Is Zero-Tolerance a Form of Discrimination?

I attended a staff meeting recently where we discussed the prevalent zero-tolerance policies in schools today, and the trickle down effect it has on preschools.  We had read some interesting articles in advance (which you can find here, here, and here) and used those as a springboard to talk about the variety of policies schools implement to address difficult behaviors.

These articles compared the popular zero-tolerance policies which lead to suspensions and expulsions on first offenses, to other (highly effective) programs that work to teach, incentivize, and expect positive behaviors.  One seemed to be a reactive approach, the other more proactive.  While the articles primarily addressed the older grades, their application to preschool was easy.

The most recent statistic I’m aware of lists preschool expulsions at a rate THREE times higher than that for grades K-12.  This means there’s a significant number of children out there who have been labeled as too difficult to be included in an environment which should ideally be one of the most capable and well-equipped places for a child to be scaffolded in learning social skills.  If these children are simply sent away, how will their behavior possibly improve?

I’m certainly not advocating for preschool administrators to let children run wild, free of any consequence, but I am sincerely troubled by the question: Where do these kids go next to get the guidance they need?


I think I get the idea behind zero-tolerance policies.  Set high standards, make them clear, and be consistent in administering serious consequences.  But we are talking about children here.  In NurtureShock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, the authors point out that a task force from the American Psychological Association has warned against zero-tolerance policies, stating that kids will make mistakes simply because they’re young and their brains are immature and prone to impulsivity.  In fact, the book notes that these zero-tolerance policies may actually be responsible for an increase in anxiety children and a concern by students that they might break the rules “by accident”.

Again, this isn’t a reason to accept inappropriate behavior.  But to link severe punishments, like expulsion, to these age-appropriate mistakes seems to be more about making life easier for the adults, than about serving and teaching the child.

I can understand that schools may want to send the message that they will not “tolerate” certain behaviors.  But will they take the time to teach the child the appropriate behaviors that need to take their place?

Labeling and Discrimination

I worked recently with a program director who had been under some pressure from a parent to expel another child because of a few biting incidents in the toddler class.  Biting is serious, and scary, but while it isn’t socially appropriate, it is developmentally appropriate.  This director had implemented a plan for addressing and preventing this behavior from recurring and was working vigilantly with the child, her parents, and her teachers to work through this difficult behavior.

When the director started to get pressure towards this zero-tolerance approach, her response was brilliant.  She respectfully told the protesting parent that the center had a policy against discrimination.  Since the behavior was within the norm for the child’s age, to expel her based on those behaviors would be age discrimination and would violate the center’s policy.

I like the approach demonstrated by the director I cited above.  If a child’s behavior is difficult, but within a normative range, it is our job to help them without discrimination.  If their challenges are beyond the service we’re capable of rendering, we are obligated as professionals to work with their families and to help them acquire the appropriate resources within or beyond our programs.

We would never openly discriminate based on disablities.  We wouldn’t expell a child because she was blind, or dismiss a child because he had cerebral palsy.  If we did not have the proper resources to serve them adequately, we would help them find those resources.  We wouldn’t simply “punish” them for posing a challenge by kicking them out.

It’s all too easy to label children as “bad” and “good”, “easy” and “difficult”.  But these labels do nothing to actually serve these children.  When we, as teachers and administrators, go around trying to determine who is easy enough or deserving enough to be included in school, we’re engaging in a very dangerous social experiment.  It’s true, some children need more: more time, more attention, more guidance.  As I often say to my own kids, “Fair doesn’t mean everyone gets the same thing.  Fair means everyone gets what they need.”

A child should never be dismissed for being a “nuisance”.  It’s our job to teach.  It’s our job to be fair.  It’s our job to help them get what they need.

What are your thoughts?  Should children be expelled from preschool? 

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Filed under Child Development & DAP, Positive Guidance and Social Skills, Uncategorized

30 Responses to Is Zero-Tolerance a Form of Discrimination?

  1. Nollie

    I like the point that some activities are not socially appropriate, but are developmentally appropriate, and so we shouldn’t discriminate against children based on adult norms. Thanks for bringing this topic to light, I hadn’t thought of the issue in this way before.

  2. Absolutely. A school with a rigid zero-tollerance attitude would make me rather home school. I want my child to thrive and develop and grow, not be stifled and shoved into a mould that society thinks is acceptable.

