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Preschool suspension and expulsion: Strategies for preventing and reducing challenging behaviors

by Elizabeth Morgan Russell


“We can no longer meet your child’s needs. We cannot let him continue in our program.”

Essentially the child is being suspended or expelled—words that parents dread to hear and early care and education staff do not say lightly.

Suspension means temporarily excluding a child from some or all school or child care services, while expulsion means permanently excluding a child from services. One or more suspensions may precede expulsion. These two measures were initially administered to older students for serious infractions of school rules. Now they are used most often with young children in preschool programs (Gilliam 2005).

Until recently, the practice remained in the shadows, but the findings of a groundbreaking study brought the matter to the attention of practitioners, parents, policymakers, and child advocates.


How widespread is preschool suspension and expulsion?
Walter S. Gilliam, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Yale University Child Study Center, was one of the first researchers to systematically gather information on the national practice of preschool suspension and expulsion. He and his colleagues conducted telephone interviews with almost 4,000 prekindergarten teachers in public school classrooms throughout the United States.

He found that a little over 10 percent of these teachers reported expelling at least one preschool child in 2003-2004. Thus, an estimated 5,100 children from state-funded prekindergarten classrooms across the nation were expelled during that school year. This equated to a rate of 6.7 expulsions per 1,000 preschoolers, more than three times the national expulsion rate for K-12 students in public schools that year (Gilliam 2005).

Added to the public school figures is the number of expulsions from community-based programs. Almost 40 percent of preschool teachers in community-based preschool classrooms reported expelling a child during the 2003-2004 school year, about four times the rate for teachers from state-funded prekindergarten classrooms (Gilliam 2005).

More recent figures indicate that the practice has continued:
The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (March 2014) reported about 8,000 preschool children nationwide were suspended from public prekindergarten programs during the 2011-2012 school year.
The Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center (January 2017) reported 6,700 children attending public prekindergarten programs nationwide were suspended at least once in 2013-2014.
The Survey of Early Care and Education, conducted in 2012, indicated about 10 percent of administrators of either public programs or community child care centers expelled at least one preschool child during the past three months (Trivedi, Chadwick, and Burgess January 2017).
A statewide survey of Colorado’s licensed community-based child care programs revealed staff at 32 percent of the centers and 27 percent of the family day homes reported expelling at least one child younger than age 6 from their program within the past 12 months (Hoover, Kubicek, Robinson Rosenberg, Zundel, and Rosenberg 2012).


Why are preschool children suspended or expelled?
Teachers of young children have reported various reasons for suspending or expelling children, including family inability to pay tuition, unacceptable parent or guardian behavior (for example, uncooperative or aggressive), and inability to meet parent or guardian expectations (North Dakota State Data Center 2007). The primary reason, however, has been children’s challenging behavior (Gilliam and Shahar 2006; Hoover et al. 2012).

“Challenging behavior is any repeated pattern of behavior that interferes with learning or engagement in social interactions. This includes unresponsiveness to developmentally appropriate guidance and actions such as prolonged tantrums, physical and verbal aggression, disruptive vocal and motor behavior, property destruction, self-injury, noncompliance, and withdrawal” (McCabe and Frede 2007).

Although challenging behavior can take many forms, child care administrators at both center-based and family-based programs have indicated two kinds of behavior that tended to have the greatest negative impact on teaching staff and the overall program. One was physical and verbal aggression (for example, hurts self or others, bullies, destroys property, acts defiant). Another was low self-regulation of emotions (for example, becomes easily irritated, mad or frustrated, withdraws, yells or screams excessively, acts clingy) (Hoover et al. 2012).

Suspension and expulsion generally are not the initial responses to challenging behavior. About 64 percent of administrators of licensed child care centers worked with children and their parents prior to the dismissal. Most of these administrators began the process for developing an individualized plan of care (that is, observe and document the behavior, identify triggers and outcomes of behavior). Only about 30 percent, however, worked with parents to develop an intervention plan, and then met with parents on a regular basis to evaluate its effectiveness (North Dakota State Data Center 2007).

Additionally, due either to lack of knowledge or lack of access, few administrators consulted outside resources prior to expelling children. Only 15 percent of preschool children were assessed by a professional prior to their expulsion (North Dakota State Data Center 2007).

A more recent study focused on how teachers responded to challenging behavior. Most of their methods were reactive (redirection and time out, for example) rather than preventive (teaching children socially acceptable ways to express anger or re-arranging the classroom to better accommodate children’s interests) (Hoover et al. 2012). It appears that preschool teachers and administrators resort to suspension and expulsion when their usual guidance strategies fail in modifying a challenging behavior.


