Guest Commentary: To Create Safer Schools, Begin With Preschool

After another mass shooting in America, we as a nation are again left with more soul-searching about why these violent tragedies occur, especially those in schools by youth and young adults, and what can be done to prevent them.

Following February’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, President Donald Trump proposed arming teachers and staff as a strategy to increase school safety and launched a commission to study other measures.

On the heels of that horrific event, a mother of one of the victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, urged President Trump to “arm [teachers] with the knowledge of how to prevent these acts from happening in the first place.”

This is a crucial point. The solution to the challenge of school safety is not to bring more guns into schools — it’s to equip educators with skills and link them to resources that focus on promoting services and supports for children and families.

Given the age of the shooters, one might think that our focus should be on educators working in high schools. But we would argue that some of the most important opportunities belong to the educators who work with our youngest children.

The paths that lead to these tragic school shootings vary widely. And while there is no single identified common denominator, more often than not, at least some of a would-be shooter’s difficulties have their roots in early childhood — including experiences of early adversity and trauma, developmental delays and disorders, adoption or foster care, or even chronic, everyday stress.

The early childhood years are a crucial period to lay the foundation for healthy development. During this period, the brain is growing and expanding rapidly; neural connections are being forged and solidified. Those connections provide the architecture for later learning and social-emotional well-being.

In short, these are the years that hold the most potential to offset the likelihood of later problems and to foster lifelong resilience. But we must practice early identification and targeted intervention if we hope to seize that possibility. If we are going to deliver on the promise of these early years, we know what we need: a system of high-quality early education and care.

A Century Foundation report suggests that high-quality early education can pays dividends in the lives of its students — where it exists. It gives children opportunities for a strong start and it has been linked to growth in learning and positive behavior that are detected even 20 years later. It supports families to carry out and balance their work and family lives. It’s a mechanism for early identification and intervention for at-risk children—and often provides the principal link between young families and the services and supports they need, when they need them.

The early education system is poised to serve this purpose — and is in some cases very successful in doing so — and there is tremendous momentum across the nation to expand and strengthen the system.

“In short, these are the years that hold the most potential to offset the likelihood of later problems and to foster lifelong resilience. But we must practice early identification and targeted intervention if we hope to seize that possibility."

But most early education and care in the United States today is rated as “fair” quality, according to the National Institutes of Health. The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) has developed a set of 10 quality indicators to rate each state system, last year’s results show that only three states in the country met all benchmarks — Alabama, Michigan and Rhode Island.

And within this system, for those children with particular emotional and behavioral needs, the experience is even less likely to be a positive one. In fact, children with early behavior problems are often suspended or expelled from their preschools, likely because their educators don’t have the training or support necessary to effectively manage and respond to difficult behavior in the classroom.

Rates of preschool expulsion are actually at least three times that of expulsion rates in the K-12 system. Some recent estimates suggest that around 5,000 preschoolers are suspended each year, and that half of those children are suspended a second time.

Policymakers in communities across the country therefore face a critical task. They have to work harder to make good on the promise of the early years — and that will involve two interrelated tasks.

First, they must equip early educators with the support, training, and resources necessary to work effectively with at-risk children to set them on the right pathway. Those educators need both core knowledge and professional supports to identify, understand, and respond to the behaviors that are likely a child’s signal for help. We know those signs could be loud and demonstrative, or extremely subtle. Right now, early educators — 31 percent of the overall teaching force in the U.S.— have limited high-quality preparation and continuing education. About a third of those educators leave the profession every year, often citing lack of professional support.

Second, we need a system that is set up to efficiently connect families to services — especially families with high-risk children—and to coordinate them so they are effective.

In a system that is working well, well-trained educators could connect high-needs young children and their families with the appropriate community services, rather than suspending or expelling those children. And at the same time, educators could use effective classroom strategies to support all children.

Without spending more time and energy on the needs of our youngest citizens, each and every day we miss an opportunity to prevent more tragedies and build promising pathways for every member of our society. As the Newtown victim’s mother reminds us, helping our educators is our best hope of preventing these acts from happening in the first place. Let’s learn from these events — and start earlier.

Nonie K. Lesaux is Academic Dean and the Juliana W. and William Foss Thompson Professor of Education and Society at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Stephanie M. Jones is Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.


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