Twelve years ago, Yale University researchers uncovered a surprising fact: Preschoolers were more likely to be expelled than children in any other grade. In fact, preschoolers were being expelled at rates more than three times higher than school-aged children. Subsequent research found that the effect of this phenomenon was also racialized. A report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights showed that African American children represented 18 percent of public preschool enrollment, but 48 percent of preschoolers receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions.
While these numbers are undeniably appalling, they only account for a small portion of the overall preschool population. Many 3- and 4-year-olds attend preschool in private programs, which are not required to report suspensions and expulsions.
The Center for American Progress analyzed new data from the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health, finding that an estimated 50,000 preschoolers were suspended at least once. Another 17,000 or so preschoolers are estimated to have been expelled.* This is the first nationally representative survey of preschool discipline that includes private preschools as well as public schools. Which means that, across all types of settings, the average school day sees roughly 250 instances of a preschooler being suspended or expelled.
Zero tolerance discipline has gone too far
These disciplinary rates are particularly shocking since suspending and expelling young children has not been shown to produce positive behavioral results. Quite the opposite, such practices can often intensify the challenges faced by these children and their parents, and have even been discussed as the first stage in a preschool-to-prison pipeline.
As with incarceration, consistent patterns of racial discrimination have emerged from each successive study of preschool suspension and expulsion. Yale University Professor Walter Gilliam first identified them in his team’s groundbreaking research more than 10 years ago. At that time, it was found that the three best predictors of preschool expulsion were the three B’s: “big, Black or boy.” That is, teachers are more likely to recommend preschool suspension or expulsion when the child is black, a boy, or is physically bigger than their peers. Obviously, this puts black boys in the greatest danger of being excluded from early learning opportunities.
This new CAP analysis of the National Survey of Children’s Health confirms these results. The data show that black children are 2.2 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than other children, and while boys represent 51 percent of the preschool population, they receive 82 percent of the suspensions and expulsions.
Recently, the Yale Child Study Center identified implicit racial bias among early educators as a likely source of the disproportionate punishment received by black boys. Implicit biases can be understood as automatic and unconscious stereotypes that influence judgments and decisions regarding others. In the study, teachers watched a video of a preschoolers and were asked to identify potentially challenging behaviors. On average, educators watched the black boys in the video more closely and sometimes flagged them as displaying challenging behaviors. What participants did not know was that the video featured no challenging behavior. These findings indicate that many of the underlying causes of preschool discipline may not be rooted in child behavior, but rather flaws in adults’ decision-making.
Disrupting the preschool-to-prison pipeline
In recent years, many influential organizations and civil rights advocates have pushed to reduce or eliminate the practice of preschool suspension and expulsion. Organizations such as the National Black Child Development Institute, the Dignity in Schools Campaign, and Zero to Three have highlighted the issue for affected communities of parents, early educators, and policymakers alike. Raising awareness of this discriminatory practice is key to developing the momentum necessary to outlaw preschool suspensions and expulsions.
Some states are responding to increased awareness through legislation. Maryland, Texas, Ohio, Tennessee, and Colorado are all either considering or passing bills to place moratoria on preschool suspensions and expulsions. Last year, the federal government issued a policy statement full of sensible recommendations. However, the Trump administration has retrenched offices of civil rights across the federal government, including at the Department of Education.
These new data from the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health are a sobering reminder that preschools are engaging in exclusionary discipline at higher levels than were previously known. But putting a name to this harmful discrimination is only the first step. Governments and preschools need to continue collecting more data, studying models of behavioral intervention, and investing in resources for preschool teachers.
By shifting preschools away from destructive approaches to discipline and toward research-informed best practices, the preschool-to-prison pipeline could be refashioned as a preschool-to-college pipeline. Research shows that when teachers are supported with adequate resources and evidence-based training, preschool can help young children build crucial social-emotional skills, such as sharing and taking turns, playing games, and coping with a range of emotions. Increasingly, social and emotional learning is understood as a major factor in educational success. Exclusionary discipline such as suspension isolates the children most in need of social-emotional development, and is associated with terrible educational outcomes.
The scale of preschool suspension is large, but solutions to this problem are available and proven effective. As policymakers consider which strategies can improve student outcomes and reduce challenging youth behaviors, they should look upstream to preschool, where an inclusive and welcoming learning environment can pay huge dividends.
*Methodology note: Author’s estimate of the number of preschoolers suspended or expelled comes from the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health. Respondents to the question on preschool suspension and expulsion were weighted to produce national population estimates. The number of daily suspensions and expulsions is derived from a yearly total estimate divided by the number of weekdays in a year.
Rasheed Malik is a policy analyst for the Early Childhood Policy team at the Center for American Progress.