Why are some preschool children more likely to be suspended or expelled than others?
“Disparities in preschool expulsion and suspension are a matter of civil rights involving our nation’s youngest learners” (Gilliam 2014).

One of the more disturbing findings of recent studies has been the undeniable gender and racial disparities in these discipline practices (Gilliam 2014; Gilliam, Maupin, Reyes, Accavitti and Shie 2016; Trivedi, Chadwick, and Burgess January 2017; U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights 2014). Here is a sample of those disparities:
Black preschool children are three and a half times more likely to be suspended at least once than are white preschool children.
Boys are three to four times more likely to be suspended at least once than are girls.
Boys represent 54 percent of the preschool enrollment, but 79 percent of children suspended once and 82 percent of children suspended more than once.
Black girls represent 20 percent of female preschool enrollment, but 54 percent of female preschool children suspended one or more times.
Black children represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment, but 42 percent of preschool students suspended once and 48 percent of children suspended more than once.
Black and Hispanic boys represent 46 percent of all male preschool enrollment, but 66 percent of all boys suspended in preschool.
White children represent 43 percent of all preschool enrollment, but 26 percent of preschool students suspended once and 26 percent of children suspended more than once.

One explanation for the uneven application of suspension and expulsion is implicit bias (Gilliam et al. 2016). Implicit biases (that is, automatic and unconscious stereotypes about race and gender) may influence teachers’ expectations for children’s behavior as well as their responses to challenging behavior (Westerberg 2016).

Gilliam and associates (2016) invited an ethnically diverse sample of teachers who were attending an early care and education conference to view brief videotaped segments of four different children (a black boy, a black girl, a white boy, a white girl) engaged in free play activities. The focus of their gaze was tracked while they viewed the taped segments. The teachers were also asked to select the photo of the child they watched the most while viewing.

The teachers then read an anecdote about a preschool child who exhibited challenging behavior. The anecdote remained the same, but the race or gender of the featured child varied. Some teachers read a brief paragraph about the featured child’s troubled family background. The teachers rated the severity of the challenging behavior, how hopeful they felt about improving the behavior, and the likelihood of their recommending suspension or expulsion (Gilliam et al. 2016).

Here are the study findings:
Teachers’ behaviors reflected their expectations. Teachers indicated with their gaze pattern and choice of photos that boys, particularly black boys, were most often engaged in challenging behaviors, despite the complete absence of challenging behavior in any of the taped segments. Teachers, regardless of their race, indicated similar expectations for boys’ behavior.
Teachers whose race matched that of the child featured in the anecdote rated the child’s challenging behavior as more severe than did teachers of a different race. White teachers may have had higher standards (expectations) for white children’s behavior than they did for black children’s, and black teachers may have held black children to a higher standard than did white teachers. These standards may have influenced how the teachers rated the children’s behavior.
Teachers whose race matched that of the featured child, and who also read the family background information, rated the child’s challenging behavior as less severe and were more hopeful about their ability to change it. Greater familiarity with a child’s life circumstances may have enhanced teachers’ understanding and empathy, and thus their confidence in being able to change challenging behavior.
Teachers’ reported likelihood of suspending or expelling a child for challenging behavior was not influenced by the child’s race or gender, in contrast to findings of previous studies. Perhaps some implicit biases of the participating teachers had been changed by the content of conference session(s) they had recently attended.

Implicit biases can change because they are the result of socialization. Experiences that encourage teachers to reflect upon their responses to children’s challenging behaviors can help them identify their implicit biases. These reflections can occur in conversations with trusted colleagues and mentors as well as through participation in cultural competence trainings (Westerberg 2016).

Confronting their implicit biases could help preschool teachers alter their reactions to challenging behaviors, including avoiding the use of suspension and expulsion.


What are the consequences of preschool suspension and expulsion?
“There are only negative outcomes associated with the expulsion or suspension of preschool children” (Trivedi et al. January 2017).

Separating young children from educational services has negative and far-reaching consequences (Trivedi et al. January 2017). These separations can:

Disrupt the learning process (NAEYC n.d.). Young children’s development and learning occur within stable and nurturing relationships. Expulsion abruptly ends these relationships, thereby negatively impacting not only academic learning, but also the development of social competence and self-regulation of emotions (U.S. DHHS and DOE n.d.)

Threaten the likelihood of children entering kindergarten as ready to learn (Gilliam 2005, 2014). State-funded early care and education programs exist to “provide children with experiences necessary to enter kindergarten as ready learners” (Gilliam and Shahar 2006). Children are far less likely to become “ready learners” if they do not participate in preschool activities that could prepare them for school success.

