Implicit Bias in Early Childhood Education: Fight For Children’s inaugural Coffee, Conversation & Controversy symposium

Last Tuesday I had the tremendous opportunity to attend the invitation-only Coffee, Conversation & Controversy breakfast session that was part of Fight For Children’s inaugural Fight For Children Week.  I have been following the activities of this group for years and I’ve observed that whatever it does, it does so with class.  This day was no different.

The morning’s session revolved around an outstanding presentation from Dr. Walter Gilliam.  Dr. Gilliam is an Associate Professor of Child Psychiatry and Psychology at the Yale University Child Study Center, and Director of the The Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy. He was introduced by the president and chief executive officer of Fight For Children, the consistently affable Keith Gordon, who explained that one of the driving motivations behind today’s meeting, and others that will occur throughout the year, is the realization that “societal change only happens when the community comes together.”   Dr. Gilliam then began one of the most fascinating talks I have ever heard, entitled “Implicit Bias in Early Education.”

The Yale University professor began the discussion by showing a portion of a 2005 videotape of a five-year=old girl being handcuffed by the police in response to being called by the child’s teacher as a way of controlling her disruptive behavior.  Dr. Gilliam was asked by a St. Petersburg reporter for his reaction to the incident.  After viewing the arrest on Youtube, he became intrigued by the idea that the instructor turned to the police instead of to professionals who could have helped such as social workers, psychiatrists, or guidance counselors.  It was then that he first decided to study expulsion rates in prekindergarten.  The results shocked him.

In his 2005 investigation across the United States, he found that within the last year, 10 percent of teachers reported that they had expelled at least one student.  Of those that had been expelled, 78 percent of teachers had expelled at least one student, 16 percent had expelled two pupils, 3.5 percent had expelled three children and 0.4 percent had expelled four students within a twelve month period.  In fact, the early childhood expulsion rate is more than three times the rate for Kindergarten to high school students.  But these are not the only startling results.  Quoting from the findings:

“Four-year-olds were expelled at a rate about 50 percent greater than three-year-olds. Boys were expelled at a rate over 4.5 times that of girls. African-American students attending state-funded prekindergarten were about twice as likely to be expelled as Latino and Caucasian children, and over five times as likely to be expelled as Asian-American children.”

The research also found common factors that would lead to student expulsions that include logical situations such as a higher child-to-teacher ratio, a longer program day, increased teacher job stress, and less access to behavioral supports.

Dr. Gilliam summed up the characteristics that would increase the probability of a student being expelled as the three B’s:  being big, black, and a boy.

The report received a tremendous amount of publicity.  But while he was happy that the word was getting into the news, he knew that he needed to switch the emphasis on early childhood student expulsions from being an academic issue to a public policy problem.  He wanted the federal government to become involved so that he and his group could promote solutions to help reduce these high expulsion rates.

This is where Congressman Danny Davis came along.  He and his legislative director, Dr. Jill Hunter-Williams, who became the first American Psychological Association Educational Assessment Congressional Fellow, became extremely interested in this topic.  They put pressure on the civil rights division of the United States Department of Education to begin collecting preschool suspension and expulsion data, which is the practice today.

Every bit of Dr. Gilliam’s talk was interesting to the audience of education stakeholders from throughout Washington, DC including policymakers, educators, and community leaders.  I will conclude with one additional example from his lecture.

His group recently completed a study of implicit bias in early childhood education which was funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.  The results were released last year.  As part of this inquiry, 132 teachers were asked to observe the play of four preschool students that included one black boy, one black girl, one white girl, and one white boy, and identify potential challenging behaviors.  The exercise also included software that tracked the eye movement of the instructors to see who they were watching.  What the teachers did not know is that the students were hired actors who were not going to express any negative behavior.

The bottom line of the findings was that by a statistically significant quantity teachers focused their attention on the African American boy.  Dr. Gilliam explained that we all have implicit biases and this is a fact that will not change.  The issue is whether we recognize those biases and how we handle them.

Through Fight for Children’s Coffee, Conversation & Controversy the chances just became substantially higher that these biases in early childhood education will be addressed.

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