Why are Preschoolers Being Expelled?

I spoke with a writer recently, who wanted to talk with me about my views on zero tolerance policies as they apply in early childhood settings.  As our discussion progressed, she essentially said, “You’ve mentioned before that preschoolers are being expelled at 3 times the rate of students K-12.  Why do you think so many preschoolers are being expelled?”

I had to take a deep breath.  There are a lot of reasons, really.  But the strongest reason that came to my mind: push-down curriculum and a lack of developmentally appropriate practice.

Preschool is a great place to begin a love of learning and to start to learn basic academic skills like the ABCs and 123s.  But a huge part of preschool is learning social skills.  You’ve taken a group of young children with limited social skills and put them in a bustling social environment.  Learning to navigate is one of the primary goals of that early experience.

But as academic expectations get pushed further down the grades, they begin to push out some of these social goals.  Feeling the pressure to perform, many schools don’t feel they have time to teach about social skills, or to take time to model problem-solving.

In addition to crowding out some the social emphasis of preschool, the trickle down of academic standards (pushing 2nd grade curriculum to 1st, 1st to kindergarten, etc.) has also caused an increase in activities and expectations that just aren’t developmentally appropriate.  More worksheets, less social play.  To some it sounds like the key to academic success, but in reality it’s a recipe for disaster.  And research backs it up.

Walter S. Gilliam, Phd, from the Yale University School of Medicine researched this preschool expulsion phenomenon.  In a presentation to NAEYC in 2009 he shared that in addition to factors like class size, support programs, and teacher stress, dramatic play frequency also showed a correlation with expulsions.  In programs where dramatic play took place almost every day, the expulsion rate was 9.4%.  In programs where dramatic play took place once a month or never, the expulsion rate jumped to 25.5%.  Similarly, programs with more frequent worksheet and flashcard use show a higher expulsion rate than those who use them rarely or not at all.

It could certainly be debated whether these activities directly contributed to children acting out (which is not uncommon when children are in developmentally inappropriate situations) or whether these practices are simply indicative of overriding program philosophies, which also influence behavior and responses to behavior.  But what is clear is that, more than academics, preschoolers need responsive, developmentally appropriate, play-based social experiences to help them succeed.

To tag on to a popular quote, if children aren’t learning the way we teach, then why don’t we try teaching the way they learn — rather than simply pushing them out of the learning process?

What do you think?  Why are preschoolers being expelled at such a high rate?  What could be done about it?

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26 Responses to Why are Preschoolers Being Expelled?

  1. What? Can a pre-schooler even get expelled? What part of PRE-School are they missing???
    Good grief! What happened to children being allowed to be children? I have a perfectly good education and am doing really well in the accounting industry and I played until grade 1 (when life got extremely dull!). But in preschool I learned the joy of go-carts, jungle-gyms, dress-up, hand painting, friendships… not how to add and subtract. That was for later, when I was old enough to learn that peas didn’t actually dissappear if you hid them under the gem squash shell (the dog wasn’t allowed in the dining room).
    My bunny is so desperate to learn, but the right way – by me reading her stories; through colouring pictures; cutting up anything and everything that may possibly have a shape on a piece of paper; hanging upside down from a jungle-gym. That’s where they learn at this age. Not in a classroom of desks and ABC pictures.

    Sorry… I ranted.
    Maybe it’s different in SA, but honestly… I would rather have my child in a school that caters for children than one that caters for Little Einsteins – she’s got her whole life to become an einstein, and only a few very short years to be a child.

    • notjustcute

      “she’s got her whole life to become an einstein, and only a few very short years to be a child” — Agreed! (And ironically enough, Einstein didn’t begin formal schooling until 6.)

  2. I didn’t realize preschool expulsions were occurring at such a high rate. But I completely agree with this: “But what is clear is that, more than academics, preschoolers need responsive, developmentally appropriate, play-based social experiences to help them succeed.”

