Twelve years ago, Yale University researchers uncovered a surprising fact: Preschoolers were more likely to be expelled than children in any other grade. In fact, preschoolers were being expelled at rates more than three times higher than school-aged children. Subsequent research found that the effect of this phenomenon was also racialized. A report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights showed that African American children represented 18 percent of public preschool enrollment, but 48 percent of preschoolers receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions.
While these numbers are undeniably appalling, they only account for a small portion of the overall preschool population. Many 3- and 4-year-olds attend preschool in private programs, which are not required to report suspensions and expulsions.
The Center for American Progress analyzed new data from the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health, finding that an estimated 50,000 preschoolers were suspended at least once. Another 17,000 or so preschoolers are estimated to have been expelled.* This is the first nationally representative survey of preschool discipline that includes private preschools as well as public schools. Which means that, across all types of settings, the average school day sees roughly 250 instances of a preschooler being suspended or expelled.
Zero tolerance discipline has gone too far
These disciplinary rates are particularly shocking since suspending and expelling young children has not been shown to produce positive behavioral results. Quite the opposite, such practices can often intensify the challenges faced by these children and their parents, and have even been discussed as the first stage in a preschool-to-prison pipeline.
As with incarceration, consistent patterns of racial discrimination have emerged from each successive study of preschool suspension and expulsion. Yale University Professor Walter Gilliam first identified them in his team’s groundbreaking research more than 10 years ago. At that time, it was found that the three best predictors of preschool expulsion were the three B’s: “big, Black or boy.” That is, teachers are more likely to recommend preschool suspension or expulsion when the child is black, a boy, or is physically bigger than their peers. Obviously, this puts black boys in the greatest danger of being excluded from early learning opportunities.