Suspensions and expulsions are not support. Children lose valuable learning opportunities when they are removed and the long-term outcomes for children who experience multiple removals are not enviable.

Gail Joseph

For providers and educators, challenging behavior in children isn’t just a reality, it’s an inevitability. In August, the University of Washington’s Cultivate Learning and Haring Center for Inclusive Education joined local early intervention program Kindering in addressing the issue by gathering early learning providers for an institute on “Equity Focused Positive Behavior Support.”

The institute, the first dedicated to the topic in Washington state, provided Early Achievers participants with professional development opportunities focused on fostering young children’s social-emotional development and addressing problem behavior.

Contrary to popular belief, challenging behaviors are not simply the result of a child’s personality. A child’s social and emotional development is also heavily influenced by a variety of factors including home and community safety, family income, housing stability, and disability.

Backed by a large and growing research base, Positive Behavior Support (PBS) is a multi-tiered system of practices and tools to proactively teach critical social skills and to understand and address challenging behaviors in children.

Dr. Philip Fisher, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and one of several leaders in early learning research and practice to present at the institute, discussed the additional challenges in learning that children face when coming from high-adversity backgrounds—namely that social-emotional learning gets more difficult over time if children do not have the support necessary to nurture responsive relationships.

Gail Joseph, founder of Cultivate Learning and a UW College of Education professor, critiqued suspensions and expulsions in schools.

“Suspensions and expulsions are not support,” Joseph noted. “Children lose valuable learning opportunities when they are removed and the long-term outcomes for children who experience multiple removals are not enviable. They report feeling disconnected in school, are more likely to drop out, and are more likely to be incarcerated later in life. Research shows that children of color are almost four times more likely to be suspended or expelled in preschool than their white classmates. This is a big reason for why we have the preschool-to-prison pipeline."

Suspensions and expulsions were not the only issue highlighted during the institute.

“Children with disabilities are often separated from their peers and neighbors,” said keynote presenter Jordan Taitingfong, who works at the Haring Center as an early learning training specialist. “The first thing we do is send them to a segregated program, which means they lose their community.”

To center PBS in a variety of contexts, the institute provided sessions in custom tracks based on the participant’s role at work, Including  preschool teachers and providers, providers for infants and toddlers, instructional coaches, administrators, and families and family support providers. Experts in the field of early learning shared a variety of tools, strategies and research to help attendees evaluate their practice and measure their success.

Jesica Mendoza, an early care and education consultant in Renton, noted the responsiveness of the preschool track, which she felt was “very positive and had things teachers could start doing tomorrow.”

Whitney Sanders, a special education teacher for Highline Public Schools also pointed out the emphasis of real application, noting “My group came out with a list of things we wanted to implement in our class starting this next school year. I’m going to be able to help my classroom run a little bit more efficiently, and empower my staff to grow professionally as well.”

Supporting the entire field is necessary to implement these new practices in a sustainable way, institute presenters said, but Positive Behavior Support strategies are essential in a country where some of the most marginalized children experience authoritarian forms of school discipline and where teachers and providers face stress and burnout. When established research shows that children suffer academically and socially when they are removed from the environment, PBS seeks to mitigate implicit bias, is applicable to children from all types of communities and learning needs, and helps bolster social and emotional development in the years when it is most critical.

This story was contributed by Ari Asercion, Cultivate Learning communications specialist.


Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications