Opinion | A 4-Year-Old Child Is Not a Problem. And Expulsion Is Not a Solution.

The boy I’ll call Jackson is the kind of youngster who drives a preschool teacher around the bend. The 4-year-old bites and hits other children, and curses out his teacher, Mariana Lopez. During circle time, when the class is supposed to cluster around and listen to one another, he is a hellion, and nap time turns into a pitched battle. Preschool teachers rely on parents to relate what’s happening on the home front, but Jackson’s mom refused to meet with Ms. Lopez because she felt her son was being persecuted.

Many early education centers would kick out a child like Jackson. Every year, about 50,000 preschoolers are suspended and 17,000 are expelled, at a rate more than three times higher than for students in K-12.

Those decisions can mark the start of the preschool-to-prison pipeline. Youngers who are suspended or expelled during preschool or elementary school are 10 times likelier to face jail time than their classmates.

What can be done to keep these hard-to-teach 3- and 4-year-olds from being booted?

Kidango, a Bay Area nonprofit that enrolls more than 4,000 mostly low-income children of color in 53 child care centers, appreciates the fact that children like Jackson, who goes there, must cope with life-shaping traumas. That’s why it pays so much attention to these children’s mental health.

“It is a spectacular example of what ‘great’ looks like in different kinds of classrooms,” the Yale psychology professor Walter Gilliam, who has studied the problem, told me.

Each week, the counselors (some of them are psychologists) on Kidango’s staff show up in every classroom. Instead of focusing on a singled-out “problem child,” they help teachers ward off crises. They can spot children whose traumas might otherwise go undetected, such as those who are perennially silent or who, craving acceptance, invariably follow their classmates’ lead.

Punishing children like Jackson ignores the reasons they act out in class. “Children like Jackson aren’t being aggressive because they want to be. It’s a consequence of toxic stress,” said Tena Sloan, who runs Kidango’s mental health program. “They need a sense of safety if they’re going to learn. When a teacher is fully present, it can open up their world.”

Many teachers come from the same troubled neighborhoods as the kids in their classrooms. The counselors’ visits offer them an opportunity to talk about the upheavals in their own lives. Those discussions heighten teachers’ awareness of how they connect with the children, and that understanding alters the classroom dynamic.

After spending hours observing Ms. Lopez’s class, Ms. Sloan realized that, while Ms. Lopez was trying hard to engage Jackson, she had zeroed in on changing his behavior and missed what he wanted to communicate. Ms. Sloan didn’t tell Ms. Lopez how to “fix” Jackson. Instead, she worked with his teachers to figure out what triggered his misbehavior. “Here’s what I saw,” she told them. “What does Jackson need from you?”

Ms. Lopez was herself drowning in a sea of personal troubles. “I couldn’t love on those children the way they deserved to be loved on,” she told me. “I had been trying to put boundaries between me and a 4-year-old. Then one day I picked him up and cuddled him, and he melted into my arms.”

Ms. Sloan also spent hours talking with Jackson’s mom, not as a harried teacher but as a calm counselor, and those conversations paid off. “It’s great to have someone to talk to, because I don’t get a lot of support,” his mother said. “Tena helped me understand Jackson better. And he’s doing good.”

Jackson isn’t the only child struggling in the program. Many of Kidango’s children bring their traumatic histories with them as if they were backpacks. Marcus, a 2-year-old, is fighting with his classmates. Four-year-old Jeremiah, painfully withdrawn, roams the classroom. The teachers and consultants roll up their sleeves and go to work.

“We used to believe the issue was the kid,” said Scott Moore, the nonprofit’s chief executive. “Now we’re asking what’s needed to help every child.”

Covid-19 has ripped through Kidango’s families like a tornado. Parents have lost their jobs, food has sometimes been in short supply, homelessness has become more common, depression and domestic violence are on the rise, family members are dying.

Many teachers have faced similar problems, and they also struggle to cope.

Like sponges, the kids have soaked up the chaos that surrounds them. Teachers report that children worry they will get sick or infect someone they love.

After shutting down for three months, Kidango reopened in June, even as the public schools remained shuttered. The teachers understood that distance learning wouldn’t work with 2- and 3-year-olds, that physical proximity was the only way to connect.

Kidango also started preparing meals for the families, delivered learning materials to their home and helped them get internet service and access to health care. It provided a therapist on call 24/7 to counsel desperate parents and teachers, and organized support groups.

Kidango’s children perform as well academically as those in nationally-renowned pre-kindergartens. And it spends no more than a typical preschool.

A trauma-focused preschool is only a start, Mr. Moore said. Families are children’s frontline educators and they must become more involved. “That’s what we will tackle next,” he added. And although this preschool delivers a supercharged start, those gains will be lost if these children wind up in schools that are mediocre or worse.

Mr. Moore’s hopes for early education reach beyond Kidango. “We wanted to outlaw expulsion in California and give preschool teachers mental health support,” he told me. In 2017, he drafted legislation, modeled on Head Start regulations, that makes expulsion a last option; 16 states and the District of Columbia have adopted similar measures.

In 2018, California’s lawmakers gave preschools that deliver mental health consultation a 5 percent increase. Mr. Moore regards these state funds as just a down payment. He wants every preschool in California — and, dreaming big, the nation — to adopt a trauma-focused mental health approach to early education.

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David L. Kirp is a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a senior fellow at the Learning Policy Institute.

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