Preschool Expulsion: The Promise of Preschool and How Arizona Children Are Missing Out

By Alison Steier, Ph.D.

The promise of high-quality preschool goes well beyond learning colors, letters, numbers and how to cut with scissors. It represents a protected release—often the first release—for young children into the world outside the nuclear family, a gentle entry into more possibilities.

Children in such a preschool environment have the opportunity to learn a great deal about themselves and the social world: How do you make a friend? How do you manage big feelings? How do you wait your turn? Listen well? Cooperate? Speak up? Dare to try new things? These are the very skills that kindergarten teachers tell us they are thinking of when they talk about “school readiness.”

When children’s experiences are mediated by the skillful staff of a preschool, they learn what it means to be a member of a community, to have a feeling of “belonging.” They are welcomed in the morning, bid farewell at the end of the day and missed when absent. They are “seen,” understood and supported, even when their preschooler passions erupt in a whack to a peer or the destruction of a friend’s carefully constructed block tower, because the adults in this setting appreciate early childhood as a time that is, by definition, meant for making mistakes and for learning their society’s ropes.

This description of high-quality early care and education may seem like a tall promise, but in fact it is proportional to the unique needs and opportunities that early development presents. Early development proceeds with a rapidity that is unparalleled in the rest of the life span and, of course, it is not reserved only for the time that children are with their parents. Thus, early care and education providers are important promoters of and influences on children’s development.

For children who have had or are having early beginnings that provide sufficient security, support and stimulation, high-quality child care will echo and underscore their positive experiences at home. For children with difficult beginnings marked, perhaps, by loss, family disruption or trauma, high-quality child care offers positive possibilities to counter, or at least compete with, the pessimistic stance that negative life events or circumstances tend to encourage.

There is a catch. Those children who will not benefit cognitively, socially or emotionally are those in low-quality settings that do not meet their needs and those who are expelled from their program altogether.

National data indicate that suspensions and expulsions from early care and education settings, as disciplinary measures for challenging child behavior, are alarmingly common. Young children in pre-K programs are expelled at three times the rate of children in kindergarten through 12th grade. For child care programs, the rate of expulsion is 13 times the rate for K-12. Research further indicates that there are significant racial and gender disparities in the practices of suspensions and expulsions, with young boys of color being expelled much more frequently than other children.

These findings, first published in 2005 by Dr. Walter Gilliam at the Yale University Child Study Center and replicated in 2014 by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, are based on studies of publicly funded pre-K programs across the US and relied on acknowledged or reported expulsions. Therefore, though the data indicate that suspensions and expulsions affect thousands of young children each year, they are an underestimate of the problem. They do not include rates at private preschool programs, and they do not include what are known as “soft expulsions”—the many ways in which families find themselves on the other side of the preschool door without having been explicitly told that they may no longer bring their child. For example, when a parent is persistently asked to pick up his or her child in the middle of the work day because of difficult behavior, at some point that becomes an untenable child care arrangement.

To be clear, not all settings are optimal for all children. When a child care provider or teacher and a family agree on this point and another placement is sought, that is not an expulsion. Expulsions are unilateral decisions on the part of the provider or, as in soft expulsions, decisions made by families because they feel they have no choice. Such exclusionary practices are harmful to children and families and can influence a number of negative developmental, health and educational outcomes.

Young students who are suspended or expelled are as much as 10 times more likely to drop out of high school, experience academic failure and grade retention, hold negative views of school, and face incarceration than those who are not. Although the majority of the research on the adverse effects of school suspensions and expulsions has focused on elementary, middle and high school settings, there is evidence that earlier suspensions and expulsions are associated with such experiences in later school grades. Therefore, we have good reason to worry that the negative outcomes of these disciplinary practices that we know affect older children also portend poorly for little children.

There is a preschool “chain of expulsion” that is often set in place, one leading to another, and is a pattern well-known to those working in early care and education settings. A child (and family) is thus experiencing repeated failure without the underlying emotional, psychological, developmental or other problems being addressed. All of the promise that early care and education can hold is lost to these children, including the consistent opportunity to learn early academic concepts. Experience establishes expectations. If we want children to expect to succeed in the next place that is called “school” with the next person who is called a “teacher,” if we want them to feel that school is a place for them, their early experiences have to teach them that.

The promise that good early care and education holds is substantial. Preschoolers are too young yet to know this lesson, but we adults must never forget it: You should always keep your promise.

Resources in Arizona

Research has shown that suspension and expulsion rates decline when child care providers and teachers have access to mental health consultation and expertise around managing challenging child behavior.

Arizona is addressing the problem of pre-K suspensions and expulsions in a number of ways:

  • Birth to Five Helpline: Arizona’s only free helpline for parents, caregivers and professionals with questions or concerns about children ages birth to 5. Topics include sleep, child development, fussiness/colic, challenging behaviors, parenting, feeding/nutrition, community resources, support to child care/preschools and more. 877-705-KIDS (5437),
  • Inclusion Program: Designed to help preschool and child care providers support children ages birth to 5 with developmental delays or disabilities in the classroom. With coaching and training, preschools and child care providers find they are better equipped to serve all children, not simply those who are typically developing or just those with special needs. 602-633-8454,
  • Professional Development and Training: Nationally-recognized education and training programs to professionals and organizations working with young children across Arizona, the U.S. and internationally. 602-266-5976,
  • Quality First: Arizona’s Quality Improvement Rating System partners with early childhood providers to provide coaching and assessment to improve early care and education environments so young children can begin school safe, healthy and ready to succeed. 877-803-7234,
  • Smart Support: Arizona’s Mental Health Consultation System that partners early childhood mental health consultants with child care providers to promote the social and emotional development of all children in care and help providers respond to children with behavioral challenges. 866-330-5520,

Dr. Alison Steier is director of mental health services at Southwest Human Development, Arizona’s largest nonprofit dedicated to early childhood development. Learn more at

All content in this article, including any advice or commentary from Southwest Human Development staff and/or others, should be considered an opinion and is provided for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for medical or other professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the direct advice of your own trusted professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding the child/ren in your care. Southwest Human Development does not recommend or endorse any specific tests, products, procedures or other information that may be mentioned in this article. You may contact Southwest Human Development’s Birth to Five Helpline at 1-877-705-KIDS (5437) to speak with one of our early childhood professionals for personalized assistance. Birth to Five Helpline specialists are available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.