  3. This is just another example on how intolerant as a society we have become. I am a firm believer that a society should be judged on how we treat our elders and children. As a fairly new mom, I do not know if this has been a problem or if former generations have had to tackle similar problems in years past but with articles that have been posted and distributed around the web this year of how WE treat our children (police escorting children out of elementary school, child bands in businesses and advice from abusive mothers about “tough love”) we grow indifferent towards such treatment as time goes by. I am a mom that would prefer to have her child socialized in a fairly public environment (school) but if such trends persist might consider homeschooling as the only beneficial choice towards my son’s healthy and happy development.

    • The discrimination angle is absolutely brilliant! As well as right on target. This goes to the heart of the whole school readiness debate. Every child is ready for school. Our concerns about school readiness have more to do with not holding schools accountable for being ready for all children.

  4. Claire

    A child who bites might not yet be ready for group care, or might do better in a smaller group setting. Schools have to protect the other children from being bitten, regardless of whether it’s an age-appropriate behavior. I don’t think zero-tolerance is the answer; I think it should be handled on a case-by-case basis, one which balances the safety needs of the other children with the need for the child who bites to learn better ways of communicating and interacting. If the child who bites is going to stay in group care, he or she might need a one-on-one aide (or the parent) to spend some time in the classroom to intervene before the child bites, and to teach better social skills.

    • notjustcute

      I agree, Claire. I think, just as you said, that some children need more help or different environments in order to build the social skills they need. My issue is with zero-tolerance dismissals that they simply “punish” the children without helping. It seems more adult-centered than child-centered. You hit it on the head, saying that things need to be handled on a case-by-case basis. That’s my other issue with zero-tolerance. It takes away the opportunity to meet individual needs appropraitely. Thank you so much for adding great insight to the conversation.

      • I think are two big issues in preschool that exacerbate the situation. Often staff-child ratios are so high that caregivers do not have the ability to effectively prevent some of these behaviors or give the children enough one-on-one or floor time to scaffold them through these situations. The other issue in child care is that many of the teachers or caregivers have no formal training in child development or early education. As a result, they often do not know what is developmentally appropriate or have effective strategies to work through the situations. So expulsion is often their best response. Not that this applies to all ECE professionals. But, unfortunately, it applies to many more than it should. And there are some great ECE professionals who have had little to no training in the area but they are the exception, not the rule.

        We spent our entire summer working on a new behavior management plan where the teachers will document, asses and confer with the parents in cases like these. The parents will then be required to sign off that they will seek outside help (we will refer them to the appropriate agency) or they will need to seek another child care situation. We know there is nowhere else for these children to go for the most part. If they don’t qualify for speech or another delay, the schools will not evaluate them simply on behavior problems, which is unfortunate. They have more professionals on their staff to help these children than we do. And I work in a campus-based program where all the lead and assistant teachers hold bachelor or master degrees. But there is only so much we can do if there is no outside help.

  5. K

    As the parent of a child who was expelled from preschool for biting, I’ve got more than a passing interest in this subject. My son was three years old when he was expelled, so the argument can be made that his problem was not developmentally appropriate; however, I do not feel that the school director was adequately supportive of my son’s difficulties nor did she do everything possible to help us through the problem. I basically felt rejected, and that my son was rejected, after having spent nine months as happy members of their school family. There was no real effort to help us; they just got rid of the problem instead of solving it, and I think that happens far too often. It’s disturbing to find out that it’s happening more and more in preschool where children go to learn social skills. How can my son learn if he is expelled so quickly?

  6. “A child should never be dismissed for being a ”nuisance”. It’s our job to teach. It’s our job to be fair. It’s our job to help them get what they need.” > Amen to this. Brilliant post. The MOST important thing we teach, and toddlers and preschool children are learning about, is how to understand and get along with others. It takes time. It’s not easy. Some children will struggle more than others, and some will take longer, but if we exclude them from the group because their behavior is difficult or inconvenient, what hope do they have of learning, and what negative and harmful messages might we be sending to them? We’ve got to find better solutions than “zero tolerance” and exclusion, and I think this is true for both very young children, whose “disruptive” behaviors are developmentally appropriate, as well as for older children who may be struggling socially. What’s so hard for so many to understand is this: a child who is biting (at age two) or bullying (at age 10) is in need of as much compassion and support as the child who may be the victim of such behavior. We all stand to benefit, learn, and grow, when we can find ways to include and help the child who is exhibiting the “difficult” behavior. What we need are communities that create and value a culture of inclusiveness for everyone- especially at the preschool level.

