As any of us know who’ve spent time with preschoolers, they can be highly challenging. They have strong opinions, but often lack the vocabulary and reasoning to cogently make their points. Instead, they might push, hit or bite – potentially injuring themselves or others. And in a group setting, these kinds of disruptions can lead an already-taxed preschool instructor to send the child home – sometimes for the rest of the year.
More than 250 children are suspended or expelled from preschool every day, a 2017 study found. Preschool children are expelled at three times the rate that K-12 students are. We spoke to Kate Zinsser, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology at The University of Illinois at Chicago and author of the forthcoming book “No Longer Welcome: The Epidemic of Exclusion From Early Childhood Education” (Oxford University Press, Spring ‘22), about this educational crisis, and what can be done about it.
The big problem, Dr. Zinsser notes, is that preschool teachers lack the resources to help them with the challenges many preschoolers present. Think of a child in kindergarten or first grade who’s struggling with letter recognition or early math behaviors. We pile on all the resources and help them get caught up on phonetic awareness and being able to match sounds with letters. We have curriculum and interventions in place to help that child.
“But when a child is struggling with sharing, or controlling their emotions or expressing how they’re feeling, it seems like the reaction is to remove them from the exact setting that will help them develop those skills.”
It’s important to note that sometimes kids are expelled or suspended for good reason: “We’ve heard of kids who’ve thrown chairs at teachers, kids who have been swallowing staples that they pull off the bulletin boards—some really scary, distressing behavior.” On the other hand, Dr. Zinsser says, sometimes kids are expelled because they won’t nap, or they cry too much. “And the teachers just can’t handle it.”
And it’s no wonder: Preschool teachers are among the most underpaid and undervalued workforces in the country. According to the 2018 Early Childhood Workforce Index report, in 2017 more than 50% of child-care workers reported receiving some form of government assistance. The median pay for a preschool teacher? Just $13.94 an hour.
Combine that financial stress with the absence of a support system, says Dr. Zinsser, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that bias plays a role in suspensions and expulsions: “There’s evidence in the medical literature and in the education literature that our biases are heightened when we’re under stress. And the early childhood workforce is one of the most consistently high stress workforces across our country. They come to work with a large load of stress, and then we’re putting them into highly stressful, emotionally laborious interactions. So whenever I talk about bias, I have to emphasize the context that we’ve created, that will trigger our cognitive reliance on shortcuts.”
That said, Dr. Zinsser adds, “There is experimental evidence showing that teachers look at Black children, waiting for them to misbehave, more than they look to white children. And they look to boys in particular. There’s also evidence that when shown pictures of children’s faces, that people in general tend to perceive Black faces as more guilty.”
“But when a child is struggling with sharing, or controlling their emotions or expressing how they’re feeling, it seems like the reaction is to remove them from the exact setting that will help them develop those skills.” — Kate Zinsser, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Illinois at Chicago
And all people tend to over-age Black faces—so a Black child will be seen as older than his white counterpart. “If you look at two children who are both four, and you think that the 4-year-old Black boy is actually six, you’re going to hold him to a much higher level of expectation for emotional regulation and behavior management than you would a white 4-year-old.”
Race isn’t the only issue that plays into bias: “We’re also seeing that some children who have IEPs [individualized educational plans] and IFSPs [individualized family service plans] are still also more likely to be excluded. And there’s some evidence that children who have experienced adversity and trauma are more likely to be expelled.” So the children who need the support the most are at the highest risk for losing it.
The effects of expulsion can be devastating. “We know from K-12 research that expulsions beget expulsions: children who experienced expulsions are more likely to have those incidences happen again in the future.” When students are expelled, they begin to view themselves in a more negative light – sometimes as a threat to others.
The earlier that expulsion occurs, Dr. Zinsser tells us, the more deep-seated that perception is going to become. “One of the families that I interviewed, their son was expelled or pushed out of seven different programs in a two-year time span. Now as a 6-year-old, he points out the [car] window and says, ‘Oh, that’s the place that didn’t want me.’ And that’s going to be part of [his] self-identity and self-narrative.”
The consequences of expulsion aren’t solely relegated to children – parents deal with the aftereffects, as well. “In our most recent survey of administrators, we’re estimating that upwards of 20% of the kids who were excluded from the programs didn’t go into another program after that. They just stayed home. So you think about how much is being lost, both for that child in terms of learning and social opportunities, but also for that family in terms of reliable childcare and being able to go to work.” And moving forward, parents are likely to be wary and distrustful of a system that they feel has failed them, which can affect children and families years down the line, especially in the early grade-school years, when the teacher/parent relationship is crucial.
So what’s to be done about this problem? Pay preschool teachers a living wage, says Dr. Zinsser, and treat them as professionals. Give them the same supports available to kindergarten and above. “Think [about] a year later when that child is five and they step into a school system for that child presenting with the exact same needs, because we haven’t really been able to address it in early education. They’re, by law, going to have access to a school psychologist or social worker. They’re going to have access to individualized education plans. We’re really leaving our preschool teachers and our center-based care providers and our home-based care providers hanging out there on their own, because they don’t have that professional safety net.”
What do you do if it’s your own kid who might be facing suspension or expulsion? The first thing to do, advises Dr. Zinsser, is talk with the teacher, in as open and non-defensive way as you can. “Treat the teachers like the professionals they are.” If they have a good collaborative relationship with you and they see that you are working hard to try to get to the bottom of whatever’s going on, then they’re far more likely to bend. “I’ve never heard of a program expelling a child when the parents and the teachers get along.”
Indicate that you’re willing to have the child be observed by a mental health consultant. If they’re recommending that the child get evaluated for early intervention, begin that process and be communicative about what you’ve already done so the program knows that you’re holding up your end of it. And if you can, observe the classroom. “It’s harder now during COVID, but if there are ways to make that possible, I think that can give parents and teachers a lot more to work off of and help build some empathy across those two communities.”
More than anything, the expulsion crisis indicates a need for real change. “Less than 2% of kids have a major nut allergy, and yet we have overhauled school lunches. But we didn’t do that kind of structural change to be able to accommodate and meet the needs of kids who are struggling emotionally and behaviorally in the classroom, in many ways that are very typical for a two, three, or four-year-old. We shouldn’t have a system that’s so broken that this is the way we handle it.”
Alice Bradley is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. She has written for numerous magazines and sites, including Salon, Health, Parents and Real Simple, and was a contributing editor to Creative Nonfiction. She co-wrote the humor book “Let’s Panic About Babies!”