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What Could Make Less Sense than Expelling a Preschooler?

prek expulsions

By Walter S. Gilliam, PhD (Director, The Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, Yale University)

There are some children who do not benefit from early care and education programs – the ones not allowed to attend because they were kicked out.

In fact, preschool expulsions occur at a rate more than three times that of grades K through 12.

Decades of research tell us that high quality early care and education programs impact children in meaningful and lasting ways, especially for those most at-risk for educational challenges. The primary goal of early care and education is to promote overall school readiness, especially for those needing the most assistance. Clearly, expelling or suspending preschoolers counters the overall objective of early education programs – to promote school readiness in order to improve later educational success. 

According to a March 2014 U.S. Department of Education report, expulsions and suspensions in our early care and education programs are greatly disproportionate to boys and African American children.

  1. Specifically, “black children represent 18% of preschool enrollment, but 48% of children receiving more than one out-of-school suspension.”

  2. Similarly, boys represent 54% of the preschool enrollment, but 79% of children suspended once and 82% of children suspended multiple times.

Although many may have been surprised by the findings in this report, national data on this problem have been known for about a decade.

The first national study and policy brief of the rates of expulsion and suspension were released in May 2005. It was a nationally representative study of nearly 4,000 randomly selected state-funded prekindergarten classrooms.

  1. Ten percent of all teachers reported having permanently expelled at least one child in the past year because of challenging behaviors. The rate of expulsions in these prekindergarten programs, serving children 3- to 4-years old, was found to be 2 times higher than for students in grades K through 12.

  2. For preschool-age child care programs outside state prekindergarten systems, the rates were far higher. Thirty-nine percent of child care providers reported at least one expulsion in the past year, creating an expulsion rate more than 13 times higher than K through 12.

Preschool expulsions and suspensions are not child behaviors; they are adult decisions.

Indeed, several factors other than child behavior are related to an increased risk for expulsion. These include program factors (e.g., group sizes, child-teacher ratios, and the availability of consultants and support staff to assist teachers with managing challenging behaviors), as well as teacher factors (e.g., teacher depression and teacher job stress).

Disparities in opportunity begin at a very young age. Similar to the 2014 report, the 2005 report indicated an alarming degree of gender and racial disparity in preschool expulsions and suspensions. Preschool boys were expelled at 4.5 times the rate of girls, and African Americans were expelled at twice the rate of their non-Black peers, with disparities in suspension even greater.

The disproportionate expulsion and suspension of African-American children creates two terrible problems.

First, it makes no sense from an investment perspective. We know from decades of early education research that low-income children benefit the most from high-quality early education. We also know that children of color unfortunately are more likely to live in low-income families and in low-income communities. These are the children that provide the best economic return on investing in early education. Disproportionately expelling and suspending children of color sabotages the investment potential of early education and makes no sense for sound policy or national investment strategies.

Second, it violates any reasonable definition of fairness. Most well-cited studies of the effectiveness of early education, used to establish the basis for public investment in preschool, were conducted on child samples that were either mostly or overwhelming African American. In fact, the single most commonly cited study showing the long-term effects and return on investment from early education is the Perry Preschool Study, a study of 123 preschoolers living in low-income homes in Ypsilanti, Michigan – all were African American. What right do researchers have to “sell” the importance of early education on the basis of research overwhelmingly conducted on low-income children of color, and then turn attention elsewhere when those same children are disproportionately excluded from the programs their data were used to create?

Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, we are still struggling to ensure that children of color are afforded equal access to educational opportunities. Access means entry into educational opportunities, and it also means protection from having those same opportunities later denied. Disparities in preschool expulsion and suspension are a matter of civil rights involving our nation’s youngest learners.

So, why are boys and African American children at far greater risk for being expelled or suspended from preschool?

Some research suggests that boys, as well as children in low-income families, may exhibit higher rates of challenging behaviors. Also, children of color often attend lower quality preschools and child care programs where fewer resources and supports are available. However, neither of these two factors alone or in combination seem to account for all of the gender and racial disparities in preschool expulsion and suspension rates.

Whenever I present findings on the rates of preschool expulsion and suspension at conferences and meetings, I am frequently asked whether intentional or unintentional biases about boys and children of color contribute to the elevated rates for these children. Unfortunately, that research has never been conducted, so we do not know for certain – and that’s simply not a good answer.

In addition to a host of common-sense recommendations for programs, one promising approach for reducing harmful expulsions and suspensions among all children is investing in systems of early childhood mental health consultation, which pair trained mental health professionals with early care and education providers to collaborate on solutions to challenging classroom behaviors. Recent research shows this form of intervention to be cost-effective for reducing the challenging behaviors that often lead to expulsions and suspensions while building teachers’ skills sets. And if the supportive consultation could be provided within the infant and toddler years – before preschool – that would be ideal.


Gilliam, W. S. (2005). Prekindergarteners left behind: Expulsion rates in state prekindergarten systems. New Haven, CT: Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy. Retrieved from:

U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. (2014). Civil rights data collection: Data snapshot (early childhood). Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from:


Walter S. Gilliam, PhD, is the Director of The Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy and Associate Professor of Child Psychiatry and Psychology at the Child Study Center, Yale School of Medicine. He is a member of the board of directors for ZERO TO THREE and Child Care Aware of America, a research fellow of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), and a former Senior Advisor to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Dr. Gilliam is co-recipient of the prestigious 2008 Grawemeyer Award in Education for the coauthored book A Vision for Universal Preschool Education.

Dr. Gilliam’s research involves early childhood education and intervention policy analysis (specifically how policies translate into effective services), ways to improve the quality of prekindergarten and child care services, the impact of early childhood education programs on children’s school readiness, and effective methods for reducing classroom behavior problems and preschool expulsion. His scholarly writing addresses early childhood care and education programs, school readiness, and developmental assessment of young children. Dr. Gilliam has led national analyses of state-funded prekindergarten policies and mandates, how prekindergarten programs are being implemented across the range of policy contexts, and the effectiveness of these programs at improving school readiness and educational achievement, as well as experimental and quasi-experimental studies on methods to improve early education quality. His work frequently has been covered in major national and international news outlets for print (e.g., New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, LA Times), radio (e.g., NPR), and television (e.g., CNN Headline News, NBC TODAY Show, CBS Early Show, ABC Good Morning America, ABC World News Tonight, FOX News). Dr. Gilliam actively provides consultation to state and federal decision-makers in the U.S. and other countries.

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