Find out about the changes coming to Oregon’s day cares and preschools, and the support and services that will be offered to families and providers.
It felt very sudden. One day in 2009, Paul Lakin showed up to his child’s day care near Northeast Glisan Street and 60th Avenue and was told not to come back. Though the Lakins had taken their first child (who uses they/them pronouns) there from the age of 8 weeks up to age 3, they sometimes got violent and the staff at the small, home-based center didn’t know what to do.
“That’s our oldest, so we really didn’t know what to do either,” mom Rinny Lakin says. “We thought that they were the professionals and they would know what to do.”
The Lakins’ experience may soon be a thing of the past as Oregon gears up to ban expulsions and suspensions in day cares and preschools by 2026. The new Suspension and Expulsion Prevention Program (SEPP) in the soon-to-be-created Oregon Department of Early Learning and Care has the next three years to provide supports, trainings and services to ensure a smooth transition. SEPP is expecting to start a formal study in 2023, gathering data from requests for help through the program and other sources, to try to find best practices. They will be looking for data and case studies where tough things came up and the child stayed in the program, or other success stories.
The program came about after years of research on the frequency and negative impacts of these early exclusions. A July 2022 Portland State University report found that parents were often given euphemisms for why their toddler was asked to leave, including that they were not a “good fit” or had a “hard time transitioning.” Parents say the reasons can range from an inability to sit still to hitting or biting and that they felt they had few solutions.
After the Lakins were asked to leave the first day care, they tried to find another provider, but it seemed the cat was out of the bag. They couldn’t find anyone willing to take a small child with unexpected and challenging behavior.
The family’s inability to find suitable child care for their two young children, both of whom would eventually be diagnosed with autism, resulted in long-term economic impacts. Paul Lakin has worked odd jobs here and there, but during the last 13 years has mostly needed to be a stay-at-home dad. Without a second income, the family had to scrape by and move back in with family at times.
“It was very difficult,” Paul says. And now, Rinny points out, with more than a decade gap in his resume, it will remain tough for her husband to reenter the workforce.
The Lakins say they wish things had turned out differently. “You have to give tools to the people who are working with these children so that they can stay there safely,” Rinny, who works as a library clerk, says. “I think they need more training.”
An early childhood support system
Professional Learning System Director Jon Reeves is leading the state’s team developing these solutions. “This is an opportunity to create a support system,” says Reeves. The team’s vision is a program where everyone works together to support the child and where child care workers can request help at the first sign of trouble — rather than when they are ready to kick a child out of their program.
Time will tell if Reeves’ team is successful. The 12 state staffers on the team are still sketching out the exact parameters of the program, which will have components like conducting scientific research, convening rulemaking committees, contracting with community-based partners and developing training materials. The proposed budget for the program is a little more than $11 million, but it will need to be finalized by the legislature for the 2023-2025 biennium.
Probably the biggest new support will be what are currently called Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultants. (Reeves notes that community-based partners may rename this role to be less of a mouthful.) These are the type of mental health counselors for very young children that already exist at places like Multnomah County’s Morrison Children’s Center or county behavioral health systems.
Under the new program, the state will contract with existing behavioral health organizations to deliver the new supports. The idea there is to make sure to have skilled professionals who also know the environment, culture and community where they work.
One of the program’s primary goals is to reduce the number of Black and Brown children who are expelled or suspended from preschools and day cares. National data shows that Black preschoolers are 3.6 times more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions than white preschoolers. (Oregon data is currently unavailable.) The state hopes that by contracting with a variety of local groups, they can get culturally competent coaches in different locations around the state.
“We’re trying to ensure that the consultants are representative of the communities,” says Reeves.
He also stressed that the supports will not be purely “mental health” but a range of interventions and environmental modification options to support each unique situation.
“It’s more about child development and good environmental practices than about mental health therapy,” he adds. “This is a multidisciplinary approach.”
Transition plans will still be an option
Before the ban on suspensions and expulsions goes into effect, the state plans to conduct three years of training and support to the state’s early childhood care providers. This includes what Reeves calls “deep engagement” with 370 providers through the use of early childhood mental health consultants as well as a “warmline” phone consultation service. Suspensions and expulsions will still be allowed prior to 2026, but the licensed child care center will be required to access the help before doing so.
