Published Online: May 17, 2005
Published in Print: May 18, 2005, as Preschoolers Expelled From School at Rates Exceeding That of K-12

Preschoolers Expelled From School at Rates Exceeding That of K-12

Prekindergarten children are being expelled from their classes for behavior problems at a higher rate than students in K-12 schools, a study released May 17 reveals.

For every 1,000 preschoolers enrolled in state pre-K programs, 6.67 are being tossed out of school, compared with 2.09 per 1,000 students in elementary, middle, and high schools, according to the research. Expulsion rates are even higher for preschoolers enrolled in community-based programs.

“Expulsion during the prekindergarten years robs students from the benefits that quality preschool provides,” says the study conducted by Walter S. Gilliam, a psychologist and an associate research scientist at the Yale University Child Study Center. “The students may enter elementary school already behind their counterparts on cognitive, academic, social, and behavioral dimensions—likely to never catch up.”

A part of Mr. Gilliam’s National Prekindergarten Study, the research also shows that when teachers have access to mental-health professionals for consultation, the chance that a child will be permanently removed from preschool is far less.

The thought of preschoolers’ being ejected also suggests to some experts that pre-K teachers—many of whom don’t have college degrees—need more training in how to handle difficult youngsters.

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“We would encourage all programs to think about an array of supports for teachers,” said Marilou Hyson, a senior adviser at the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children. “Professional training is important to understand typical behavior in children.”

Mr. Gilliam’s analysis, which was based on data from 52 state-financed pre-K programs in 40 states during the 2003-04 school year, was conducted via telephone interviews with almost 3,900 pre-K teachers. They were asked how many children had been expelled from their programs because of behavior problems during the previous year.

Those rates were then compared against expulsion rates for K-12 students listed in the U.S. Department of Education’s “Elementary and Secondary School Survey: 2000.”

The teachers’ answers showed that 4-year-olds were 50 percent more likely to be ousted than 2- or 3-year-olds, and that boys were expelled at a rate that was 4½ times greater than the rate for girls. African-American children were twice as likely as Hispanic and white children to be expelled, and more than five times as likely to be kicked out as Asian-American children.

Due Process

Some observers say the expulsion rates, particularly at nonschool sites, are the result of private programs’ greater freedom to remove a child.

If pre-K children are public school pupils, said Naomi Gittins, a staff lawyer for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va., they should have the same due process rights as K-12 students. But if the program is some kind of “quasi” public school program, it’s possible that those rights do not apply, she said.

Sally Flagler, a preschool psychologist in Cary, N.C., and the chairwoman of the early-childhood interest group for the National Association of School Psychologists, said one explanation for the aggressive behavior could be young children’s exposure to violent television and video games.

Principals say behavior problems among pre-K children can often be addressed before they become serious because parents generally are so involved in their children’s schools at that age.

But Katherine James, the principal of the 540-student Rudolph Elementary School in the District of Columbia, recalls a case in which she was close to beginning the process of expulsion.

“I felt it was imperative to have a pre-K child leave our school because he was showing violent behavior with no remedy. He was throwing chairs, endangering others,” she said. “We worked for months with the parents, the counselor, et cetera, but the behavior continued.”

Ultimately, the parents withdrew the child, Ms. James said.

Providers Matter

While Mr. Gilliam found that the expulsion rates varied significantly by state, they were higher in prekindergarten than they were in K-12 in all but Kentucky, Louisiana, and South Carolina. In fact, Kentucky reported no pre-K expulsions.

The rate was the highest in New Mexico, with 21.1 per 1,000 children enrolled.

Mr. Gilliam suggests in the study that the settings in which public pre-K classes are offered may play a part in whether children are being dismissed.

Teachers in public-school-based programs or Head Start sites expel preschoolers at the lowest rates, for example.

Mr. Gilliam recommends that states with public preschool programs write clear policies for how teachers and administrators can support young children with significant behavior problems, and design alternatives to expelling preschoolers. Those strategies might include having aides assigned to an individual child or even setting up alternative preschool programs with smaller class sizes and teachers with specialized training.

Ms. Flagler, the North Carolina psychologist, said she believes that aggressive behavior among young children is probably escalating.

Many administrators agree.

“I did have a 1st grader enroll several years ago who came to my school already having been assigned a probation officer,” said Bonnie Tryon, the principal at the 184-student Golding Elementary School in Cobleskill, N.Y. “That was an interesting situation.”

But many principals would also argue that expulsion doesn’t solve a behavior problem.

“I am guessing it is done by some school boards to get the attention of the student’s parent,” said Nancy Moga, the principal of the 200-pupil Callaghan Elementary School in Covington, Va.

Special services, Ms. Flagler said, can be provided to children in addition to their regular classes instead of removal from the program.

For example, she said, Smart Start—a public-private venture in North Carolina that provides money for early-childhood programs—has begun awarding grants to local providers to hire play therapists for children with severe behavior problems. The therapists use toys and games to help children talk about their anger and other feelings without fearing they’ll get in trouble.

With pre-K programs being expanded in the hope that children will acquire the skills they need for elementary school, she said, it’s possible that program leaders have “lost sight that there is a whole child there.”

States, Mr. Gilliam writes, should make sure that all pre-K providers, regardless of setting, should give children the same levels of support and “procedural protections” pertaining to expulsion.

Vol. 24, Issue 37, Pages 1,12

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