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Late last month, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey ousted the state’s early ed director over a teacher training manual that mentioned bias, privilege and racism. The governor told reporters that educators instead need to stick to the “basics of education.”
Iheoma Iruka, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a coauthor of the manual, said that child care and preschool require far more than that.
“For children to actually fully lean into and engage, they need to also feel safe; they need to feel comfortable,” Iruka said. “So, I think that’s a problematic lack of understanding about child development and how things are actually integrated, especially in the early years. That’s why a lot of our standards don’t just say, ‘Teachers, teach reading.’”
Studies show bias is a big problem in early education programs, and experts say not enough has been done to address it.
In 2005, Yale researchers released a study that changed perceptions of school discipline in early grades. Not only were preschoolers in public programs being expelled at more than three times the rate of older K-12 students, but discipline was starkly divided by race: Black preschoolers were twice as likely to be kicked out as white children. In child care programs, the numbers were even higher.
“What research has shown is that nobody is immune to these things. Nobody is immune to having biases — we all have biases, implicit or explicit — and nobody is immune from being the subject of that bias, including the youngest children,” said Shantel Meek, founding director of the Children’s Equity Project at Arizona State University.
It’s been nearly two decades since the Yale study was published, and the discipline problem persists — data from 2021 shows that half of the 17,000 preschoolers who were expelled that year were Black boys.
Part of the issue stems from adults misinterpreting normal child behavior as misbehavior, said Linda Smith, director of the Early Childhood Development Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
“A 3- and a 4-year old being kicked out of a program should be unacceptable in this country except in extreme circumstances, but in order for that not to happen, you have to have a prepared workforce,” Smith said. “One of the things lacking in all of our programs is a basic understanding of child development. Often, adults misunderstand children’s behavior.”
Black children bear the brunt of the consequences of those misunderstandings. One study from 2016 found that preschool teachers closely observed Black boys more than other children when they expected misbehavior. Another study, from researchers at Northwestern University in 2021, said educators were more likely to identify Black 4-year-olds as misbehaving than their white counterparts, even when researchers observing their behavior saw no differences. The teachers in that study were also more likely to complain to the parents of Black children about their child’s behavior.
“Basically, we need to make sure that we’re arming teachers to understand their own implicit and explicit biases that they’re bringing into the classroom,” said Terri Sabol, a professor at Northwestern and lead author of the study.
Bias in the classroom can also have long-lasting impacts on students, beyond the consequences children experience when they are kicked out of early ed programs. Children from the Northwestern study who received more complaints from their teachers about their behavior were more likely to struggle academically in elementary school.
“We’re finding that kids make meaning of themselves way earlier than the traditional child development textbooks suggested,” Sabol said. “Kids are picking up on those subtle signals that they’re getting very early on in preschool, and that’s potentially related to why they may be underperforming in elementary school.”
Discussions of implicit and explicit bias were among the issues that brought the training manual under fire by Ivey and other Alabama lawmakers. The fourth edition of the Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Classrooms, published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, includes passages on white privilege and systemic racism, as well as a section encouraging educators to promote messages of “equality, dignity, and worth” to children of all family backgrounds, according to AL.com.
But simply acknowledging bias isn’t enough to fix the problem, said Iruka, founding director of the Equity Research Action Coalition at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“Just doing that in and of itself, at least people become more aware of it, but to really address it, we actually have to overlay it with a whole lot of other stuff, like [explaining] how structural racism actually operates,” Iruka said. “There’s not a lot of major implicit bias training that has been rigorously studied, so we do still have work to do to really unpack: What is the impact of these trainings? And we do have some evidence that it is not enough.”
Some states now have policies limiting how frequently public schools can suspend or expel students in early grades, but most states still allow it as an option. Even in areas where exclusionary discipline is limited, programs are often able to use backdoor expulsions by labeling them as transfers — a problem that researchers say is rampant in pre-K. And banning the use of suspensions or expulsions in early grades still does not solve the problem of bias — if Black children are disproportionately disciplined because of bias, then alternative discipline will still unfairly impact them more than white children.
Alabama’s decision to scrap the manual follows a growing aversion, particularly in the South, to talk about racial inequality, Iruka said.
“It doesn’t help us in any way. It doesn’t help our youngest children, who deserve the best,” Iruka said. “It really undermines a whole lot for all of us working hard to ensure that children have the best quality services that they deserve.”
This story about preschool training was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.