Abstract: Trapdoor Exits from Early Learning Opportunities: Dimensions of Extra-Exclusionary Discipline in Preschool Contexts (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Trapdoor Exits from Early Learning Opportunities: Dimensions of Extra-Exclusionary Discipline in Preschool Contexts

Friday, January 13, 2023
Valley of the Sun C, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Brita Bookser, MA, Doctoral Candidate, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
Background and Purpose: Given mounting evidence marking the prevalence and disproportionate impact of exclusionary discipline on preschoolers, state policies governing public preschool programs and federal guidance for Head Start increasingly regulate traditional mechanisms of school discipline (e.g., suspension, expulsion) in early childhood settings. Regulations generally stipulate that public preschool professionals avoid excluding children through suspension or expulsion, document efforts exhausted to include children, and reserve exclusionary discipline as a last resort in tandem with referrals for families to enroll children in alternative programs.

Without descriptions of the scope of exclusionary practices and how institutional factors relate to exclusionary discipline, however, current measurement, policy, and school-based interventions neglect a complex architecture of exits from preschool. In the context of increasing regulation, it is possible that “trapdoor” forms of extra-exclusionary discipline proliferate. Extra-exclusionary discipline occurs in covert, unconventional, and undocumented ways to achieve the same ends as suspension and expulsion. The purpose of the current study, therefore, was to examine the full dimensionality of exclusionary pathways out of early learning opportunities.

Methods: This study engages a Foucauldian theorization of the carceral continuum in conjunction with Critical Race Theory to address the following research question: What themes and associated underlying dimensions of extra-exclusionary discipline emerge from preschool professionals’ interview narratives? Data were drawn from a study conducted by an interdisciplinary research team as part of a research-practice partnership between a university and a large school district in a large city on the West Coast. Data were collected in fall 2020 and winter 2021 amid COVID-19, following the school district’s rapid transition to Zoom classrooms. The target population was 190 individuals employed to work professionally with children and families at preschool sites in the school district (e.g., teachers, administrators, staff). An integrated analysis of narrative data derived from Zoom interviews (n = 24) focused on participants’ perspectives and experiences negotiating challenges in their in-person and virtual classrooms.

Results: Five distinct themes of extra-exclusionary discipline in preschool contexts emerged from the narrative data: disenrollment, early release, in-school, referral, and virtual measures. Within these themes of extra-exclusionary discipline, underlying dimensions at the child, family, and school levels illustrate tensions within a fragmented early education system wrought by inequities in access and inclusion. Taken together, participants’ narratives build a blueprint of trapdoor exits that estrange children and families from early care and education.

Conclusion & Implications: This study makes conceptual and empirical contributions to the evidence base. Findings should add precision to theoretical and measurement approaches and generate ecological models for research-practice-policy partnerships that target institutional sources of educational exclusion.