Screen grab
L to R: Walter Gilliam, Ph.D; Kathryn Scheinberg Meyer; Andrea Spencer, Ph.D; John Frassinelli; Patricia Sullivan-Kowalski; and Elizabeth Bicio (Screen grab)

A panel of experts in early childhood education — among them a renowned researcher, a public school administrator, an attorney, and a civil servant — converged Tuesday at the University of Connecticut Law School to shed light on a new state law to make sure the state’s youngest learners all have a seat at the table.

• Watch the video here.

The new law prohibits public schools from from authorizing out-of-school suspensions for students enrolled in preschool through grade two unless the school administration determines during a disciplinary hearing that there is evidence of conduct on school grounds of a violent or sexual nature that endangers others.

William Gilliam, Ph.D, director of the Yale Child Study Center, told audience members at the Center for Children’s Advocacy-sponsored event that Connecticut is the first state in the nation to make such a bold move in forcing school districts to look at the root causes of children’s behavior and to use a collaborative approach in addressing issues that may arise.

“Expulsion is not a child behavior,” Gilliam said. “Expulsion is an adult decision.”

Each member of the panel described different elements of an approach to eliminating expulsion and out-of-school suspension that is based on relationships. It’s about understanding the whole child — including family history, home life, ability and culture, and many other factors. It’s about communication and support between that student and the teacher; the teacher and the school; the school and the community.

Kathryn Scheinberg Meyer, staff attorney for the Center for Children’s Advocacy, cited state Department of Education statistics and the advocacy group’s own experience as the impetus for the change. The state numbers showed a 22 percent increase between 2011 and 2014 in children under the age of seven who were excluded from school. She said the number is probably even higher since not all instances of exclusion are documented.

Those statistics led the advocacy group to work with an array of stakeholders to come up with the bill that was signed into law this year. It became effective July 1.

The state Department of Education’s bureau chief in the area of family services, John Frassinelli, said the trend to remove young children from the school building is the opposite of efforts in higher grades to focus instead on in-school suspension.

He said the same study found 76.1 percent of the suspended students in the under-7 age group were black or Hispanic and that 61.3 percent were black or Hispanic boys.

Efforts to reverse the trend so far have included workshops on culturally-responsive discipline in Bridgeport, Hartford, Waterbury, Manchester, New London, and Norwich, as well as other workshops on positive school climates in 48 school districts.

“This legislation is really a first step in keeping these kids in school so we can engage them,” Frasinelli said. The next step is working to address student behavior and reactions by adults that are causing escalations in that behavior.

The Early Childhood Consultation Partnership (ECCP), a program sponsored by the state Department of Children and Families, is one way to promote partnerships between children, their families and their preschool caregivers as a way to ward off exclusion.

“If we’re not taking care of the most important resources for children, which are their families and their teachers, the other things they’re going to struggle with,” ECCP Director Elizabeth Bicio said.

She said consultants work in early education environments to identify strengths and challenges — in both children and their teachers — and to come up with practical strategies to make for a smoother flow in the classroom. The consultants also work with families to help them understand that their relationship with teachers and the school system is an equal one in which everyone has different responsibilities.

Gilliam, who consults with state and federal officials on early education and intervention issues, said open communication between teachers and parents is key — and that he’s never seen a child expelled from a program in which the teacher and the parent knew and liked each other.

“Sometimes when you hear the story of what’s going on for this family and this child, you do not wonder why is this child’s behavior is so bad; you wonder why is it not worse,” he said.

The public school system in Meriden has been successful in reducing the exclusion of children in preschool through grade two thanks to leadership focused on innovation, according to the city’s Office of Pupil Personnel Director Patricia Sullivan-Kowalski.

She said the district has reduced suspensions over 68 percent since the 2009-10 school year.

Kowalski shared images of bright, comfortable “sensory rooms” that can promote activity or respite as needed. From climbing walls to yoga balls, the district’s three sensory spaces are filled with opportunities not available in most classrooms.

“What’s important for us is that many times, kids gravitate to what they need.”

Sullivan-Kowalski also singled out the school’s Family-School Liaison program for reaching out to families and getting into homes so they can help build strong bonds between families and the school and to promote access to behavioral, medical, and dental services from outside agencies.

Andrea Spencer, Ph.D, an educational consultant with the Center for Children’s Advocacy, said early identification of behavioral and emotional disorders is imperative to providing critical developmental services that can help them relate more successfully to other children and adults for the rest of their lives. And while behaviors stemming from trauma, stress, cognitive issues, and the negative influences of poverty are often attributed simply to “not being ready” for school, Spencer said that’s the opposite of the truth.

“Sending children who are having behavioral problems home from school is not going to, in any way, shape or form, help them get ready for school,” she said.

The federal Head Start program to increase school readiness among low-income families is currently in the public hearing stage in its efforts to implement the kind of changes for which Connecticut has paved the way, according to Gilliam.

“I’m not naive enough to think that every one of our children are going to be able to hit a homerun in life, but I do think that every single one of them, and I mean every single one of them, [should] at least get a chance with a decent bat and a fairly pitched ball,” he said. “And when they’re expelled out of school the very first time they walk in the door, that is not a good chance at life.”