  7. Ashley

    I like what you have to say here! It seems like it’s multiple issues coming to a head at the same time: schools are rebelling against years of having parents expect them to do the child-raising. They’re taking an extreme hands-off/hands-clean approach. It also reminds me of many parenting ‘experts’ who advocate zero-tolerance in the home, harsh punishments, and the expectation of first-time obedience. The first step in these ideas is the isolation/banishment of the offender. How tragic that in these situations blame & brunt are being placed on our most vulnerable people who need safety, acceptance, & love. The children acting out the most are the ones most in need of assistane & are the ones who’ll be most injured by expulsion. ideas like 0/T push me closer & closer to homeschooling every day.

  8. Zero-tolerance has never made that much sense to me. And to hear those statistics about the preschool expulsions is just ridiculous! Preschool is where children are learning appropriate social skills and behaviors. No, I don’t think children should be expelled from preschool!!! We should be responsible for teaching them appropriate behaviors and how to fix problems they have caused, but children should not have to live in constant worry.

  9. Such an insightful post, Amanda – and more good thoughts in the comments! Zero-tolerance (like any swift, harsh punishment) is a simplistic, one-size-fits-all approach to behaviors that are so complex. “K” said it so well, “they just got rid of the problem instead of solving it.” I wonder if at the heart of it lies a shift in “self-image” – programs becoming more concerned about their public image as a place where only “good children” go instead of holding fast to the image of a program that supports children in the long process of becoming people who treat each other well (as you said, Amand, adult-centered vs child-centered). It’s short-term vs long-term, reactive vs proactive, easy fix vs hard work – but now that I think about it those preferences are evident throughout today’s society, right? (I could go on and on with that thought but I’ll stop there!) Thanks for bringing up this topic, Amanda – these kinds of practices and attitude towards children need to be challenged repeatedly. I’ll be passing this on to everyone I know in the ECE field!

  10. I am no expert.. but surely pre school seems a little early for no tolerance? As you say, it is a chance to learn about social skills and what is the right sort of behaviour.. also, don’t children tend to behave how they are labelled a la “everyone things I am bad, so I may as well be bad”?


    I feel sad for 3 and 4 year olds being told they are bad … :-(


  11. Teacher

    I’m a preschool teacher. Zero tolerance is NOT the answer. Parents, as well as children, sometimes need help/coaching to get through situations they may never have experienced before. Also, bending to pressure of other parents is unacceptable.
    HOWEVER, I also wouldn’t say that a preschooler should NEVER be expelled. At a certain point, when behaviors are not developmentally appropriate, when a child has been tested and no diagnosis/qualification is found, when professionals have been working with a family for many months,when teachers have utilized many research-based strategies and environmental changes to help a child succeed, when the classroom has tried numerous behavior plans, and inspite of all this, a situation becomes so bad that it is dangerous for other children, then maybe expelling is the answer.
    It is NEVER OKAY to sacrafice the safety (and no, I’m not talking about hitting, or biting, or bad language – I’m talking physical danger) of other children. Its sad, and its scary, but it happens.
    So, while I don’t support expelling preschoolers, and to date our program has never expelled, I also will never say never. Would you want your 3 or 4 year old in danger because someone doesn’t believe in expelling?

    • notjustcute

      Great points! I agree that there comes a point when behavior becomes so severe that you can no longer accomodate the child’s needs in the school. My hope is that instead of taking the approach that the child is being punished by being expelled, we assist the child to get the help he/she needs. I look at it as being similar to other special needs. It’s fair to let a parent know that the program doesn’t have the resources necessary to meet a child’s special needs (behavioral or otherwise), but I would hope that what would follow would be a conversation about available options in place of or in addition to the program. The focus isn’t on whether or not the child meets the adults’ needs, but on how all the adults can meet the child’s needs. Thanks for bringing in a great perspective to the conversation.

  12. First time I’ve read from your blog and I love this blog post. Agree wholeheartedly!

  13. I was going to mention the same thing as Teacher above. I have had to “expel” two children this year based on not being able to meet their needs. One was simply too young (and he is now back, older and more capable of functioning in our classroom) and one had undiagnosed, but obvious, special needs that put others in physical and emotional harm’s way (yes, I said that!). I have felt horrible about it but know that in a small program like ours, the best interest of the group was at stake when I kept a child that we weren’t equipped to accommodate. And sadly, there are so few programs equipped to accommodate children with special needs, no matter where they fall on the spectrum of functionality.