Increase the likelihood of subsequent expulsions, not only from other preschools, but also from later school grades. Children suspended or expelled from later grades “are as much as 10 times more likely to drop out of high school, experience academic failure and grade retention, hold negative school attitudes, and face incarceration than those who are not” (U.S. DHHS and DOE n.d.).

Mask developmental disabilities or mental health issues. An accurate diagnosis and appropriate intervention can be delayed when children are suspended or expelled (U.S. DHHS and DOE n.d.).

In response to these troubling consequences, many programs, and individuals have been working toward eliminating suspension and expulsion of preschoolers for challenging behaviors (NAEYC n.d.).


Which practices reduce challenging behaviors and suspension and expulsion?
According to research, new guidance practices are most likely to succeed under certain conditions (NAEYC n.d.):
Practices are in place on a program-wide basis rather than just in the classrooms where challenging behaviors are taking place.
Success requires working together long-term as well as having a strong commitment to the new practices.
Program practices are grounded in theory, research, and best early childhood education practices.

A program framework with demonstrated success in reducing challenging behaviors and the use of suspension and expulsion is a multi-tiered system that can be envisioned as a triangle or a square with three layers.


Bottom level
This level refers to program aspects available to all children and families. Teachers, administrators, parents, and children jointly create, what NAEYC refers to as a caring community of learners. Characteristics include:
warm and respectful relationships among children, their families, teachers, and administrators;
caring teachers who are familiar with young children’s developmental milestones;
experienced teachers who view guidance as an opportunity to help children learn;
adaptable curriculum that promotes mastery in all developmental domains for children of diverse abilities;
policies that welcome family participation in creating and maintaining a culturally responsive program;
developmentally appropriate and stimulating activities and environments; and
teacher-facilitated opportunities for peer interactions (setting out four paint cups, each containing a different color, at the art table for children to share, for example).

This level includes the following practices:
Maintain low child-teacher ratios—10 or fewer children per teacher (Gilliam January 2008).
Reduce teachers’ job stress. Ensure reasonable work hours and provide daily time for teachers to relax away from children (Gilliam January 2008).
Ensure teachers have the training and ongoing support to help all children excel (U.S. DHHS and DOE n.d.). In particular, ensure teachers are capable of:

• increasing children’s age-appropriate social competence and supporting their self-regulation of emotions,

• creating teacher-family partnerships that enhance children’s learning and development,

• identifying and responding to early indicators of challenging behavior, and

• distinguishing between normative and problematic aggression in young children (McCabe and Frede 2007).
Develop program-wide guidance policies (Longstreth, Brady, and Kay 2013) that include the following:

• teaching practices that help children learn and practice age-appropriate behaviors that are essential to social and academic success.

Examples include modeling the behaviors, reading books, telling stories, using puppets, and creating practice opportunities for prosocial behaviors.

• prevention and intervention strategies that promote prosocial behavior and reduce challenging behavior.

For example, after children have left for the day, teachers can reflect on how each component of the environment may have impacted children’s behavior: classroom arrangement, available materials and activities, daily schedule, transitions, the balance between teacher-led and child-oriented group activities, peer interactions as well as exchanges with the children. What, if any, changes need to be made to prevent challenging behaviors?

Potential intervention strategies include coaching children through the problem-solving method, demonstrating how to calm themselves prior to helping them negotiate a solution, and identifying and removing, if possible, triggers for challenging behaviors.

Clear, consistent, and positively worded expectations for children’s behavior. Preparing children for a field trip to a market, for example, would include talking about the upcoming experience and expectations such as walking rather than running. Concrete reminders can help (for example, a note card with a picture of the fruit the child is to find).


Middle level
This level refers to services for children who are more likely, but not inevitably, to engage in challenging behaviors. This would include, for example, children who were exposed in utero to drugs or alcohol, have been maltreated or neglected, or have a clinical diagnosis such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (Ehrenreich, Beron, and Underwood 2016; McCabe and Frede 2007).

The emphasis at this level is on prevention of challenging behavior and early identification of its precursors. Experienced teachers and administrators will be able to readily access resources inside and outside the program (such as special education staff). These resource personnel can assist teachers and administrators in adjusting the program and thereby reducing the likelihood of challenging behavior from specific children (Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center 2017; Fox, Smith, Hemmeter, Strain, and Corso 2015).

Special education personnel, for example, can suggest modifications for children with ADHD, such as having fewer children in a classroom, providing one-on-one attention, offering engaging activities, and providing attentive, nurturing teachers.