  3. Erica

    I absolutely agree with everything you said, but I would have to put some of the blame on parents (yes, I know how hard it is to be a parent and I am well aware that blaming parents for anything is rife for attack in the blogosphere), but I have seen two instances (and heard of several others) in the past week while out and about with my little kids that involved hitting and biting. In one case a little boy was vehemently hitting my daughter in the face while his mother stood nearby, chatting with a friend. When I brought it to her attention, she accused me of lying and said her son was too young (nearly 2) to be expected to behave differently. In another case, the hitting and biting was happening at preschool (repeatedly) and the parents said it was the school’s job to correct the behavior since it never happened at home — he didn’t have anyone there to hit and bite. I am fully aware how difficult it is to engender discipline in children, but parents cannot expect preschools to take on the job of discipline when they aren’t willing to do so at home.

    • notjustcute

      You make a fair point, Erica. I agree that parents often get some unfair blame, but they also have a responsibility that can’t be denied. Parents can’t expect teachers to make a difference if they undermine them at every turn. Also, we have to realize that while some behaviors may be age-appropriate (like hitting and biting in toddlers), they are still not socially appropriate and deserve a thoughtful response. Otherwise, age-appropriate mistakes become unfortunate and enduring habits.

    • Brandy

      My son is 3, and has sensory processing disorder and had a slight speech delay. He was put into preschool after having speech and occupational therapy at home, because the school “takes over” at 3. I knew he would have a little difficulty with hitting, biting and throwing as well as running away and saying “no”. He also hasn’t fully potty trained (even though we started at 18 months) he goes through spurts where he does well, then backslides right back into it. We only had one incident within the first week where my son deliberately disobeyed, and then his behavior dramatically improved. Of course we don’t tolerate hitting, biting or throwing… but unfortunately, especially with a child who has sensory processing disorders, this is the way they vent. As long as the teacher is aware, and can spot the “warning signs” before a child goes into this mode, the child can be redirected. The age of three is the testing age, the age where they fight between being a baby and loving it and becoming more independent of mommy and daddy. With proper direction, even children with issues can become loving, engaging and kind.

  4. Our daughter turns 4 in a couple weeks, and we’re facing the preschool question by many of our friends and family. As we continue to develop our educational philosophy, we find ourselves less and less interested in starting any formal educational programs this year.

    We do want our daughter to have opportunities to try new things and spend time with other children (through things like church and community activities, swimming lessons, or other activities), but we also want to give her time for play and discovery.

    When we start to worry about or over-value the future, we lose sight of the preciousness and inherent worth of our children as children. A great book on this topic is “Reclaiming Childhood” by Crain.

    • Lauren

      I couldn’t agree more! My son turns 5 in September, missing the cut-off for public schools where we live but he has not attended preschool at all. Most of his friends have been going since they were 2 and it boggles my mind a little. He has learned so much through play and our field trips to libraries, art museums, parks, science centers and museums, zoos, history museums, aquariums, farms etc. I firmly believe play is the work of children. Let them play!!

  5. There is very minimal cause for a preschool child to be expelled from a school. This is called laziness on the part of the school to work with the family and the child. In most cases, the root cause is something that the teacher has set up, even if she doesn’t explicitly mean for it to be that way. What is the biggest “punishment” for misbehavior…. take away recess times or outside time. The children who are misbehaving are the ones who NEED to go out. I highly dislike the push-down effect. More preschools need to stand up for what is right for children.

    • You are exactly right. It seemed counterproductive to keep a hyper or misbehaved child inside during recess or sitting on the bench. Sure they need some time-out. But not the whole recess. But the problem is recess is being shortened or taken away – more every year. Parents and teachers must stand up to administrators and emphasis how children learn – using their five senses for discovery – not paper worksheets or sitting on a bench the entire outdoor time.

      • Exactly… new standards are coming out here where preschool has to go outside everyday if they operate more than 3 hours. Also the regs state that deprivation from an activity, outside, gross motor or meals for discipline is not ok. Gym time cannot be substituted for outside time either unless it’s inclement weather. There is a way to get kids moving and discipline at the same time.

        The other issue I see though is that teachers have this expectation for kids to be complacent and obedient at every turn and do what I say. Top that with activities and curriculum that are boring and it is a recipe for disaster for active children.

