Preschool expulsions have reached epidemic proportions, when you consider the overwhelming impact they have on the short- and long-term development of young children. Preschool provides young children the chance to learn to work collaboratively and get along with others, to develop self-control, and to learn important school-readiness skills. A national survey found that 1 in 10 preschool teachers have expelled at least one child and that young children in child care are expelled at much higher rates, more than five times the rate of children in grades K-12 (Gilliam, 2005). Not surprisingly, the children who need preschool the most are the most likely to be expelled. Also not surprising is that a teacher’s perception of the challenging behaviors and ability to handle them effectively can determine whether a child gets expelled; whether he suffers a terrible rejection and loss of a safe and structured learning environment, or whether he has a chance to learn to be successful in a group environment.
Let’s take a closer look at what it feels like to be expelled through the eyes of the child, and to see the significant difference a teacher’s approach can make.
Take 1: Charlie and Ms. Tina
My name is Charlie. I just turned 3 and I am on my way to preschool. My mommy is really stressed out. There is so much to do, and my daddy leaves for work super early, so my mommy has to do it all by herself—get my brother and sister ready to make their bus in time, and then get me to school so she can go to her daytime job. That’s right—mommy has to work 2 jobs—one at night and one during the day, so we can keep our apartment and not have to move in with Aunt Theresa. Our car ride is super tense—mommy wasn’t happy with me because I dilly-dallied. I have a really hard time getting organized in the morning and I wasn’t ready in time. Not feeling too good about myself right now.
When we get to school, I don’t want mommy to leave. It’s hard to say goodbye when we’ve had a bad morning. I start to cry and won’t let her go. My teacher, Ms. Tina, makes mommy leave and tells me that I need to find something to do, but I am so upset I can’t think straight. I just stand there, frozen. So Ms. Tina takes my arm and brings me to the block area. But I’m not ready to play and I don’t want to do blocks, so I just knock them all down. Ms. Tina asks what in the world I am thinking and makes me go sit in the time-out chair.
Then it’s circle time, which I love—but it’s very hard for me to sit still. I feel all jumpy inside. My brain is telling me not to move, but my body just wants to keep going. I get this idea to hop up and down like the frog in the book we’re reading. The other kids start to get up and jump just like me. But in her angry voice, Ms. Tina tells everyone to sit right back down. Then she says that since I can’t control my body, I have to go sit at a table away from the group. I am always getting into trouble.
Later on the playground, a bunch of kids are playing a chasing game and I try to join in, but Layla says I can’t. I am so mad that I kick her. She starts crying and Ms. Tina comes over and shouts, “Charlie, you can’t play with your friends if you’re just going to hurt them. You need to use your words. Tell Layla you’re sorry and go have a seat by that tree.” I didn’t mean to hurt Layla. I’m just not so good with words yet, or with controlling my really big feelings. Now I’m even angrier. I pick up a whole handful of mulch and throw it. Ms. Tina says, “OK, Charlie, you’re done. Time to call mom to pick you up.”
Mommy arrives and is fuming—like in the cartoons when fire comes out of people’s ears. Ms. Tina tells her, as if I’m not even there, “Charlie has no self-control and is putting other kids in danger. He can’t come to school if he can’t behave. ” My mommy starts to cry. She asks how is she supposed to work if she can’t take me anywhere? I am ruining her life! And if I can’t go back to school, I won’t get to learn how to be a good friend—which I want so badly. And I won’t get to learn all that cool stuff Ms. Tina shares with us at circle time, or make those fun projects, or be the line leader or be the snack helper. Now I just feel bad, and rejected, and alone, and even more out of control than I did before.
Children like Charlie are not purposefully misbehaving or making trouble. They struggle more than other children with self-regulation—managing their emotions and their bodily impulses. This leads to more intense reactions and more impulsive and disorganized behaviors. This dysregulation can be caused by a child’s temperament or neurological makeup, and also by living in highly stressful and chaotic environments. When children feel out of control on the inside, they act out of control on the outside. The fact is that even without challenges to their sensory systems, or significant stress in their worlds, children under 3 have very little self-control. They need support from parents and other caregivers to learn to manage their strong emotions and impulses, not shaming and punishment for behaviors they cannot control. Punitive, harsh approaches erode children’s self-esteem, decrease their ability to self-regulate, and lead to an increase, versus reduction, in maladaptive behaviors.
Further, when children are expelled, they lose critical opportunities to learn to function effectively in a group and to engage in dynamic learning experiences. Parents lose what should be a source of support—a teacher who helps them understand their child and provides crucial support and guidance. When children are expelled, this naturally increases parents’ stress, further taxing their patience and ability to engage in positive parenting practices to the child’s further detriment.
