Breaking down stereotypes

Racial bias among preschool teachers is a problem, study says. Here’s what Colorado experts think should be done.

PHOTO: Dylan McCoy

Some of Colorado’s early childhood leaders say findings from a new study on preschool teacher bias spotlight the need for a more diverse early childhood workforce and more training to combat the unconscious bias teachers of all races bring to the classroom.

The study released last week by Yale researcher Walter Gilliam found that black and white preschool teachers expect boys, especially black boys, to act up in class, and watch them more closely for signs of challenging behavior.

It revealed how teachers’ underlying assumptions about race and gender affect their discipline decisions. The study follows on earlier research showing that young black boys are disproportionately expelled from preschools — a precursor to the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately impacts young black men.

The findings come at a time of intense national discussion about racial disparities in school discipline and in the midst of a debate in Colorado about how to reduce harsh discipline tactics during the preschool and early elementary school years.

Gilliam’s Findings

    A team led by Walter Gilliam conducted a study of 135 preschool teachers in which the teachers were asked to watch videos of four children — a black boy, a black girl, a white boy and a white girl. They were also asked to read a vignette that described a child’s challenging behavior, with the only difference being the name — Latoya, Emily, DeShawn or Jake.
  • Both black and white preschool teachers watched boys, especially black boys, more than girls of either race for signs of challenging behavior.
  • When asked directly which of the four children in the video required most of their attention, teachers of all races cited the black boy most often.
  • Black teachers rated challenging behavior as more severe than white teachers did when it came from black boys — suggesting that white teachers may have lower expectations for black boys.
  • When teachers learned about family stressors that might be contributing to a child’s challenging behavior, they rated the behavior as less severe, but only when they were of the same race as the child.

Last year, plans for legislation on the topic fizzled, but there’s a new push by a task force of state officials, advocates and at least one state-lawmaker to craft a bill for the 2017 session.

There’s been progress on other fronts, too. The state recently doubled the ranks of early childhood mental health consultants who help teachers better handle challenging behavior. Also, a Colorado team won a federal grant in August for a pilot project intended to help teachers understand what triggers challenging behavior and when biases come into play.

Erin Mewhinney, director of the Division of Early Care and Learning in the state human services department, also noted that the state Office of Early Childhood is commissioning a study that will look at the scope of preschool suspensions and expulsions in Colorado. Despite national studies showing major race-based disparities in early childhood discipline, state-specific data is scarce here.

Mewhinney said instead of simply trying to regulate early childhood suspensions and expulsions, the state has taken a more holistic approach, seeking input and buy-in from lots of groups.

Other leaders say more needs to be done on a consistent basis across the state.

“I would be hard-pressed to say that Colorado as a state has an action plan in place, but I think there are certain pockets of individuals who are very sensitive to this issue,” said Phil Strain, a University of Colorado Denver professor who heads the university’s Positive Early Learning Experiences Center.

He’s part of the team leading the federally funded pilot, called the Pyramid Equity Project, that will take place at preschools in Tennessee and New Jersey.

Rosemarie Allen, an assistant professor at Metro State University who presented about the Pyramid Equity Project during last week’s study release event, said of Colorado’s progress, “We are on the right track but we really have to beef up our efforts to address implicit bias, to talk about it.”

Gilliam’s study helps illustrates how complex racial dynamics can be in student-teacher interactions as well as relationships between teachers and families.

Allen, who also leads the Institute for Racial Equity and Excellence, said she wasn’t surprised by the finding that it wasn’t just white teachers who were on high alert for bad behavior from black boys. Still, it’s an uncomfortable topic for some.

“People are not wanting to talk about black teachers (who) did the same thing,” Allen said. “Of course they did. Do you think we’re not all impacted by implicit bias?”

What surprised her more about the study was how preschool teachers reacted when they read a paragraph explaining more about the background and family stressors of the study’s fictional students. Black teachers became more empathetic and rated the problem behaviors of the black students as less severe, while white teachers rated them as more severe.

“I’ve been reflecting on that quite a bit,” Allen said. “If it reinforces stereotypes and you already believe this is hopeless…Is it like, ‘Here we go, you know how they are.’?”

Although she acknowledged that reading a background paragraph isn’t the same as the face-to-face interaction that preschool teachers typically have with families, she said the finding was heartbreaking.

Strain also found the result disturbing, but said, “getting to know people and really understand their life circumstance is clearly an antidote to the operation of implicit bias.”

Both professors said recruiting more teachers of color and creating more training opportunities that help all teachers address implicit bias are important.

The state doesn’t track the racial demographics of early childhood teachers, but national studies suggest about three-quarters of teachers are white and about 10 percent are black. Head Start programs, where about one-third of teachers are black, are a notable exception.

Allen and Strain, who said their universities have been at the forefront of efforts to train future early childhood teachers on implicit bias and cultural competence, also seek more support for existing teachers.

It’s important to provide proactive strategies that teachers can use in real time, Strain said. Simply pointing that children of color are disproportionately suspended and expelled doesn’t help.

“While that’s part of the equation, it’s not necessarily the road to getting folks to change their behavior,” he said.

Discipline reform

Denver Public Schools takes strong stand against suspension and expulsion in early grades

Community members gathered in the library of Godsman Elementary School for a Denver Public Schools announcement that suspension and expulsion will be eliminated for preschool through third-grade.

Denver Public Schools announced plans Wednesday to eliminate out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for preschool through third grade students except in the most serious incidents.