  6. Liz Busby

    It seems weird to be hearing about higher expectations of preschoolers at the same time that I’m hearing from other sources that academic expectations in elementary school are actually down since the 50s. Which is it? Are we expecting more and more, or are we dumbing down our curriculum to meet the lowest level? I ask sincerely, since I’m getting conflicting information.

    • The depth of understanding is lower, causing the statements about lower expectations, but the breadth of topic is wider, causing the statements about higher expectations. They’re both true, and both ridiculous. I don’t understand any educational system that expects children to learn on command, at the same time as a bunch of other children who have different abilities and interests. It’s only easier in the day to day management of the classroom for the teacher – not in meeting the children’s needs or in meeting anyone’s educational goals.
      That’s why I teach at an AMI Montessori school, where the expectations of each child are based on the safety of the group and the child’s individual abilities, which we learn through observing them. And they learn at their own pace.

  7. Great timely post. Parents do need to help with a child’s social skills and set limits and consequences on what is acceptable. But paper worksheets in PreK is horrible. It is even bad to have so many in kindergarten – which has become more like first grade used to be. Too much emphasis on testing – even in Headstart. Australia is way ahead of us in teaching philosophy than America – or American conveniently forgot what is age and developmentally important. We need to keep pushing for more recess time and Imaginative/ Dramatic/Pretend Center time – great opportunities to learn social skills!

  8. Tina

    Exactly what you said–push down curriculum and lack of developmentally appropriate practice. A third could be teacher and administrator training. I am surprised at the number of parents I talk with whose children go to preschools where the teachers do not have an degree and/or on-going training specific to teaching young children. Or, if the teacher does, the administrators of the school (such as many programs housed in public elementary or high schools) do not have appropriate early childhood training and therefore can not provide support for the teacher in implementing appropriate practices or communicating with parents.

    Not many preschools are NAEYC accredited (only 22 in my entire state) and not many parents know about this accreditation. While NAEYC accreditation doesn’t mean a program is perfect, it should signal that a program is implementing appropriate practices and on-going teacher/administrative learning to create an environment where children thrive rather than get expelled.

  9. Clear consensus here about how to educate younger children. (The same applies for older children, actually).
    Today, I watched a group of two year-olds being supervised by a real pro. She just sat, watched and reacted. The children generated all the action. As you can imagine: exploring, touching, fitting, not fitting, testing, choosing, proposing, trying, failing, trying, again, conflicting, resolving their own conflicts without adult intervention, etc. etc. If you’ve seen it in action, you know it is poetry in motion.
    The teacher’s power came from her centeredness and her clear mission to create an educational space rather than to “teach.”
    We hear a lot about “consistency.” (Most of it is misplaced or misunderstood.) What was consistent was her affect. It was business like–almost deadpan. The kids were the show, not her. She reacted honestly and straightforwardly to everything–the kids always knew where they stood with her. If you were a two-year-old, you would not be able to predict her response–that is why the kids tested to see her reaction from time to time. But that was part of the learning experience–finding out where this paragon of adult integrity and reliability stood on things. She was the fence and the electricity that ran through her was (something new I’m trying): loving reality.
    Underlying everything was this teacher’s commitment to child-initiated activities–internal motivation, decision-making and then clear messages about what behavior is ok and what is not. She never said No. She always reacted in such a way that there was no confusion about what was ok and what was not. She never used her emotions as messages—she had one emotion. She was a calm, loving, uneffusive presence.
    I can’t imagine her ever kicking someone out.
    Several theories have been proposed as to “why?” kids get kicked out. They all add up to various kinds of incompetence.
    But I actually don’t think it is such a great question–because we can’t really know why, and if we could know, we can’t really do anything about it, anyway. What we can do is to make sure it doesn’t happen on our watch. Watch a great teacher in action and follow their lead.

  10. After spending some time as a room leader in a service where one child was expelled and another was on the verge of it before he was withdrawn voluntarily, I’ve got to say that it’s not only the push-down academics causing expulsions (though that has a severe impact too, and this article is spot on in what it says on that subject).

