Investigating Pre-K Suspension and Expulsion
By Beth Truzansky
How is it possible that little kids can get suspended or expelled from childcare or preschool? It sounds shocking when you hear it in the news, and we often think of of suspension and expulsion in terms of older kids. However, suspension and expulsion are increasingly discussed in early childhood circles.
Preschool suspension and expulsion was the topic of a recent Center for American Progress report which highlighted high rates of expulsion among preschool age children. The report also referenced studies showing that black children are 2.2 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than other children.
Let’s Start with Definitions
What do we mean when we say a preschooler is suspended or expelled? When, due to difficult or unsafe behaviors, a decision is made that a child cannot stay at a childcare program and a parent is called to pick up their child early, that can be considered out-of-program suspension.
An in-program suspension is considered moving a child from their classroom to another, or to a director’s office. This practice is common and can be a good proactive tool to provide a change of environment to help a child re-regulate. However, if done as a disciplinary measure, especially repeatedly or for extended parts of the day, it is considered an exclusionary practice.
If over a period of time a child’s behaviors and needs are unable to be met by a program within the resources they have, and the child is dismissed from a program permanently, this is considered expulsion. A soft expulsion is when program practices encourage families or parents to voluntarily terminate enrollment.
Below are two hypothetical stories: The story of Asher, which provides an example of what might be considered ‘expulsion,’ followed by the story of Jay, an example of a ‘soft expulsion.’
Asher is a 4-year-old boy who has attended a childcare center for over a year. He is smart, creative, and has a supporting and loving mom. He can be impulsive and struggles with regulation during the day. In the year he’s been at this childcare, he has had 6 transitions in classrooms or teachers. He is in a 3 through 4-year-old classroom with one teacher and when Asher’s behaviors become disruptive, he is sent to the front office or his mom is called to pick him up early. The program feels they have run out of options to support Asher and keep the other children safe. The program director shares her disappointment that she cannot meet Asher’s needs and asks him to leave the program.
Jay is a 3-year-old boy who was placed in a community child care program with specialized childcare status. He has a history of trauma and is being raised by his aunt and uncle. Jay started in a childcare program and after 3 weeks the program reported he was disruptive, required continuing support, and could not rest quietly during nap time. The program informed the family he would only be allowed to come on a part-time basis due to his challenging behaviors. The family could not sustain a part-time placement and was forced to withdraw him from that program and seek another provider.
What’s Behind the Behavior?
Is there a profile of kids who are struggling in childcare or preschool? I spoke with Liz Mitchel, the Director of Early Childhood Mental Health, at Howard Center. She recognized, “there is no typical profile of children who get suspended or expelled from childcare, and there are many factors that influence a child’s behavior and a provider’s response. A child’s exposure to trauma can be a factor, as well as a provider’s experience and personal bias. What resources are available to the program to address the child’s difficult behaviors, such as funds for extra staff, is also a huge factor.”
Howard Center provides support to families and providers around a child’s challenging behaviors. It could be the child is hitting or biting other children or staff. Or a child is having tantrums that are difficult to manage. “Through their behavior, the child is trying to express something they cannot in words. We work with families and providers to figure out what the child needs, how the program can help meet that child’s needs. We recognize providers are doing a really hard job and have many expectations. We also ask a lot of really young children to be in childcare for 8 or 9 hours a day with little control of their day.”
When a child is not successful in a childcare program, it is upsetting for everyone. The teachers and family are stressed and, despite interventions, the child’s behaviors continue to strain a classroom and other children’s experience. If expulsion is a decision of last resort, what are the alternatives?
Working to Prevent Expulsion
Sharon Halnon and Aricha Drury are from the Specialized Childcare team at Williston’s Child Care Resource serving Chittenden County. They are a team providing consultation to providers, families, and children around a child’s challenging behaviors. They work closely with the early childhood mental health team at Howard Center through a set of Children’s Integrated Services (CIS). Consultation is free and ideally providers call early on in their problem solving process around a child’s difficult behaviors.
Sharon cautions, “We hope providers or families will call for consultation early in their problem solving and not wait until they have exhausted energy and hope they can successfully serve the child.” She continued, “we recognize the role of a teacher is demanding and want to offer support to improve a situation. We will work with programs regardless of their specialized care status to identify strategies to de-escalate the child’s behaviors, change the classroom environment, and support the teacher.”
