Four-year olds sit for a pre-school staple: listening to a story.

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — DeeAnne Miree loves to come to work in the morning. She is principal of the Cambridge Early Learning Center in Antioch. It was built with a $33 million Department of Education grant and is one of two preschools in the country using Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) practices to study implicit bias in early childhood education. The other preschool is in New Jersey.

DeAnne Miree holds up the SEL pyramid, a model for pre-k and kindergarten Metro classrooms. Miree has not suspended a single student this year.

The SEL model is a pyramid. The base is a trained workforce that uses best practices to nurture relationships with all students. The next level is creating high quality supportive environments. That means good facilities with classrooms designed around small activity centers.

“When children are engaging in problem behavior in the classroom, it’s usually an indication of social and emotional skills and competencies that they need to learn,” said Dr.

Building with blocks

Mary Louise Hemmeter, a researcher at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education. The SEL pyramid Cambridge uses is based on Hemmeter’s work.

In one of Cambridge’s 7 classrooms kids are doing different things but it’s not that noisy. Four kids huddle around a table of laptops practicing their writing and reading skills; another group is playing with blocks. One boy hurts his hand and starts to cry.

Miree calls him over and suggests putting it under some cold water. He shakes his head “No” and goes back to building. A larger group is seated talking about The Rainbow Fish, a

Danielle Norton mixes oobleck.

story about a beautiful fish who finds friendship and happiness when he learns to share.

In another classroom, kids are making oobleck, AKA gloop, a mixture of cornstarch and water. Meanwhile another class is dancing to music. They all eat a family-style lunch served into white bowls from a well-appointed kitchen. The school day ends at 2 pm.

The last two levels of the SEL pyramid target social emotional supports and lastly, individual intervention for kids with persistent challenging behaviors. Just like in K-12 schools, their percentage is small, but those kids can have an outsized negative impact in the classroom.

When kids are aggressive and aren’t gaining social skills to succeed with their peers, they will settle for negative attention instead. SEL is all about giving all kids positive attention to solve problems.

Experimenting with cornstarch, water, and food coloring.

Targeting support and special interventions are at the top of the pyramid for the few who persist with problem behaviors. They are not expelled or punished. They are taught. There were three interventions last year, one so far this year. There are 140 kids at the center. They are all training for the big jump to kindergarten.

“The capacity to develop positive social relationships, to concentrate and persist on challenging tasks, to effectively communicate emotions, and to problem solve are just a few of the competencies young children need to be successful as they transition to school,” said Hemmeter.

Racial Disparities in Preschool Discipline

A national survey of teachers in state-funded pre-kindergarten programs found that preschool children were being expelled at 3 times the rate of K-12 students. And a US Department of Education study found that more than 8,000 children were suspended from public preschool programs in 2011–2012.  Black children were the majority of those suspended.

A number of studies have shown that these kids are at risk of failing in school.

Each dot is a student. Each color is a class. Top rows are language skills. Bottom rows are math skills.

One study found that when aggressive and antisocial behavior persists to age 9, intervention has a poor chance of success. The solution is to get kids into good pre-school programs. Metro schools got a $7.7 million grant to expand SEL into 187 pre-K classrooms and about 300 kindergarten classrooms in the next three years. Cambridge’s program will be the model.

“We actually have really good data that show when you coach teachers, and support teachers to do the model, that they do it well and as a result of it, kids’ social skills and problem behavior get better,” said Hemmeter.

SEL strategies have dramatically reduced suspensions at Fall Hamilton Elementary School. Miree reports that Cambridge has had none for its current crop of four-year olds. The same cannot be said of Metro ‘s 168 K-12 schools.  (see Cutting the School to Prison Pipeline, Dec. 7-13, 2017)

Between 10-15 percent of two to five-year olds act out some as they grow. If kids don’t learn to control their impulses and solve their problems in pre-school they will have problems when they are older.

Every Cambridge classroom has a flip booklet of pictures called solution cards that prompt kids to resolve their own conflicts. Is somebody playing with a toy you want to play with? One photo shows kids trading toys. Another shows them sharing it.

Every classroom has an oversized hourglass. If trading doesn’t work, a kid turns over the hourglass and waits for the sand to fall through. Then he or she gets to play with the toy. No fighting, no kicking, no biting. Bothered by somebody being mean? Another picture shows a little girl ignoring her tormenter.

Miree was initially a SEL skeptic. “Let’s see how that is going to work with this child that’s defiant that I’ve seen in an elementary setting,” she once thought.

“I was blown away when I came here to see the teachers once they were all trained watching it in action,” Miree said. Learning to share is not genetic. Those kinds of things have to be taught.

Mendy Coe is one of two classroom leaders at Cambridge who coaches four other teachers. Vanderbilt researchers assessed what teachers were doing in the classroom and they looked at students’ academic performance at the beginning and end of the school year.

“They took all that data and we looked at the areas where we needed the most improvement. What came out of all that was that our students seemed to be lower in math and in writing and spelling,” said Coe. Now she is tracking students’ progress with a computer program.

“We selected very specific objectives. We are looking at letters and sounds and numerals and quantities. We could assess that.  That’s very measurable,” she said.

Each child gets a construction paper identifier and the school population is tracked on a board as their performance meets expected outcomes. By year’s end, the kids should move from the left to the right side of a display board.

Most of the kids at Cambridge were more than halfway across the board last week.

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