Pre-schoolers might be tiny, but they get suspended and expelled in big numbers.
Now, a new study suggests that even for teachers who want to shift that dynamic, real change only happens with real training.
The study, from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education, looked at what happened in Nashville and Tampa when teachers there learned about a new preschool discipline approach called the Pyramid Model.
They found that teachers who got 13 weeks of in-person and email feedback about their use of the new model changed their practices more — and reported better behavior among their students — than teachers who knew about the model but weren’t getting one-on-one support.
The finding comes as discipline for preschoolers comes under increased scrutiny. Nationally, preschoolers are suspended at three times the rate of older children — a discrepancy that raises questions about whether preschool teachers are equipped to handle behavior typical of young children.
It’s hard to say if students actually behave better when their teachers are trained more, or if teachers just perceive students’ behavior differently, said Mary Louise Hemmeter, the researcher who led the study. But she said it’s progress either way.
“We have to support teachers as a way to really see [misbehavior] as an opportunity to teach,” she said. “When he bites, he wants attention. How can I give him attention in a meaningful way? When he takes a toy, he wants to play. How do we help him do that in a [better] way?”
Hemmeter said this kind of training can also help the teachers challenge their own assumptions at a time when students of color are suspended and expelled at far higher rates than their white classmates. Another new study found that implicit racial biases among preschool teachers could be fueling that discrepancy.
Under the Pyramid Model, “We say, ‘This child kicked another child five times,’ rather than ‘This child was defiant or aggressive,’” Hemmeter said. “When we start labeling behaviors, that’s when our biases kick in.”
Intensive coaching isn’t easy at many preschools, where resources are often thin. Hemmeter said her team is looking at other ways to give preschool teachers a hand in curbing suspensions and expulsions. But she cautioned that a single workshop is unlikely to make a lasting difference.
“That’s really not how you get people to implement effective practices,” she said. “You need support on an ongoing basis to really effect change.”