    • shirley

      I had the same issue Stephanie had-I had to call the mom in and discuss the behaviors -the other 2’s in the room would run away or start crying if the child approached them because they never knew if he was going to hit, shove, pinch, or hug them. I agree a zero tolerance policy is NUTS in preschool. Luckily as the owner of a childcare center, I make the policies :). I had a parent that wanted me to expel a 15 month old for biting-next time I will use the “we have a policy against age discrimination”.

      • Patricia

        Bitting occurs in seconds and with 6-8 children in a room a teacher cannot give 100% of the attention to just one child, I have a daycare and I work with the bitting issues and ask parents to help address the problem too, but if the bitting continues and I see that parents are not doing their job, then I will terminate care with out any doubt, I have to think in the safety of all the children in my care not just one of them.

    • Patricia

      I think you did the best thinking in the whole group.

  14. Rebecca

    I agree that a zero tolerance policy for preschoolers is ridiculous, particularly if the behavior is “normal” for the age range. I would, however, expect that the parents and teachers would be actively addressing the issue and would have expectations and requirements for improvement — in other words, helping instead of punishing, as you stated. I would also expect that the child would be monitored as much as is possible so it would be unlikely he/she would be able to repeat the behavior in such a way that another child could be harmed. No child should have to endure being bit/hit etc.when they’re at school. They should feel SAFE at home and at school. As long as a safe environment can be maintained, I’m all for keeping a child in the school and letting them work through and learn. Since I’m sending my child, who has social anxiety, to a school I’ve been told promotes a calm, nurturing environment, where children learn conflict resolution and how to live peacefully on the planet with one another, I’m not going to keep her there long if hitting or biting is more than a very rare occurrence — and if the staff is not able to find ways to help a child to stop it — or if needed, remove him/ her from the school — at least until the behavior is no longer a danger to others. I have run into parents whose children hit/bite and they fail to recognize how much it affects the child being hit/bit, or even the child nearby when it’s occuring — and I DO find that troubling. However, under NO circumstances should any child EVER be labeled “bad” or “naughty’ or any of those other labels.

  15. MG

    My son was bit 7 times in a span of 3 weeks at his daycare. 3 of which we found that there was never an incident report filled out for. I never once asked who the child was but rather if their parent(s) was aware of the problem. I even asked if my son could be removed from the room in which the incidents happened and watched while he was around this child. The center assured me that biting is normal for this age but when it is your child who is being bitten it is not NORMAL. The center was unable to keep my child SAFE. I feel that the Center Director who said that it would be DISCRIMINATION against the child who was the biter to be expelled is misusing the word. If a daycare can not keep a child SAFE whether it is biting or hitting than they are failing the children’s SAFETY which is their number one priority. If you as a daycare can not provide this than there is a larger problem because you are creating a culture of behavior within your center. This will more than likely will show up in different forms latter on if you do not give that child the tools to express their frustration. This center did not just have a biting issue but a hitting issue as well. My son no longer goes there and I did contact our State and although I was encouraged to file a complaint I did not. Now when we pass the school he will say that did not keep me safe. As a teacher and a parent I try to make sure that I am sensitive to children who act out and make sure that I give them tools to make good choices. Children learn from example and I am committed to making sure that I act the way I want my students and child to act. We need to teach our children our expectations and not assume they know them.

    • notjustcute

      True- Just as it’s unprofessional to expell a child and hope they get what they need somewhere else, it’s equally -perhaps even more- irresponsible to ignore behavior challenges and hope they get better on their own. Even normal behaviors need scaffolding and plans for improvement. When we fail to make a solid attempt to help improve a child’s behavior and then expell them for our failures, it’s a complete disservice to the child. You’re right, often these issues go further down to a culture in the center. It’s our job as teachers and parents to gather the right tools to help our children be successful, or else help them find someplace else that can. I’m glad you found a better environment for your child, as it sounds like the “professionals” you were working with weren’t doing their job on many levels.

