Preschool expulsion is a big problem nationwide: According to a 2017 study, more than 250 children are suspended or expelled from preschool every day. Preschool expulsion first received mainstream attention in the United States in 2005 following Walter Gilliam’s landmark study (Gilliam, 2005) and remained a critical issue in early childhood settings (U.S., 2014). (For a deep dive into the expulsion problem, read this earlier ELN article.)
Expulsion is defined as the permanent removal of a child from an educational setting due to a violation of school policies (School Discipline Support Initiative, 2020). Early childhood expulsions affect young children disproportionately. For example, the pattern of expulsion among African American students that is evident from kindergarten to 12th grade appears to begin earlier in early childhood settings.
The effects of expulsion can be devastating and long-lasting. “Exclusionary discipline”—another name for “expulsion”—of a preschool child is a strong predictor of future negative educational and social-emotional outcomes, including future academic failure, holding negative school attitudes, dropping out of school and being involved in the juvenile justice system (American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on School Health, 2013). This pathway has been called the “Preschool to Prison Pipeline.”
In a study published in January 2022—Expulsion from Community Childcare Centers During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Review of One State’s Practices—researchers from Kean University and Montclair State University set out to learn if and how preschool rates had changed due to the pandemic by studying expulsion practices in one state’s community child care centers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
After obtaining approval from the Institutional Review Board, the researchers accessed a published list of all licensed early childhood programs in the state of New Jersey; programs listed as public schools or only providing services to children ages six years and older were removed, leaving 3013 centers. A recruitment email with a link to an online survey was sent to these programs approximately eight months after the state initiated its first lockdown requirements; of these, 511 emails were undeliverable, resulting in surveys being sent to 2502 programs. It is unknown how many of these programs were operating during this time. The recruitment email invited participants to complete a 10-minute online survey describing challenging behaviors and expulsion practices during the COVID-19 pandemic and remained open for a two-week time period.
Responses were received from 194 program administrators in New Jersey; all counties in the state were represented. Given that it’s unknown how many programs were open during the time of the survey administration, it’s difficult to determine a response rate, but the survey had a 90.6% completion rate. Participants who reported that their programs were still closed or operating in remote format only, who did not identify as community child care, or did not respond to the question asking if they had expelled a child during the pandemic were excluded, leaving 161 surveys remaining for analysis.
The results were surprising, even to the researchers: overall, expulsion rates appeared to be lower than they were pre-pandemic.
According to Keri Giordano, Psy.D., associate professor of advanced studies in Psychology at Kean University, when she and her fellow researchers began the study—Expulsion from Community Childcare Centers During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Review of One State’s Practices—they expected to see an increase in the rate of expulsions. “We thought it was going be worse. We thought people were going to be less tolerant, highly stressed. We kind of thought they were going to be sending kids out pretty quickly.”
What they found, however, was the opposite: Rates of expulsion had actually declined throughout the state, according to responses from providers in all 21 counties in the state of New Jersey. A similar pre-pandemic study, conducted by the same team, had shown that approximately 36% of responding centers had expelled at least one child in the preceding twelve months. In this study, the percentage of providers that expelled at least one child was down to 17.4%.
But what could account for this dip in expulsions? “After we kind of zoomed out and looked at it for a minute,” said Dr. Giordano, “and considered all of the factors that were involved, we said, maybe we should not have been surprised.” After all, because of COVID protocols and fewer children returning to preschool, there were lower provider/child ratios. Children weren’t sharing materials and were socially distanced, which reduced the chance of conflicts.
The financial pressure on programs was also a likely deterrent to expelling children. “Programs were really financially strapped. So whereas before, if there was a waiting list or you had a program that was full to capacity, the financial loss of one child was not that significant. But during this time when so many families were still working from home or nervous to send their children back into child care center, the financial impact probably felt much bigger.”
None of these potential factors, though, are necessarily useful takeaways for early childhood educators or parents of young children. Dr. Giordano explains: “The factors we thought might be a potential cause for the decreases are practices we wouldn’t want to maintain. We don’t want centers desperate for families. We don’t want families desperate for child care. We don’t want low capacity and no sharing of toys.”
Zero – 5 are the most critical brain-building years, and the sharing of toys, Dr. Giordano adds, helps build social and emotional skills, problem-solving skills and self-control. And socially distancing children doesn’t help them learn to negotiate with one another, play or work together.
Even worse, it seems that the positive trend didn’t continue as restrictions lifted. “We were so excited that the numbers dipped down and we were like, okay, we keep searching for these little silver linings from COVID; maybe this is one of them.”
This prompted the team to run the survey again, two years into the pandemic. “Because anecdotally we were talking to providers and they kept saying, no, we’re frustrated. And we got the data back and we were like, oh, we’re right back. We’re still working through the data, but our early results are showing that the expulsion rate is almost right back to where it was prior to COVID.”
Disappointing, but maybe not surprising. “Everybody’s so excited to be back to normal. But this is an area that, you know, maybe back to normal isn’t such a great thing.”
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!”