Half of the 250 children who are expelled from preschool each day are black boys
In early October 2022, Jane Stadnik, a family resources specialist at the Parent Education & Advocacy Leadership (PEAL) Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, received a frantic call from the mother of a three-year-old boy who was about to be expelled from preschool. The school was weary of his disruptive behavior, which they claimed included throwing blocks, not following directions, refusing to sit at “circle time,” and regularly running out of the classroom. Stadnik says this would normally be considered “typical preschool developmental behavior,” especially for a child with a speech disability.
The boy’s parents were already at their wits’ end: school had recently shortened his day because of his behavior, forcing his mother to quit her job at a grocery store to take care of him. Parents had been getting persistent calls from school every day about the boy’s behavior, and his father, who had just started a new job, had to keep asking for time off from work to attend meetings with school management. On November 17th, the school “deregistered,” or more simply, “exmatriculated,” the three-year-old forever. Now his parents are trying to find another kindergarten so that he doesn’t fall behind. They worry the isolation will make it harder for him to adjust to kindergarten.
Statewide, preschoolers are being expelled at a rate about three and a half times that of K-12 students, says Walter Gilliam, who is currently director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale School of Medicine, but Will became executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska in March. The rate is likely much higher since private preschools can self-report their expulsion and are much less likely to provide accurate numbers. They are also not bound by legal restrictions on public schools that require children to attend school. Expulsion from school is an underreported phenomenon that has been on the rise in recent years. According to data from the 2017 National Survey of Children’s Health, 250 children are suspended or expelled from preschool every day in the United States.
In addition, the expulsion rate is much higher among black boys. Half of the 17,000 preschoolers who were suspended or expelled statewide in 2021 were black boys — though they make up about 20 percent of enrolled children. (The three-year-old boy Stadnik met last October was listed by the school as mixed race with African Americans.)
Social science researchers have focused on the difficulties faced by black preschoolers. A study published in September 2021 in the journal Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences found that teachers were more likely to complain about black students, especially black boys. These teachers identified black student behavior as more problematic compared to white students, the authors wrote, although these differences “were not seen in directly observed behavior in the laboratory.”
As part of the study, the researchers used a tool called the Disruptive Behavior Diagnostic Observation Schedule (DB-DOS), which is specifically designed to highlight negative behavior in preschoolers. In the lab, a child could be given a remote control car with a non-functioning controller, and at the same time outside observers would assess how the child reacted. “That way we’re not dependent on a teacher or a parent to self-report the behavior,” says study author Terri Sabol, associate professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University. “When we relied on external observers to report, we found no racial differences in disruptive behavior.”
Additionally, Gilliam’s 2016 research at the Yale Child Study Center used eye-tracking software to track where teachers’ eyes were directed when they were prepared to spot bad behavior in the classroom. In the study, teachers were more likely to persecute black boys and generally seemed to expect more disruptive behavior from black children, Gilliam says. “If you’re looking for bad behavior, you’ll eventually find it,” he says. “And you’re more likely to overlook problematic behavior that’s coming from places you don’t expect.”
Stadnik, whose job it is to help children with mental and physical disabilities to start school, knows the data only too well. In their experience, when a black child is responsible for the exact same violation as a white child, they are far more likely to be deported. And, she says, “they’re also going to be a lot less likely to fight back.” Tensions can get so high that parents give up because they don’t want to expose their children to a school where they aren’t wanted, Stadnik says.
Once a child is deported, there can be lasting repercussions for both them and their parents. When a school intervenes negatively this early, it puts a child on a course that is difficult to reverse. “The number of cumulative years of learning loss starts much younger,” says Arthur Reynolds, a professor in the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota.
A December 2018 report by the Institute for Child Success in Greenville, SC found that preschool expulsion predicts early school dropout in later grades. “Young children who are expelled or suspended from school are up to 10 times more likely to drop out of high school, experience academic failure and repeat grades, have negative attitudes about school, and face incarceration than those who don’t do,” the report says. Black boys make up a smaller proportion of enrolled students than white boys, and early expulsion widens this educational gap. This leaves black students feeling marginalized and excluded from an environment where they are already a minority.
The repercussions are also felt by their parents, who are upset that their preschooler is not succeeding and equally concerned that they don’t have a safe place for their child while they are at work. In an unpublished paper to be presented at the American Educational Research Association conference in April, researchers found that families who reported that a preschooler was recently deported had “negative emotional and financial consequences that affected their daily lives , their routines and their family dynamics”. Additionally, parents whose child is expelled from preschool are more likely to send them to unsafe, unlicensed childcare providers out of desperation, says Ashley Harden Reid, a researcher at the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development. “Once a child is deported, it limits a parent’s options,” adds Reid.
In recent years, many states have taken steps to prevent deportation by banning the practice outright. The results are mixed. A total of 18 states, including Illinois, South Dakota, Alabama, Nevada and Tennessee, have banned the deportation of preschool children, but this measure has not proven to be a quick fix. Developmental psychologist Katherine Zinsser, author of No Longer Welcome: The Epidemic of Expulsion from Early Childhood Education, says preschools will find other ways to remove children, either by molesting the parents to removing them themselves, which is how shortening the days children are allowed to participate, isolating children from their peers, or reassigning them to other programs.
In addition to banning the practice, Zinsser says steps must be taken to address teacher stress, which is a predictor of expulsion. “Preschool is just as smothered in the smog of systemic racism as all our other societies, but that’s not the only thing we have to deal with,” says Zinsser. Implicit bias or unintentional racial bias affecting a person’s judgment and decision-making is most noticeable when teachers are stressed and unsupported. When classes are smaller and teachers have time to engage with these kids, things don’t escalate to expulsion nearly as quickly. “These teachers don’t have time to go to the bathroom, so we can’t expect them to be thoughtful educators,” says Zinsser.
Research has shown that teachers who reported more stress at work were also responsible for more school expulsions. A March 2022 study published in the journal School Mental Health found that teacher stress predicted a higher risk of exclusion for children of color. A 2006 study in Infants & Young Children magazine showed that nearly 40 percent of preschool teachers surveyed in Massachusetts had expelled students over a 12-month period, but that rate was only 12 percent in the subgroup of teachers who had little stress at work and fewer class sizes. Additionally, the same study found that poor teacher mental health, linked to work stress, also increases the likelihood of expulsion from school.
As a countermeasure, empathy training has proven itself over the course of school. When teachers learn about their students’ lives, they are much less likely to show implicit bias when punishing them. In a 2016 study by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, teachers took a two-day online empathy course on How to Best Manage Difficult Interactions with Students, which totaled 70 minutes. Researchers found that empathy training halved suspension rates in older children.
When teachers don’t feel supported, they tend to exclude because they don’t feel able to explore other options. Classrooms are getting bigger this year because many preschools have had to close during the pandemic and many teachers have quit the profession altogether, Stadnik says. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 170,100 job openings are forecast for each year over the next decade, and the problem seems to be getting worse, not better. Children who are prone to behavioral problems have even more trouble adjusting, and with teacher shortages “many teachers are threatening to quit if a child is allowed to stay,” Stadnik says. “And when the teachers say, ‘We or them,’ the kid will be the one who leaves.”