Imagine being told that your 2-year-old child is no longer welcome at his/her childcare program. It may be an abrupt announcement, or a conversation that has been building over time. Unfortunately, this scenario is a reality for parents and families across the country with children under age 3. The growing body of research on suspension and expulsion rates in early childhood tells us that children in early learning programs are at higher risk of losing their access to care than older school age children. Very young children who are suspended from childcare (asked to leave for short periods of time or taken to other locations separate from other children) or expelled from childcare (asked to leave permanently) are at higher risk for repeated suspensions and/or expulsions prior to kindergarten. Racial disparities exist, and the odds of children being suspended or expelled are also higher for those with disabilities. There is an economic impact on the communities in which these children and families live. Family finances are strained as parents scramble to find quality care for their children while they work or go to school, and sometimes, they must give up their work/school opportunities entirely. There is an impact on children’s access to the educational and social resources enjoyed by peers which can make it difficult for children to learn what they need to know prior to starting school at age 5 or 6 and not fall even further behind over time. Suspensions or expulsions in early childhood can ultimately impact a child’s future ability to maintain employment as an adult and benefit their community.
At Dauphin County’s Department of Mental Health/Autism/Developmental Programs, our Part C Early Intervention program works to support infants/toddlers who have eligible developmental delays, along with their families and caregivers, within typical daily routines. Although we do not have reliable data on the extent to which children under 3 lose their access to childcare, we know that we have received approximately 15-20 referrals over each of the past two years for children who have been expelled, or were at risk of expulsion from their early learning programs because of challenging behaviors. The underlying causes of these behaviors were based on developmental delays, disabilities, environment and/or traumatic experiences. Expulsions were sometimes repeated across childcare sites or the affected families adjusted schedules to care for the children at home. We know that these situations were (and currently are) painful for the families and the childcare professionals involved, and we are working to improve awareness across the county that Early Intervention is one option for referral and support. Our Early Intervention professionals are prepared to collaborate with families and childcare professionals around the needs of eligible children by providing services, resource coordination, and access to training so that all children can learn and participate with their peers.
With the financial support and guidance of the highly qualified mentors available through the National Collaborative of Infants and Toddlers (NCIT) funded by the Pritzker Children’s Initiative (PCI), we have been fortunate to be able to expand our message of encouragement and support across the urban, suburban and rural areas of our county. We have built on previous collaborative efforts to include a growing number of our early learning partners in meetings and trainings around the importance of social-emotional development for infants and toddlers and how that prepares children for school success. We have been able to raise awareness of the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) framework to help parents and childcare staff see how challenging behaviors can be prevented or more effectively managed through loving, responsive caregiving so that we can reduce suspensions and/or expulsions in our community. We have given screening tools to multiple childcare programs along with the training on how to use them and make referrals for early intervention services. We are using the data we collect from our NCIT experience to refine our outreach to families, targeting the communities most in need of our support. We are listening to the feedback from the childcare programs with which we interact to understand their challenges, and to provide information about resources they may not know exist. We continue to invite additional stakeholders to the table as we talk about how to gather data about the current percentage of children who are considered “school ready” across our county, and the characteristics of those who are not.
In Pennsylvania, the Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL) oversees our program’s implementation of federal and state laws/regulations. OCDEL also has authority over the administration of childcare licensing and Pennsylvania’s tiered quality rating system, Keystone Stars. Our county recognizes that there is mutual benefit to partnering effectively with OCDEL and local early learning programs in order to align our work to improve child outcomes. We are grateful for the momentum of the PCI as we connect on a deeper level to make our bold vision a reality… children are included in community educational opportunities with their peers, without interruption, and are equipped with the foundational social emotional skills needed for school success by their third birthday!
Across the country, states and communities are leading efforts to advance research-based solutions to support infants and toddlers. For the past two years, the National Association of Counties Research Foundation (NACoRF) and the Pritzker Children’s Initiative (PCI), through the National Collaborative for Infants and Toddlers have provided technical assistance to a cohort of counties to increase the number of children who are developmentally on track for Kindergarten. These communities have successfully convened early childhood stakeholder groups, completed community assessments, developed action plans and are implementing local solutions for children from prenatal to age three. We applaud the pioneering work of the inaugural cohort, which includes Boone County, Mo.; Dauphin County, Pa.; Pierce County, Wash.; Ramsey County, Minn.; Tarrant County, Texas; Washington County, Va.; and Watauga County, N.C., and their leadership in building stronger futures for infants and toddlers.