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Inequitable Infant and Toddler Discipline Practices and the Need for Better Data

Resource March 24, 2023

Conversations around child care accessibility usually focus on program cost and availability—Is a family able to find a program within their budget? Are the location and hours convenient? How long is the waiting list? But an often overlooked aspect of accessibility is related to discrimination and discipline. What about when child care is inaccessible because a program refuses to serve a child?

Exclusionary discipline in the early years is ineffective and developmentally inappropriate. Removing a child from a program—whether temporarily through suspension, permanently through expulsion, or informally by pushing a family out—is not a solution to manage challenging behaviors. Early care and education programs can resort to such practices when they lack the resources, support, or knowledge to handle challenging behaviors in an appropriate way. Instead of addressing the root cause of a behavior and supporting a child, exclusion impedes a child’s continuity of care, can create a negative association with school, and disrupts parents’ ability to work. 

The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) recently released Centering Black Families: Equitable Discipline through Improved Data Policies in Child Care, a report focusing on the discipline of Black children ages zero to three in child care settings. Multiple sources have documented that significant disparities in discipline practices exist for Black pre-K students, but less is known about our youngest children due to a lack of data. And while some policies at the federal, state, and local level have attempted to limit the use of such harsh practices and better equip early childhood educators, a lot of work remains.

CLASP’s report highlights several ways that the federal government can work to eliminate inequitable discipline:

  1. Collect better data. This is an important first step to understanding disparities in behavior management and discipline practices in early childhood education settings. The authors call on the federal government to collect data on how programs manage challenging infant and toddler behaviors through the Child Care and Development Block Grant and Head Start, and to disaggregate this data by race and ethnicity.  While many children attend private child care centers with their own policies, publicly-funded programs can set an important precedent.

    Better data is a prerequisite to changing policy. The quality of data matters, and both qualitative and quantitative data are needed to fully understand what children are experiencing. Policies must also address systemic racism within survey instruments and the data collection process to ensure that the experiences of Black families are truly captured. Better data can be used to inform changes to educator professional development, program health and safety standards, and accountability systems to ensure that children are not subject to inequitable discipline practices.

  2. Invest in child care systems. The authors call for “significant and sustained investment in child care systems” generally, as well as “specific investments to address harsh and inequitable discipline.” Sufficient funding for child care would allow programs to invest in the workforce so that educators have the knowledge and resources they need to truly support children. Increased and sustained federal funding would also allow both federal and state agencies to better utilize the systems they have in place to collect, analyze, and use data to address inequitable discipline practices. 

  3. Create an office devoted to protecting the civil rights of infants and toddlers.  The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights data collection has been instrumental in bringing attention to the racial disparities in discipline of pre-K students. A similar office within the Department of Health and Human Services could help protect groups disproportionately receiving harsh discipline and ensure equitable practices in early care and education programs more generally.

In addition to federally focused-recommendations, the report also highlights how four states—California, Colorado, Illinois, and Oregon—are connecting data and disciplinary practices in innovative ways. Quality child care supports children’s health and development and acts as an essential workforce support for parents. Because exclusionary discipline bars families from accessing child care, federal and state policies have an important role to play in addressing the use of inappropriate and discriminatory practices. 

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