District officials say the move puts DPS on the cutting edge of discipline reform nationally and builds on its work over the last 10 years to reduce suspensions and expulsions for all students, and replace traditional discipline methods with restorative justice techniques.

Wednesday’s announcement during a press conference at Godsman Elementary School came as state lawmakers are considering legislation that would curb suspensions and expulsions in preschool through second grade. The district’s new policy and the proposed legislation represent milestones in the years-long discussion in the state and nation about the disproportionate use of harsh discipline tactics on boys, students of color and students with disabilities.

The district’s new early childhood discipline policy will be unveiled at Thursday’s school board meeting and will be followed by a 60-day public comment period before it is finalized. It will take effect July 1.

District officials and representatives from local advocacy groups emphasized that the new policy will be accompanied by efforts to provide teachers and other staff with support in using alternative methods to suspension or expulsion.

“We really want to address the issue of student behavior. We really want to address also the issue of adult behavior and give adults a better set of tools and take out the hammer that you don’t need in your tool box…Some tools should not be in the toolbox when we are looking at babies,” said Ricardo Martinez, co-executive director of the Denver-based group Padres & Jovenes Unidos.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said about 500 students in preschool to third grade were suspended last year — most of those in second and third grade. None were expelled.

Under the new policy, suspensions would still be allowed in rare cases if a student poses a serious threat to himself or others. In those cases, suspensions would be limited to one day.

While several school districts and states have banned or significantly curtailed suspensions and expulsions for young students, most focus on students through second grade.

Eldridge Greer, the district’s associate chief of student equity and opportunity, said part of the reason DPS chose to extend its policy through third grade is to ensure kids are proficient in reading and math by the end of third grade.

“There’s no way we can reach that goal if a student is not in class,” he said.

Starting early

Why boosting mental health for the youngest children is attracting federal — and private — investment

John Hicks, co-facilitator of a parenting class called "The Incredible Years" listens as participants discuss setting rules for their kids.

At dinnertime on a Tuesday night, nine parents sat in a Commerce City preschool classroom discussing the difficulty of setting rules for their small children.

Some said they bark orders too often and are trying to cut back. One mom said she wished one blanket rule — “just love each other” — would cover it. But inevitably she finds a dozen more specific things to list off: Don’t bite, don’t hit and so on.

Over the next hour, the parents and two facilitators talked through more effective approaches, including giving kids fewer direct orders, defining “non-negotiables” and letting little things go.

The parenting class was part of a federally-funded initiative called Project LAUNCH that aims to help parents, preschool teachers, pediatricians and other adults in Adams County boost mental health in young children. It reflects growing national awareness that children stand a greater chance of succeeding in school and life if they get mental health support in their earliest years.

“We have so many kids with social and emotional needs,” said Lisa Jansen Thompson, executive director of the Early Childhood Partnership of Adams County. “It is just increasing.”

The Project LAUNCH work in Adams County is a five-year, $2.6 million effort funded by a federal grant program that pays for similar efforts in states and tribal areas across the country.

Getting kids reading well by the third grade used to be the “north star” for many early childhood advocates, Jansen Thompson said. But now, abundant data show the need to start earlier — well before kids enter school. That’s when key lifelong skills develop, such as the ability to form close relationships and manage strong emotions.

And if that development hits a roadblock, a new set of problems can crop up, like kids getting suspended in preschool or having pitched battles at home.

Competition was stiff for Colorado’s Project LAUNCH funding. Eleven communities submitted letters of interest within a 48-hour period. The Adams County proposal, which focuses on Spanish-speaking families in the southern portion of the county, ultimately won out.

But the story didn’t end there. The outsized interest in early childhood mental health — along with the success of an earlier Project LAUNCH site in Weld County — inspired a first-of-its-kind effort by eight private funders to replicate the program in four other Colorado communities.

That initiative — called LAUNCH Together — last fall awarded a total of $8 million to grantees in Denver, Pueblo, Jefferson County and, working as one team, Chaffee and Fremont counties. The private funders include seven foundations and one health care provider.

“We were not trying to prove that a privately funded model could do this better,” said Colleen Church, director of programs for the Caring for Colorado Foundation, one of the funders. “We were really building off what had worked.”

She said interest in early childhood mental health had been growing among funders for several years, elevating it to the level of traditional child health priorities such as ensuring kids have access to medical care and are fully immunized.

The funders hired a Denver-based organization called Early Milestones Colorado to lead the privately funded effort.

While the details differ in the five communities participating in Project LAUNCH and LAUNCH Together, the primary strategies are the same. They involve special training for preschool teachers, parents and the staff of home visiting programs, which send professionals to work with parents of babies or young children. The idea is to help the adults with whom children interact learn how to foster social and emotional skills in kids, and spot red flags that might require outside help.

There are also efforts to get new mothers screened for depression and to make sure children are routinely screened for developmental milestones at doctor check-ups — and if problems arise, give families quick access to mental health services.

Janine Pryor, coordinator of the Chaffee County Early Childhood Council, said because of the LAUNCH Together funding, “We’re sending people to trainings that no one here could ever afford.”

Leaders of the various LAUNCH efforts say their goal is not just to alter the experience that kids and families have now at preschools, doctor’s offices and in their homes, but to make systems-level shifts that ensure changes continue after the grant money runs out.

At the same time, they want to raise public awareness about the importance of early childhood mental health and reduce the stigma that so often accompanies it.

“We’re going to try in our region to really get the word out and develop messages that will resonate with everyone,” Pryor said.