Nashville pre-K classrooms have become laboratories in the effort to improve discipline for the youngest students. And there are signs that a more positive approach could cut down the surprisingly high number of preschool suspensions.
Not only are there way too many 4-year-olds being suspended nationally, but a disproportionate number are African American.
In response, Vanderbilt professor Mary Louise Hemmeter of Peabody College helped develop a more supportive model of discipline to be used with preschoolers.
"So you wouldn't see anything punitive. You wouldn't see anything like timeout," Hemmeter says. "But you might see a teacher say, 'If you want the toy that Blake has, you need to either ask him for the toy, or you need to trade toys with him.'"
Hemmeter's study involved roughly 500 students. Researchers trained pre-K teachers in Nashville and Tampa and followed their classrooms over two years. Hemmeter's team then compared them to those who were doing business as usual.
The results showed that redirecting students, rather than coming down hard, did improve overall discipline. But Hemmeter says the results were more dramatic than the statistics reveal.
"I think what is harder to capture is the anecdotal things that teachers told us, like 'This changed my whole perspective on teaching.'"
The study Hemmeter led was published in an education journal this month. The discipline method she helped develop, known as the "Pyramid Model," is being used in Metro Schools' newest pre-K center. Cambridge Early Learning Center opened this year in Antioch and received a federal grant in August to study issues related to preschool suspensions.