Early Childhood

Times to Change

June 2, 2021
By: Rob Thompson, Director, Early Childhood

There it was in the Sunday edition of the New York Times. An issue that is increasingly important for our state, and for our nation, was getting its due in a major national publication. The issue: preschool suspensions and expulsions. It is an overlooked, often unknown, and certainly under-reported aspect of America’s early care and education system.

However, there was one shocking omission. There was not a single mention of the role of racism.

The piece  – "A 4-Year-Old Child Is Not a Problem. And Expulsion Is Not a Solution” – which appeared earlier this Spring, was a guest essay by David L. Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. Overall, his premise is correct – a trauma-informed approach to early care and education is essential for preventing preschool suspensions and expulsions. However, it failed to mention a critical factor at the root of this phenomenon: racism.

Data from the US Department of Education shows that Black children are greater than three times more likely to be suspended than white children. One could argue that this is a result of racialized trauma manifesting in classrooms, but research tells us something else. Dr. Walter Gilliam (quoted in the article) has produced groundbreaking research since 2005 documenting how implicit racial bias negatively affects the ways early educators perceive behavior among Black children.

This matches the experiences we have heard from parents and early childhood advocates in North Carolina. And this is driving work we have just funded with Wake County Smart Start to lead a five-county research project to understand preschool suspensions from parents’ perspectives. We hope to learn more about when and how preschool suspensions are happening, the impact on children and families, and the role of race and racism.

If anything became crystal clear by reading the Times piece, it was just how invaluable this work is going to be. There should not be another story, or another opinion piece on the issue – whether in the New York Times or the News and Observer for that matter– that doesn’t mention the profound racial disparities among children that are being suspended and expelled. Failing to connect those dots only makes the mountain we have in front of us that much harder to climb.

And so, as the consciousness of the nation is being raised to the many systemic injustices caused and perpetuated by racism, this is one we can’t ignore. The trajectory of the lives of millions of Black children is at stake.

About the Author

Rob Thompson is the Director, Early Childhood for the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation. Learn more about Rob.