No Longer Welcome: The Epidemic of Expulsion from Early Childhood Education
By Katherine M. Zinsser
Oxford University Press, 174 pages
Just the title itself is heart-wrenching: No Longer Welcome: The Epidemic of Expulsion from Early Childhood Education.
Reading that title, many of us have a Wait. What? moment, unable to connect one idea with the other. “Expulsion? For little kids? Isn’t that for incorrigible troublemakers who’ve exhausted all their chances with school officials and teachers?
One would think so. Tragically, as author Dr. Katherine M. Zinsser writes, for thousands of American children that point comes well before their fifth birthday, when they are labeled as “challenging,” “defiant” or “difficult,” and are ejected from early childhood education before they even reach kindergarten. Children 2, 3 and 4 years old—especially boys and Black children—are being kicked out of their schools at “staggering rates,” she writes—more than three times that of K–12 school children.
Drawing on research and interviews with teachers, program administrators, parents and policymakers, Zinsser’s No Longer Welcome provides a thoughtful, nuanced appreciation of the complex factors contributing to the expulsion epidemic. Foremost, she makes it clear the children are not to blame. Even though preschoolers can behave in intensely emotional, combative and even destructive ways, they are acting out in developmentally appropriate ways for small children without the language to express themselves or the capacity to self-regulate their emotions.
Nor does she blame the teachers who are often maxed out on their own stress levels from jobs that would be demanding even if everyone were well-paid, well-trained and had their own emotions well-regulated. Far too frequently, none of this is the case.
Excluding a child from school can have significant negative impacts on the child’s academic achievement. Children removed from school for just a few days can have trouble catching up. Studies show that children who are pushed out of the classroom for disciplinary reasons don’t do as well on test scores or other measures of academic learning; exclusionary discipline fuels widening achievement gaps during this critical period of development.
The excluded child loses their connection with classmates and misses the social-learning opportunities they can’t get at home. They feel alienated from school, which—no surprise—makes them more likely to drop out altogether. One of the worst effects of expulsion is that children begin to be labeled as “bad kids,” and to think of themselves as such. Imagine the future unfolding for a child of 3 who is thrown into the “bad boy” track and begins to think of himself as a “threat to themselves and others.”
Researchers have traced significant lifelong negative outcomes to school exclusion, notably delinquency and incarceration, Zinsser writes. A 2015 study showed that children who were repeatedly suspended were eight times more likely to be incarcerated than those who never were. Ultimately, society pays, as older kids who’ve been expelled or suspended are more likely to drop out, putting them at risk of financial insecurity and the need to depend on public assistance. Studies also have shown an association between expulsion and later problems with substance abuse. All of which may seem far removed from that little 3-year-old, but Zinsser’s point is that early experiences of exclusion can launch a cascade of negative interactions with schools.
For every child who is expelled, a family pays the price. Parents suffer emotionally when their children are expelled, and they can begin to see themselves as failures as parents. They suffer financially as well, reporting employment issues such as having to leave work suddenly to retrieve their child, lost hours and wages, and even having to quit their jobs when they can’t find alternative child care. Families who are receiving child care subsidies lose eligibility when they lose their jobs, which makes finding alternative child care sometimes impossible—or impossible to afford. Nearly a quarter of the expelled children in Zinsser’s research team’s surveys didn’t find alternative child care and were kept at home instead.
Bias at Work
Biases, both explicit and implicit, play a powerful role in expulsions, Zinsser writes. A teacher states that girls are “easier” or “more fun” than boys, or that boys are innately more “hyper” and “aggressive,” and it isn’t hard to guess which kid is going to meet harsher discipline as they gallop to the art table or run in the cafeteria.
