April 2, 2021
Reading time: 2 minutes, 52 seconds

When you envision a student who has been suspended or expelled from school, a 4-year-old probably wouldn’t cross your mind.

Dr. Chelsea Morris at a microphone

However, according to research by the University of West Georgia’s Dr. Chelsea Morris, preschool children are being removed from programs at three times the rate of their kindergarten through 12th grade peers.

“Misbehavior of children at this age is often developmentally normative or a symptom of other life experiences, like trauma, insecure housing or a lack of social opportunities,” said Morris, assistant professor of early childhood special education in UWG’s College of Education. “What’s more concerning is children of color, boys and children with disabilities experience discipline practices at disproportionately higher rates.”

To find a solution for this national problem, Morris is part of a team testing the Pyramid Model, a social-emotional framework for intervention and support in early childhood classrooms. 

Morris presented her research to a broad audience earlier today as part of a segment on “The Academic Minute,” a collaborative program from WAMC public radio in Albany, New York, and the Association of American Colleges & Universities. “The Academic Minute” is a daily module featuring researchers from colleges and universities around the world, keeping listeners abreast of what’s new and exciting in the academy.

Five faculty members from UWG are “taking over” the program this week. To listen to Morris’ segment, visit the program’s website.

Morris became involved in the study while enrolled as a doctoral student at the University of Miami. In 2019, she was named as a co-investigator on the school’s early childhood research demonstration project, “The Pyramid Model Social-Emotional Learning Communities Project: Making Connections for Teachers, Families and Children.” It is part of “We Rise,” a Miami-Dade County District educational initiative focused on improving the social and education outcomes of children living in Liberty City. 

In more than 25 classrooms with hundreds of children, Morris utilized practice-based coaching to implement and measure the impact of the Pyramid Model. 

“Children who lack social-emotional skills to be successful in early childhood settings are at a disadvantage when they enter kindergarten,” she said. “At the same time, helping young children develop appropriate behavior is something teachers report feeling underprepared for. Coaching and the Pyramid Model may remediate these deficits and improve teachers' beliefs about their ability to support children and families.”

In a related project, Morris and her team found that 15 states have legislation that prohibits or limits the suspension of young children and even fewer require data reporting to examine biased practices. But eliminating those disciplinary actions doesn’t mean the challenging instances stop.

“It is critical to improve how we can respond to challenging behavior with less biased approaches, without the use of out-of-classroom disciplinary action and with more developmentally appropriate intervention so that young children do not lose valuable learning opportunities,” she explained. “We're drawing attention to the necessity of seeing educators in this field as professionals, capable of changing childrens' trajectories.”

Morris added that the Pyramid Model doesn’t stop with preschoolers, or even K-12 students. As a teacher educator, she explained how and why she applies those practices to her college classrooms.

“Even older students need high-quality environments and positive, nurturing relationships,” she concluded. “I focus on flexible scheduling, a welcoming office and gradeless environments, and I enjoy analyzing student data about these nontraditional approaches. I hope my support in early childhood classrooms and in my own college classroom help eliminate many of the systemic barriers to learning.”

For more information on “The Academic Minute,” visit their website.

photography by Julia Mothersole