Take 2: Charlie and Ms. Patty
My name is Charlie. I just turned 3 and I am on my way to preschool. You already know we had a really stressful morning; that my mommy is mad about my dilly-dallying; and that I had a really hard time separating from her at school because we were in a bad place. But this time Ms. Patty is in charge. She comes over with the warmest smile and says to my mommy: “Tough morning, huh? Don’t I know about those!” Wow—my mommy relaxes a little. Then Ms. Patty crouches down to my eye level and says: “Charlie—we are so glad to see you! I know it’s hard to say goodbye to mom sometimes, but she needs to go do her job; and guess what, you also have an important job—that’s right–feeding the fish!” I see my mommy give a big smile to Ms. Patty. Then she gives me a hug and tells me that she knows I’m going to be a great helper and have a great day. I am so proud and excited to help Ms. Patty that I don’t even watch my mommy go out the door.
Then it’s circle time. Ms. Patty knows how hard it is for me to sit still, so she gives me a squishy ball to squeeze so I can move my body without disturbing the group. Ms. Patty really gets me. And then when I start to hop up and down like the frog in the book, instead of getting mad at me, she suggests that we all get up and act out the story. She turns my idea into something that makes everyone happy!
Later on the playground, a bunch of kids are playing a chasing game that looks like so much fun! I join in but Layla tells me I can’t play. I am so mad that I kick her and run away. Ms. Patty comes to me, holds me tightly, but warmly, and says, “Charlie, I know you were mad when Layla said you couldn’t play. And when your feelings are really big, you show it with your body. But kicking is not okay. It hurts. Let’s help you say sorry to Layla and tell her what you are feeling with your words.” She is so smart! She knows I don’t want to hurt other people—that’s not going to help me make friends. It’s just that when I’m upset, my mind and body get out of control and she is going to help me with that. Won’t that be awesome!
Now it’s time to go home. When mommy picks me up, Ms. Patty tells her that I love school—which I do—and that I am full of passion. That sounds really good to me. She also tells mommy that sometimes I have a hard time when I am mad or frustrated, and that we are working together on helping me learn ways to control my body and my feelings, and how proud she is of me for trying so hard—because it is really hard work. Mommy looks so happy and she gives me a big hug! Yay! Ms. Patty also says she would like to hear about mommy and daddy’s questions and ideas, and wants to plan a time to get together with them. Mommy loves this idea—she wants to learn ways to help me at home, so we can have less anger and more love. I’m all for that!
What a difference a teacher can make. How did Ms. Patty learn to remain loving, patient, respectful, and supportive in the face of Charlie’s challenging behaviors? For several reasons:
1) She had specific training in early childhood development and in understanding the root causes of challenging behaviors.
2) She has benefitted from the support of a mental health consultant who comes into the classroom and models how to remain empathic and loving, while also setting appropriate limits. This provides children the tools they need to cope and adapt in a group setting—skills they will need to succeed and thrive in the outside world. In fact, research shows that when teachers have access to consultation on managing challenging behaviors, there is a reduction in children’s oppositional, hyperactive and externalizing behaviors, an increase in pro-social peer interactions, and a decrease in expulsions.
3) Patty’s program sees parents as partners. They don’t blame or judge, which only alienates families; they seek to understand the family’s culture, beliefs and values and to provide guidance based on their goals for their child, meeting parents where they are at. Indeed, as one national expert notes, he has NEVER seen a child expelled in a situation where the parent and teacher had a solid, trusting relationship.
Working with young children and families is incredibly joyful and rewarding, but also intense and stressful. Understanding and sensitively responding to the unique needs of both children and families is very complex work. It is an art that takes a lot of training, practice, and mentorship. It is too hard a job to do alone, without support from skilled supervisors and behavioral consultants. If we want today’s young children to be our future innovators and thinkers, we must ensure that they get off to the best start possible. We can do this by supporting positive social and emotional development in young children via the following strategies:
- Help parents nurture their children’s social and emotional development with parenting supports through pediatricians, home visitors, and parenting groups;
- Prevent, identify, and treat maternal depression;
- Improve child care quality with funding adequate to lower child-to-staff ratios and group sizes for younger children; increase workforce professional development around supporting early social-emotional development; and increase compensation and other work supports to lower stress among providers;
- Infuse support for children’s mental health into early care and learning programs, including increasing the capacity for mental health training and consultation;
- Increase access and quality of Infant-Early Childhood Mental Health (IECMH) services by:
- increasing the supply of IECMH professionals; and
- expanding Medicaid reimbursement for relationship-based mental health services.