    Lack of adequate special needs staffing can create situations where a director is in danger of losing significant regular enrolments (read, ‘go out of business’) because there simply aren’t enough adults to supervise the number of high-need children adequately. It broke my heart when these children left- they were the ones who needed us the most- but they needed consistent, one-on-one help to get by socially without endangering the other children. Yes, there were problems with the parenting. That doesn’t absolve us from responsibility. I was put in a position, regularly, where I had to either leave the room understaffed while I withdrew a child for a ‘cool-down’ period or risk other children being injured. That is no position to put a teacher in!

    Those children are still out there somewhere- they don’t disappear when they’re expelled- they just move on with even greater self-image and social interaction problems. Every expulsion is a lost opportunity to turn a child around. I long for the day when the government works that out and provides the money to EC services instead of building more gaols.

    • notjustcute

      So many great points! Special needs staffing is so important. When we don’t equip our schools with the resources our children need, it’s a shame that we label the child as failing, when in actuality the school has failed the child. Like you, one of my biggest concerns with preschool expulsion is that these children are most often not being moved from one environment to another where their needs can be better served (I’d be all for that). They’re often expelled from a program and on their own to find another. As you said, those kids are still out there, with the exact same problems. The response to difficult behavior needs to help the child, not just the “program”.

  11. I think there is a little more mining that should be done in the study. You mention that lack of “dramatic play” correlates (results?) to more explusions by over double, but being in either a for-profit or faith-based program also results in double the rate, and being an older child versus a younger child is triple or even quadruple the risk of expulsion, boy are 5X more likely, Afro-americans are almost 6X more likely than Asians.

    It’s pretty easy to attribute reasons to this kind of data when it is ultimately pretty hard to make sense of. It was collected via surveys rather than observation or some trusted form of research. I think a study like this points out some areas of interesting research opportunities but jumping from that to saying that the school system is failing might be much. Especially since, in the same school systems, expulsion after K is very low. That indicuates that the kids are not being destroyed, and in fact they totally recover by they time they are a year older (otherwise they would continue to be expelled no?)

    In pre-K, children are really really different and they converge as they get older. So one child might be a crazed emotional wreck, another a violent criminal, another a super genius with a 200 IQ, another a gifted artist — but within 2 or 3 years (and extra 50%+ of their age) they are much more similar. Maybe the violent criminals don’t need pre-K, just a little more time time. Also, many of the high explusion schools seem to be special purpose so maybe the parents are targeting the wrong fit.

  12. I haven’t heard much about preschoolers being expelled, because I work in a public school preK program. If the school is not the right setting for the child, the district will find a school or classroom that is.

    I used to work in private preschools, however, and I can imagine parents being asked to withdraw their child because of behavior problems, or because of special needs that the preschool can’t meet. I have a master’s degree, but most teachers in daycare centers and small preschools don’t have tons of training or educational background in early childhood education. And if you don’t have much training or support on dealing with children who disrupt the entire class day after day, you are in a tough spot.

  13. Rebekah

    As a special needs preschool teacher in a public school system, I can echo the others’ responses regarding the need for “somewhere” for these students to go and more support for those students who need it. Oftentimes, preschools are run as businesses where it all comes down to the “ratio” of teachers to students and maximizing class sizes to decrease the schools’ bottom line. I do think that it is this business mindset instead of an educational mindset that is not helping students have a successful preschool experience. All children are different and while some may be able to function in a classroom of 20, some may have difficulties. I can also echo the sentiment regarding children being kicked out of a preschool oftentimes, with no other option for the parent. For children who do not have routine and structure at home, this will further exacerbate the problem of discipline and social skills in the classroom (and home!) setting.

    Also, in all states there are agencies and school systems where parents and teachers can turn to for help with students who may have a special need (whether identified or not yet identified). This is mandated under federal law. An early intervention program should be a point of contact for children 0-3 and the your school districts’ preschool special education department is available for children 3-5 years old. We can encourage parents to contact these agencies for assistance. Early intervention is key!!

    Great and informative article!

    • notjustcute

      Great reminder, Rebekah. There are state agencies in the US (and many other countries) set up to provide early intervention, which is SO important. If it is determined that a child’s needs can not be served by their current school, the parents and administrators owe it to the child to find the correct placement with another program to meet those needs. That is my main platform in this argument — we must make the child’s needs our focus, not the procedure, the facility, or the bottom line.

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