The supports are still taking shape but — in addition to the warmline and consultants — could include referrals; training materials; and even transition planning if the parties mutually agree that a different placement would be more appropriate. (Currently, the state is still coming up with a framework for when families and providers do not agree.)
“The idea behind a transition plan is that the transition decision is made collaboratively, with the support of technical assistance consultants, and that the process is facilitated in a manner that meets the needs of the child, family, and provider,” said Oregon Department of Education spokesperson Marion Suitor Barnes in a statement.
Suitor Barnes also said that the program is interested in hearing from the community on the coming changes. Between January and June, there will be opportunities for parents to be on advisory committees and submit testimony on different aspects of the program. Trauma Informed Oregon, a group from Portland State University (PSU), will select the advisory committee members. (To hear about these opportunities, sign up for the newsletter here.)
Program to focus on racial and cultural equity
Research from PSU is informing the new model and its goals. A January 2022 report from the university gave nine recommendations for how to center racial justice in the creation of the program. These included hiring Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) consultants; implementing implicit-bias training; and ensuring that caseloads were light enough to spend the needed time in the classroom.
Likewise, a July 2022 report compiled the experiences and recommendations of 15 Oregon families whose young children had been asked to leave care. The researchers’ key findings echoed the experience of the Lakins, including that families were often taken by surprise by the request to leave and that most children were between the ages of 2 and 3 when expelled. In contrast to the Lakins, all 15 of the families in the PSU study were eventually able to find care at a different center that could accommodate their children’s needs. However, the onus of finding alternative care was on the parents, who described numerous barriers.
Reeves says he wants to create environments where everyone is working together for the benefit of the child and where there is support for families to find alternatives if a setting isn’t working out. But Reeves also says he’s not sure who would be liable if a child injured another kid or a staffer under the new program. He hoped the new supports would avoid such outcomes. “In no version of this do we want people to feel like they need to be put in harm’s way,” he says.
“We need multiple strategies,” Reeves adds: “What we don’t want to happen is that families are just left on their own — because that’s what we have right now.”
What about children who are never accepted to preschool or day care?
During research for this article, several parents told PDX Parent that their disabled child was never accepted into a day care or preschool in the first place. Oregon’s new suspension and expulsion rules would not apply to them.
However, a child care business refusing service to a child based on their disability is technically already illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The 1990 federal law says that any privately run child care center cannot exclude children with disabilities from their program, unless the child is considered a “direct threat” to the health and safety of others, or their needs would require a “fundamental alteration” of the program.
“Now, clearly the practice may still be occurring,” acknowledges Oregon Department of Education spokesperson Marion Suitor Barnes, “which speaks to the need for additional training and technical assistance for early care and education providers to ensure they have the confidence and competence to meet the needs of any child who comes to their door.”
ODE Professional Learning System Director Jon Reeves says he hopes the Suspension and Expulsion Prevention Program will provide those tools to early educators so that they feel more confident in accepting all the kids seeking care.
For example, each evaluation has to be individualized. Providers can’t just say, for example, “Oh no, we had a child with autism one time and it was really rough,” Reeves says.
In the first round of rulemaking, Oregon’s Early Learning Council defined exclusionary practices. Reeves says part of the coming trainings for child care providers will include notifications that trial periods, a cap on the number of disabled children that can be enrolled, and toilet-training requirements are exclusionary practices and therefore prohibited.
“The hard part of the rub is that child care providers have opened a private business and they would like to operate their business with autonomy,” Reeves says. But along with those businesses come requirements to adhere to licensing regulations and civil rights laws. “We need to educate people to understand that your business has to adhere to those, and (providers can) make it very accessible and accommodate children that have that need,” he says.
There are additional funds available in Oregon’s Employment-Related Day Care program for high-needs children so that providers can potentially hire additional help if the family qualifies for that program. Inclusive Partners, which has moved to be part of the new Department of Early Learning and Care, has more information on that funding.
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