In 2016 an estimated 50,000 preschoolers were suspended for bad behavior, according to an estimate published by The Center for American Progress earlier this month. Another 17,000 are estimated to have been expelled.
The estimates were taken from the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health. The most news-making question of that survey was “In the past 12 months, were you ever asked to keep your child home from any child care or preschool because of their behavior (things like hitting, kicking, biting, tantrums, or disobeying)?” 2.1 percent of parents responding to the survey responded “yes.”
That response rate has led to important investigations of disparities in suspension and expulsion rates at the preschool level. Black preschoolers, for example, were more than twice as likely to be suspended or expelled than white preschoolers. The suspension and expulsion rates are also highly gendered: 82 percent of suspended and expelled preschoolers are boys.
The question about the overall suspension and expulsion rate has been one of the more widely-reported items from the National Survey of Children’s Health. Survey questions addressing the behavior of the nation’s three- to five-year-olds are useful in better understanding that suspension and expulsion rate.
When asked “How often does this child become angry or anxious when going from one activity to another,” 56.9 percent of parents answered “all,” “most,” or “some” of the time. A majority of preschool-aged children get angry and anxious.
When asked “When compared to children his or her age, how often is this child able to sit still,” 53.8 percent of parents replied “most of the time,” while another 26.2 percent responded “some” or “none” of the time. A majority of preschool-aged children have trouble sitting down.
When asked “How often does this child lose control of his or her temper when things do not go his or her way,” 14.3 percent of parents responded “all” or “most” of the time. Another 70.6 percent of parents responded “some” of the time. A majority of preschool-aged children have trouble controlling their tempers.
Preschoolers have trouble following instructions, sitting still, and regulating their emotions. Some preschoolers are suspended after failing to follow instructions, sit still, or regulate their emotions. We have to conclude, then, that many preschoolers are being suspended for being preschoolers.
There are clearly enormous difficulties in managing a classroom full of children still learning to be good humans. This problem is only compounded by students who are developmentally delayed or who are experiencing trauma at home.
There is good reason to avoid suspension and expulsion. These two forms of exclusionary discipline can have long-ranging effects. Children who are removed from school as punishment are less likely to succeed in school. According to one joint statement from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education, students who are suspended or expelled at young ages are more likely to drop out of high school and be incarcerated later in life.
The two departments are unequivocal in their advice about suspensions and expulsions at young ages. These “two stressful and negative experiences young children and their families may encounter in early childhood programs, should be prevented, severely limited, and eventually eliminated.”
Parents who are concerned about preschool suspension rates can get involved in multiple ways. At the local level, they can request their preschool’s policy on suspensions and expulsions and, if necessary, advocate for changes to that policy.
At the state level, they can petition for banning preschool suspensions and expulsions. This year, a handful of states, including California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas, have drafted or passed legislation to ban suspensions and expulsions at the preschool level. They join states like Connecticut, which passed a law banning suspensions and expulsions for preschool through second grade unless a student’s behavior is a danger to others. After passing the law, the state decreased school suspensions by one third in the 2015-2016 school year.