Do Preschool Expulsions Need a Timeout? Lawmakers Voice Concern about the Long-Term Effects of Suspensions and Expulsions

By Palmer, Jennifer | State Legislatures, March-April 2020 | Go to article overview

Do Preschool Expulsions Need a Timeout? Lawmakers Voice Concern about the Long-Term Effects of Suspensions and Expulsions


Palmer, Jennifer, State Legislatures


Recent data on how often young children in child care and preschool classrooms are suspended or expelled has sounded alarm bells for policymakers across the country.

Aggressive tantrums, impulsiveness and other antisocial and disruptive behaviors in 1- to 4-year-olds are challenging and perplexing the adults caring for them. Feeling ill-prepared, some caregivers and teachers increasingly are turning to suspensions and expulsions.

In fact, preschoolers are expelled at three times the rate of K-12 students, and boys and children of color are disproportionally affected, according to the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

Black children make up 19% of preschool enrollment but account for 47% of suspended preschoolers. Three-quarters of expelled preschoolers are boys.

Repeated suspensions and expulsions can have negative long-term consequences. Children suspended or expelled in their early years are more likely to be suspended or expelled again when they're older. They're also more likely to drop out of high school, fail a grade or even be incarcerated later in life. Critics claim these punishments do not address the root causes of troubling childhood behaviors nor do they provide children the support and resources they need to overcome them.

Educating the Educators

Early childhood caregivers and educators need to be able to distinguish concerning behaviors from those that are developmentally appropriate. Mischaracterizing behaviors may lead to more punitive discipline than is needed and over-identification of children, especially children of color, for special education, disciplinary action and expulsion.

Legislatures in at least 16 states and the District of Columbia have enacted limits or bans on the use of suspensions and expulsions in the primary grades, often including pre-K or preschool. Several states have also invested in training early childhood educators on how to manage challenging behaviors, understand trauma and recognize the role implicit bias, or automatic and unconscious stereotyping, may play in their decision-making.

In recent surveys, early childhood educators nationwide have said they welcome additional training and greater access to early childhood behavioral specialists.

Many states have adopted a strategy called "early childhood mental health consultation." This tried-and-true approach has been shown to help educators learn to better support the healthy social and emotional development and well-being of young children.

Consultants in these programs are licensed mental health professionals who work with parents and early childhood educators, coaching them to identify and distinguish age-appropriate behavior from more worrisome conduct, such as aggression, withdrawal and the inability to form relationships.

Consultants also teach ways to anticipate unwanted behaviors and intervene before they occur. They can help educators create inviting, nurturing classrooms and learn how to identify when a child may need additional services and how to connect families with the support they need.

Damage Can Occur Early

Biology, environment and relationships with caregivers all influence a child's social and emotional development. And early childhood educators in center- and home-based settings and preschool classrooms are especially important allies in the healthy social and emotional development of the children in their care.

Still, at least 10% of children younger than 5 experience abuse, neglect or other forms of trauma in their social and emotional development. Such experiences can lead to a range of mental health issues with potentially lifelong impact.

Diagnosing mental health problems in young children can be challenging, however, because they process and exhibit emotions differently than older children and adults, and behavioral changes can be temporary. …

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