Implicit biases are the insidious factor in many expulsions. Though all humans have unconscious biases, in the U.S., our collective biases fall along racial, cultural and gender lines. Implicit biases are at play all the time in the American education system but, Zinsser writes, three in particular contribute to disparities in early childhood expulsion: “being a boy, being Black and being big.” The more these “three Bs” describe a child, the greater the likelihood adults will be biased against that child. Black boys are perceived as being “dangerous or aggressive” (At 4 years old? Unfortunately, yes), which eventually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as teachers anticipate misbehavior among kids who’ve been stereotyped as disruptive or dangerous.
“In light of all this evidence,” Zinsser writes, “it is clear that American preschools are choked with the same ‘smog of racism’ that Dr. Beverly Tatum (Can We Talk About Race?) described in high schools nearly 20 years ago.”
The Kids Aren’t to Blame; the Issues Are Real
And yet, what’s a teacher to do? What’s a school to do? Some of the case studies Zinsser presents offer truly frightening portraits of out-of-control children who, though preschoolers, have inflicted serious damage on school personnel or classmates. A 3-year-old’s tantrum turns into something else when they’re strong enough to throw a chair, shove another child to the ground, or kick a teacher hard enough to require stitches.
Zinsser approaches the topic of expulsion through an ecological lens, pointing out that the process occurs on multiple levels at once, with children, teachers, parents and administrators all experiencing the process differently.
We expect a lot of providers, she writes. They work in a system that routinely discounts their value, and they report more stress and worse physical health than their non-teaching peers. Preschool teachers are among the most economically insecure workers in the U.S., with a median annual wage that generally hovers just above the federal poverty line. The demands on these educators are colossal. Many even say they can’t easily take breaks or step out of the classroom for a minute—even if they need to step away from a disruptive student and take a few deep breaths to regulate their own emotions.
Early childhood teachers may enter the workforce because they are empathetic to the needs of children who face adversity but may not have the tools, experience or support to be effective in the face of a 4-year-old in bloody-murder-tantrum mode.
“To me,” Zinsser writes, “the exclusion of a child is indicative of a teacher at the end of their rope—a teacher so emotionally or physically exhausted that they must triage how to expend their limited remaining energy.”
Promising Paths, But Few and Far Between
Throughout her excellent book, Zinsser describes programs and approaches that can intervene and interrupt problematic behavior. Workplace climate and culture are decisive, with “high effort” programs engaging in the complex process of working with a family to address a child’s disruptive behavior. But for teachers and administrators trying to cope with chaos in the classroom with inadequate staffing and anorexic budgets, it may seem that just getting rid of “that kid” is the only solution.
It doesn’t have to be this way, nor should it. No Longer Welcome thoughtfully details how parents, teachers, preschool administrators, researchers and policymakers all have a role to play in ensuring that no child is excluded, and all can remain in high-quality early care and education settings. Zinsser outlines roles that every member of the field, from classroom aide to legislator, must play in sustaining this change.
More than 20 percent of 2- to 5-year-olds display “challenging” behaviors. If 20 percent of children in a school had peanut allergies, Zinsser writes, and a school persisted in serving peanut butter in the cafeteria, parents, pediatricians and politicians would be outraged and demand structural reform. Peanut allergies affect only 1.4 percent of U.S. children, yet entire infrastructures have shifted to rightfully accommodate their needs. Nobody blames the children for being allergic, but we do blame children who need help managing their emotions.
The time has come, Zinsser writes, to flip the script and consider that the deficiency lies with the adults in the picture. The kids deserve support and huge scoops of compassion.
Dr. Katherine M. Zinsser is an Associate Professor of Community & Prevention Research in the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Psychology Department. She studies classroom interactions, supports and policies that impact young children’s emotional well-being and the well-being of the professionals who care for them. Her University of Chicago research team conducts action research in collaboration with community stakeholders and practitioners.
K.C. Compton worked as a reporter, editor and columnist for newspapers throughout the Rocky Mountain region for 20 years before moving to the Kansas City area as an editor for Mother Earth News. She has been in Seattle since 2016, enjoying life as a freelance and contract writer and editor.