it bothered me. But for him, it was when she slammed the doors. Now slamming the door didn’t bother me, because that meant that she was on the other side of it.