What does successful intervention look like? Liz Mitchell from Howard Center shared, “there was a little boy with sensory sensitivity who would do quite well in his program all morning but by 11am had a hard time being safe with his body. We worked with the program who recognized this pattern and gave the child the job of librarian. Each day at 11am the boy loaded a backpack with books and helped deliver them to the other classrooms. This intervention provided a break for the child, gave him the calming sensory input of carrying books in his backpack, and sense of belonging by helping others. When he was done with this activity, he had enough of the break he needed and was able to return to the classroom regulated and continue his day.”
Chittenden County’s Early Learning Partnership is creating a toolkit to help teachers and programs identify when a child needs intervention, think creatively about what changes could be made to the classroom, schedule and learn who to call for consultation. The partnership is composed of all 8 school districts and their 74 partnering Pre-K programs for Act 166. Pre-K directors submitted the preventions and interventions they utilize and hope these suggestions can help others. Suggestions include:
- Help the child identify their feelings and when they need a break
- Change the environment, particularly spending more time outdoors or opportunities for sensory and heavy work activities when possible
- Take time to observe the child at different times of day and during transitions, also ask another teacher or director to do an observation
- Root yourself in the program’s philosophy, examine your own biases and how they might influence your response to the child
- Talk to the parent/guardian and seek assistance from a mental health consultant, Inclusion Specialist, School District or other community based supports.
A Systemic Response
Head Start recently released an expulsion prevention toolkit. It states, “No evidence exists that expulsion and suspension are effective responses to children’s behavior. Instead, expulsion early in a child’s education is associated with expulsion in later school grades.”
Further, students who are expelled are 10 times more likely to drop out in high school, experience academic failure, hold negative school attitudes, and face incarceration than those who are not. States are called to address the issue by understanding the complexity, collect data, and create policies to prevent expulsion. The report sites complexity comes from the following factors:
- How children’s behaviors are understood
- The different types of exclusionary practices that are used and what data are available about them
- The degree to which the characteristics of early learning settings may provoke or contribute to children’s behaviors
- The subjectivity of what behavior is considered challenging
- The increased understanding of how implicit bias affects children of color
- The significant need to address an underprepared and under supported workforce, as well as children and families who need supports beyond what an early setting can provide alone
- The range of definitions for expulsion and suspension across early learning settings
The Vermont State Agency of Education is starting to collect data on exclusionary discipline in Vermont Pre-K programs receiving public funds through Act 166, including demographics of children experiencing exclusionary practices. Hopefully greater awareness of this issue, and intentional data collection and analysis, can help us better understand the extent of preschool suspension and expulsion in Vermont, including the role of bias.
Better information can also drive demand for greater resources for providers to focus children’s energy and create environments where children can regulate their emotions, remain safe in the program, learn, and thrive.
What Can I Do?
For providers, parents, and early childhood leaders talking about this topic: Here are some guiding questions that have emerged to seek greater understanding, find compassion, and support around suspension and expulsion:
As a teacher,
What are the strengths of this child?
How do I call on my patience and expertise to support this child?
What other training or support will help me better understand the causes of this child’s behavior and strategies for supporting them?
Who else can I involve to think creatively given the limitations of my program?
How do I talk to the parent as a partner, value their expertise, and minimize judgement?
As a parent of a child experiencing challenging behavior,
How can I engage with my provider to understand my child’s strengths and needs, seek creative solutions, and advocate for resources?
As a parent in a childcare program impacted by another child’s disruptive behaviors,
How can I find compassion for the child as they are trying to express themselves?
How do I support my own child with language to name their feelings and understand the other child’s challenging behavior?
If the child leaves the program, how do I help my child find closure and remember what they found endearing about the child?
As a community member or decision maker,
How do I value the role of childcare providers in my community?
What does the provider need to do their best work?
If we are a community that cares for our children, how do we show that?
As an employer,
How can I provide flexibility for my employee who leaves work to attend to their child?
As you read these prompts, what are other ways we can support children, families, and providers to prevent suspension and expulsion? I would love to hear how you have wrestled with this topic and how we can better support all of our children and families.
Chittenden Regional Coordinator
Building Bright Futures
 Rashid Malik, Center for American Progress, November 6, 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/early-childhood/news/2017/11/06/442280/new-data-reveal-250-preschoolers-suspended-expelled-every-day/
 US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Childcare, Building a Comprehensive State Policy Strategy to Prevent Expulsion from Early Learning Settings, September 2017. Retrieved from: https://childcareta.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/public/expulsion_tool.pdf