UVA Supporting State’s Mission to Reduce Preschool Suspensions


Audrey Breen

In an effort to reduce preschool suspensions and expulsions, UVA researchers and their partners are building a system to better teach adults how to support young children’s mental health.

As the three-year-olds finished their last bites of lunch and began washing up at the small sink, their teacher helped them make their way to their cots for naptime. Meanwhile, the co-teacher was spending some one-on-one time with a child who was struggling with the transition and experiencing significant behavior issues. 

Veteran early childhood teachers are experienced with a wide range of outbursts from their students. But it can be tricky to discern what to do when behavioral issues escalate, resulting in highly stressful disruptions. One practice researchers are increasingly calling attention to is the wide use of suspensions and expulsion for young children. 

According to a brief from the University of Virginia’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) published last fall, 17,000 preschool children are suspended or expelled nationwide each year. Suspensions and expulsions occur more frequently with preschool aged children than with k-12 students. Black boys make up 50 percent of that number, though they only represent 20 percent of the enrolled children. 

“Suspension and expulsion deny children access to critical learning opportunities, and too often this disproportionately affects boys and children of color,” said Ann Lhospital, senior scientist at CASTL. “It sets kids up to experience negative outcomes that are short- and long-term.” 

Those negative outcomes include future suspensions, academic failures and even dropping out of high school. Removing children from their learning environment also does not effectively help them learn how to improve their behavior. 

“Ironically, kids are being kicked out for ‘challenging behavior’ without having the supports they need to develop healthy social-emotional skills that would help them be successful,” Lhospital said. 

The CASTL researchers, based in UVA’s School of Education and Human Development, are partnering with organizations across the state of Virginia to help early childhood educators identify and apply nonpunitive reactions to children’s behavior. The Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation project is designed to build adults’ capacity to support the social, emotional and behavioral development in children ages birth to five. 

Addressing Inequity in Preschool Discipline

According to the research team, inequities in preschool discipline can be the result of how adults interpret students’ behaviors, which then lead to more severe responses in some cases. Research shows this difference in reaction can be linked to implicit biases, especially racial biases, that are difficult to be conscious of, especially in high-stress environments.   

In a report assessing the need for this project, the researchers noted that even when controlling for factors such as teacher-reported misbehaviors, Black students are disciplined at higher rates, indicating that racial bias is a factor in the discipline differences between Black and white students. 

“As humans, we all have blind spots and biases that can influence how we interpret others’ behaviors and our response,” Lhospital said. “This is particularly true in the case of disruptive behaviors where emotions run high and teacher stress is common.” 

The research team at CASTL, in partnership with the Child Development Resource’s Virginia Infant and Toddler Specialist Network, is training and deploying consultants who help teachers reflect on the lenses through which they see the children in their classrooms. By helping them hone their observation skills, they empower teachers to see children’s behaviors in context and take actions to address behavior concerns more equitably. Specifically, they work with teachers to use effective individualized strategies with children who need them the most, in lieu of using exclusionary discipline practices. For example, a consultant can help a teacher use child-directed play sessions, a technique known as “Banking Time,” with a child to improve their connection and reduce conflict.

“As teachers advance their abilities to interpret children’s behaviors and reflect on their own lenses, the ECMHC program supports teachers by gently pushing them to reflect on their own behaviors and teaching practices and the impact of those on children’s behaviors,” said Ann Partee, research assistant professor at CASTL. 

“It can be hard to think about what you can do differently as a teacher to meet a child’s needs when it seems like you may have tried everything, especially if the relationship with a particular child is strained. The consultants help facilitate this reflection and analysis with teachers.”

Sometimes, children need additional support beyond what a teacher can provide within the context of an equitable classroom. 

While the mental health consultants do not diagnose a child or provide therapy to a child or family, they can make referrals to outside services when appropriate to supplement ECMHC services. 

“We believe that partnering with adults to support children in the settings where they learn and grow is key to promoting wellness and preventing exclusionary discipline,” Partee said. “Educators and families are encouraged to discuss their concerns and requests for any referrals to mental health or other services with their consultant.”

Year Two

Launched in 2021 with a focus that aligned with state efforts to assess the need for and develop supports for early childhood mental health, the project has been awarded funding by the Virginia Department of Education to continue into its second year. 

“Beyond the ultimate goal of reducing the occurrences of harsh discipline practice within early childhood settings and eradicating the compounding inequities and negative outcomes for children and families that relate to this concerning phenomenon – particularly those who have been historically and are currently marginalized – VDOE will use pilot findings and efforts to inform policy recommendations for an increased investment in social emotional support programs such as ECMHC for all publicly funded birth to five programs,” said Tamilah Richardson, Ed.D., director of early childhood learning at the VDOE. “Bringing VA's ECMHC program to scale in the very near future is our highest hope, and we are extremely grateful for UVA-CASTL and the Child Development Resources' leadership of these efforts. Virginia stands the chance to be a national model for this promotive and interventive work in the infant and early childhood mental health space.”

The team is bringing into its second year some important lessons learned. 

“In partnering with Child Development Resources, we have learned the value of collaboration – we’re better together,” Lhospital said. “Diverse perspectives and experiences make us stronger, and more hands makes the complex work possible.”

“Collaboration and partnership have become our think tank to delve deeper into the issues that impact providers, teachers, children and families,” said Dawn Wimbush, infant and toddler mental health supervisor at the Child Development Resources’ Infant and Toddler Specialist Network. “Sharing various perspectives has increased my understanding of our state's needs and resources available. I am excited to be on a team working to support our most precious resource – children and their mental health.”

Among other tweaks, the team aims to have a more individualized approach to the duration of services offered to participating teachers, based on classroom and child needs, as well as testing the idea of providing services virtually.

“An aspect we want to tackle is to ‘crack the code’ on ways to best provide virtual consultation services,” Lhospital said. “We think a statewide model would be more equitable and efficient to make consultation services available virtually, and not just in-person to select areas. Our work at CASTL in the past decade or more has shown us the potential of video-based coaching and feedback, and we want to figure out how to best make this work for the diverse populations we’re serving.”