  16. . . . and therefore, I homeschool. I had such a problem watching the school system fail to apply common sense! (here where I live – not trying to speak across the board- but, I don’t believe it is a rare find these days) My son was repeatedly being bullied. We were lied to over and over again by an administrator who works hard to pay “lip service” to whomever is sitting before her without actually solving any problems. I took my son to a counselor and put it in writing that he was being traumatized- yet, the parents of the repeat offender were never properly informed. I was not ONLY concerned for MY child. The one doing the bullying was not very old – he needed and deserved help. We prayed for him for over a year- I did all I could do, but had to pull my child from the school. I realize that is all a bit off topic, but the point is. . . there is a severe lack of good old fashioned “common sense” going around. People are afraid of being sued, afraid of stepping up to do the right thing (or don’t understand what that is). Our children need us. Ultimately, the parents are the ones who must take action and do what is right for our children. Zero tolerance doesn’t make sense any more than ignoring a problem. The needs of the child (on ANY side of a situation) are secondary to “legal issues” or to what is “convenient” for the school – and it is WRONG! I realize that homeschool is not right for every family- but, I am so very thankful we made this choice. I am able to guide and direct my children without having to worry about whether or not someone else is making good choices for them. It is an unfortunate truth, that (at least in our community) the school system is failing the families it is meant to serve.

  17. Pingback: Why are Preschoolers Being Expelled? | Not Just CuteNot Just Cute

  18. Mom

    My son was expelled and labelled as “aggressive” for pushing – at age two. Most people hardly believed that I was telling the truth about the expulsion, especially anyone who knew anything about kids that age. Unable to find any other care I trusted, I quit my job as a result. He was our first child, and looking back, I was extremely naive and vulnerable to the situation. The daycare had videos installed for parents to watch remotely, and I believe this put them under extreme pressure to force out any kids who didn’t fit the mold. I think it boiled down to him not wanting to be stuck in a room with 16 other 2 year olds all day, and honestly who would?

  19. Patricia

    I find that zero tolerance is too much , but in some cases it s completely necessary. I find parenting this days to be very lazy, lots of parents expect that daycare providers, preschool teachers and schools do their job and that is simply not right. Then there is this other trend with parents not being able to say no to their children or correcting their bad behavior. The word no is part of our vocabulary and part of our lives and children need to learn to live with it and follow rules and get consequences for their bad behavior. As a preschool teacher I see this everyday. i have this little angels in my class that turn to total terrorists the moment their parents put one feet in the class and parents do not do anything so in top of teaching the children I have to be teaching the parents. if the parents become parents and not friends (children need parents they have friends at school and neighbors) there would not be so much behavior problems. so if you do not want your kids to get spelled from preschool or school parent your child, teach them wrong from good, to make good choices, to be friendly with their friends and to respect people. Do not expect preschools and schools to put up with your bad behave child just because you are not doing your job of being a parent.

  20. o g

    I don’t understand how people are having so many biting and other “discipline” issues that expulsion in preschool has become such a hot topic. I was a preschool/kindergarten (mixed age class) teacher for 15 years and have now run my own home daycare, ages 6mos-5years, for 5 years . I have taught in three states and 2 countries; cities, suburbs, and rural communities. I have taught children from various economic, cultural, and national backgrounds. I have maybe experienced 4 or 5 instances of biting and just a handful of behaviors that could be called intentionally hurtful. Something is missing in a classroom environment if children aren’t generally exhibiting prosocial behavior. My kids make mistakes, act out, and are learning how to behave in our society just like any others but I’m quite shocked by how many comments are by teachers who claim can’t watch everyone to prevent such obnoxious behavior. I don’t watch everyone; its just expected and modeled that we’re kind to each other and when mistakes are made we deal with them warmly and with humor and they’re rarely repeated. Zero tolerance has no place in education, or really anywhere where relationships are to be nurtured.

  21. Marie Russell

    I understand your point, and I agree to a certain extent. However, as a parent and a kindergarten teacher, it frustrates me when teachers have to bend over backward for a child who is constantly disruptive to the entire class. I give incentives, have special individual plans, praise and work with parents. Then the child is absent one day and the class is actually able to have a break from all his disruptions and so much more is accomplished. As a parent, I resent the fact that a disruptive student’s right to an education allows an entire class to be repeatedly disrupted on a daily basis. I feel for the parents who have truly worked with their child’s teacher and are trying to resolve the issues. It makes me aggravated when parents simply don’t try to assist and leave it all up to the school “I just don’t know what to do with her. She won’t listen to me either.” In that case I don’t blame a school for suspending or expelling the student. Sometimes when uncooperative parents are inconvenienced because of a suspension, it makes them finally take the problem seriously and try to resolve it.

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