The word “expulsion” probably brings to mind disruptive high-schoolers. But in fact, many children are expelled as early as preschool. New research shows that in Maine, nearly a quarter of childcare centers have expelled a child in the past year.
Linda Maker loves working with children. It’s how she ended up as the program supervisor for the Lubec Community Outreach Center along the Canadian border.
She says the hardest part of her job is dealing with the few students with destructive behaviors. They are high-energy, young children who hit other kids and even destroy property. She darts across the floor to corral one student.
“Can you look at Miss Maker?” she says as she takes a toy train out of a student’s hand. “He was asking you to stop. Were you listening?”
Maker doesn’t blame the kids — she says their behavior is often related to the stress of poverty, substance abuse or domestic violence at home. And yet, when these behaviors get too unsafe, Maker and executive director Cathy Arrington are forced to make a difficult decision: to expel these young students from their childcare program.
“It’s heartwrenching,” Arrington says.
“It is,” Maker says. “It’s very hard. It’s very difficult. It’s difficult to tell a parent that a child is at the point where it’s just unsafe to keep them in the program. For them, for other children as well.”
“We’ve only had to do that maybe twice?” Arrington says.
“No more than two times,” Maker says. “But when it has happened, there has been lots of discussion. Weeks of it. Weeks. Trying different things to make that not happen. We’ve reduced children’s time. Summer [recreation] runs eight hours, so we’ve tried to reduce children to half a day. We’ve tried all kinds of things before kicking out a child. I know it’s hardest for the staff.”
What makes this extra hard is Lubec’s isolated location. The community outreach center serves many purposes for the town: thrift store, food pantry, summer and after-school childcare. If a child is expelled, where can a parent go to find a new childcare center?
“I honestly don’t know,” Arrington says. “I would say Machias.”
That’s about 45 minutes away by car.
“And that’s cost-prohibitive for some,” she says. “And for some, you have to have a vehicle. And they might not. It’s problematic if you don’t have those things, absolutely.”
With these kinds of economic and domestic issues, an expulsion from a childcare or preschool can exacerbate problems for a family. And it’s not an issue that’s just limited to Washington County.
Research shows that Maine has the second-highest preschool expulsion rate in the country.
“I think a lot of providers are challenged themselves with how to manage these kids and behaviors,” Furlow says.
Rita Furlow is the senior policy analyst for the Maine Children’s Alliance. In 2015, her group and the Maine Children’s Growth Council began studying the issue. They surveyed childcares and preschools and found that nearly a quarter of Maine’s center-based providers had to expel a student within the past year.
But Furlow says there is a solution: early childhood mental health consultations.
“Even though we were looking at various topics, that issue just seemed to keep rising to the top in terms of the research and what would be more effective,” she says.
In Lubec, Maker has brought in Julie Redding, the clinical director with Washington County’s Community Caring Collaborative, a community health and support program. Redding racks up hundreds of miles traveling across Washington County helping preschools and childcare centers handle specific students.
Redding’s job is to serve as a sort of coach. She takes a look at what’s working and what needs to be changed. She stands next to Maker as she watches a specific child for about 15 minutes.
“Who does he get along with well?” Redding says. “Who has good social skills? Who’s a good match for him?”
These are a few strategies for improving behavior.
“These kids are playing really, really well with the blocks right now,” Redding says. “Is there something that we can have him play with?”
These aren’t big changes. Often it’s simply creating more structure or supervision in the program. But Maker says having someone with expertise is helpful, especially in an isolated town like Lubec.
“When I see of a child and I know there’s a need there, I just send off an email — this is what’s going on,” Maker says. “Before, I don’t think we had any support system there.”
Nationally, this approach has been shown to help reduce expulsions. In Connecticut, similar programs are in use statewide. For Maine, though, it’s still mostly limited to Washington County.
Furlow says only recently have preschool expulsions been recognized as a problem in Maine. But she says with growing legislative support, she’s hopeful the state will see the value in intervening early on.