Laden with valentines, my husband and I went to my son’s preschool for, what we thought was, a regular meeting. We dropped of the valentines and goodies and peered through the window at our son playing cars with a male aide. We were slightly nervous, because our son had been having problems at school. There had been some hitting, some loudness during quiet times, some un-cooperativeness, but nothing that we felt was out of the ordinary for an active little boy. We knew we would be talking about behavior problems, but, to our shock, an hour later my husband and I were cleaning out my son’s cubby and taking him home with us.
While this story may seem unusual, it is actually much more common than one would expect. Research suggests that preschoolers are expelled at a rate of 6.7 per 1,000 students, which is three times higher than the rate of expulsions of students from K to 12 (Gilliam 2005). Public preschools expel students at a much lower rate than privately run preschools, but even in public preschools 10% of teachers report expelling a student during a given year. Furthermore, boys and African-Americans are disproportionately affected by preschool expulsions.
So, are our preschools just filled with delinquents?
No. Gilliam, the foremost expert on preschool expulsions, writes that, “Preschool expulsions and suspensions are not child behaviors; they are adult decisions.” While preschools themselves may use the language of “not a good fit” or cite aggressive behaviors, the risk factors (besides sex and race) for preschool expulsions depend primarily on program factors and teacher factors (like teacher depression). Preschools that are better equipped to work with children with challenging behaviors have low ratios, small group size, and outside support, like consultants. This explains why public preschools are better equipped to deal with these kind of behaviors; they often have a slew of psychologists, social workers, and other specialized faculty available.
Prior to my son’s explosion, we knew that he was having difficulties, but we didn’t realize he was expel worthy.
My son is very physical and very active. In previous articles, I have talked about my own difficulties working with him. But, on top of everything, it is important to remember that he is just four. Our preschool did not follow their written policies for expulsions, and they did not give us any warnings either. It is an understatement to say that I am quite angry with how they handled the whole situation. Their behavior was thoughtless and cruel. They were not interested in working with us or our son. They just wanted him, as the head teacher said, “out.” Of course, the research shows such a negative teaching environment is terrible for children.
Furthermore, this kind of adult behavior is troubling, because it is counter to the whole purpose of preschool. As a lifelong learner, I was eager to instill a love of learning in my son, but instead his experience of preschool was a disaster. After his explosion, which occurred around the same time as an independent evaluation of him for services, the social worker who evaluated him told us about the toxic preschool environment. Apparently, he had been labeled as a “bad” kid and, she noted, that even during her observation they seemed to blame him for things that he had not even done. This observations coincides with my own experiences of my son, who would often lament that he got in trouble for “doing nothing.”
Another problem with preschool expulsions is that they often coincide with the discovery of developmental disorders and mental health problems.
My son, as I have described before, struggles with some difficulties, of which we are just learning. The response to this kind of discovery should be one of openness and understanding, but instead, his preschool did not want to make accommodations for him. During our fateful meeting, the director told us point blank that she did not “want to manage him.” Our son is not a thing to be managed. He is a little boy who lives in a confusing world and needs strong adults to help him learn the appropriate ways to operate in that world.
After his expulsion, I didn’t know what to do. I feared putting him into another preschool, since the evidence shows that the chance of re-expulsions are usually quite high, particularly in private, religious, or for-profit preschools. After doing research and discussing things with a number of knowledgeable people, we decided to see if he would qualify for special education in our school district (and he did). I am so pleased with the team that he has behind him on his IEP; during our meetings, they lamented his treatment at his previous preschool and now we have a plan for him to succeed at his new one. During our visit to the integrated classroom, my son had fun and didn’t even want to leave. The program doesn’t start until September, but so far, from my experiences, I am quite pleased. Up front I asked them about their expulsion policies; they do not expel students from preschool.
Even if your son or daughter is never going to be expelled, and this is not a problem that you will ever have to deal with, you should still care.
The way that preschools approach expulsions not only can show how teachers manage problems on a daily basis but also highlight the way that the management itself addresses problems (in general). In a preschool level, you would expect schools to be solution-oriented, positive, open, and child-centered. Expulsions are none of these, particularly when they come without parent consultation or attempts at accommodations. This kind of behavior is reflective of how schools approach problems; its not just how they address problems with one student, but instead, it is likely systemic to the school as a whole.
Furthermore, preschool expulsions, as Gilliam stresses, “make no sense from an investment perspective.” If we want our children to do well in the future, including boys and African-Americans, we need to treat them fairly in the beginning. We need to address adult biases and work with children to develop the skills they need for kindergarten and beyond; expelling students doesn’t do either of these.