Top level
The third level refers to creating an individualized behavior support plan (ISBP) for children already engaging in challenging behaviors. An ISBP with the greatest potential for reducing a child’s challenging behavior:
is based on classroom observations of both the teacher’s and child’s behaviors,
identifies the additional assistance needed by both the child and teacher,
suggests supportive strategies for all involved, such as the teacher, the child, other children in the classroom, volunteers, and parents,
includes regular monitoring of the teacher’s compliance with IBSP, and
evaluates success of IBSP as well as need for modifications (Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center 2017; Fox, Smith, Hemmeter, Strain, and Corso 2015).

An early childhood mental health consultant can be a valuable resource when creating an IBSP. This consultant is a psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker with expertise in working with early childhood educators, parents, and young children with challenging behaviors (The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning n.d.).

Rather than provide direct intervention to a few children, the consultant works behind the scenes with the entire program staff to increase their abilities to prevent and intervene in challenging behaviors. The consultant collaborates with families and teachers when developing intervention plans and then coaches them in carrying it out (The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning n.d.).

Research has found that regular, ongoing consultations with a mental health consultant:
reduces the likelihood a preschool teacher will recommend expelling a preschooler (Gilliam and Sharar 2006; Hoover, Kubicek, Robinsion Rosenberg, Zundeal, and Rosenberg 2012),
decreases challenging behaviors, especially patterns of defiance, disobedience, hostility toward adults, and hyperactivity (Gilliam 2008), and
reduces staff turnover, improves teacher effectiveness, and promotes higher program quality when the consultations are frequent and in-depth (Gilliam 2008).


An example of an effective multi-tiered framework is the Pyramid Model for Promoting Social-Emotional Competence (Hemmeter, Snyder, Fox, and Algina 2016). Resources for using this model and exploring other information mentioned in this article appear below.


Texas Workforce Commission Expulsion Reduction and Prevention Policy Statement

Texas A&M Agrilife Extension: Convenient, affordable, and self-paced training and continuing education programs. Many courses are available at no cost.

Guidance and Discipline Courses (some free, some at a small charge)

Infant and Toddler Courses (free)

Preschool and School-age Courses (free)

Training Resources for Parents

Pyramid Model: Evidence-based, multi-tiered system of support.

Pyramid Model Consortium,

Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Learning,

Early childhood development

Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultants,

Early Childhood Development, an office of the Administration for Children and Families,

Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development, normative and problematic aggression,

Strategies for reducing challenging behaviors

Technical Assistance Center on Social Emotional Intervention,

Center for Learning and Development,

Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center,

Strategies for addressing implicit bias

National Center on Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness, an office of the Administration for Children and Families,

Center for Greater Good Newsletter,


Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. n.d. Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation,
Ehrenreich, S. E., K. J. Beron, and M. Underwood. 2016. Social and physical aggression trajectories from childhood through late adolescence: Predictors of psychosocial maladjustment at age 18. Developmental Psychology, 52(3), 457-462.
Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center. January 2017. Implementing the Pyramid Model to Address Inequities in Early Childhood Discipline. Pyramid Equity Project,
Fox, L., B. J. Smith, M. L. Hemmeter, P. Strain, and R. Corso. October 2015. Using the Pyramid Model to Address Suspension and Expulsion in Early Childhood Settings. The Pyramid Model Consortium, University of South Florida,
Gilliam, W. S. 2005. Prekindergarteners Left Behind: Expulsion Rates in State Prekindergarten Systems. Yale University Child Study Center,
Gilliam, W. S. January 2008. Implementing Policies to Reduce the Likelihood of Preschool Expulsion. Foundation for Child Development,
Gilliam, W. S. Dec. 13, 2014. What Could Make Less Sense than Expelling a Preschooler? Psychology Benefits Society, American Psychological Association,
Gilliam, W. S., A. N. Maupin, C. R. Reyes, M. Accavitti and F. Shic. Sept. 28, 2016. Do Early Educators’ Implicit Biases Regarding Sex and Race Relate to Behavior Expectations and Recommendations of Preschool Expulsions and Suspensions? Yale University Child Study Center,
Gilliam, W. S. and Golan S. 2006. Preschool and child care expulsion and suspension: Rates and predictors in one state. Infants and Young Children, 19(3), 228-245.
Hemmeter, M. L., P. A. Snyder, L. Fox, and J. Algina. 2016. Evaluating the implementation of the pyramid model for promoting social-emotional competence in early childhood classrooms. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 36(3), 133-146.
Hoover, S. D., L. Kubicek, C. R. Rosenberg, C. Zundel and S. A. Rosenberg. 2012. Influence of behavioral concerns and early childhood expulsions on the development of early childhood mental health consultation in Colorado. Infant Mental Health Journal, 33(3), 246-255.
Longstreth, S., S. Brady, and A. Kay. 2013. Discipline policies in early childhood care and education programs: Building an infrastructure for social and academic success. Early Education and Development, 24(2) 253-271.
McCabe, L. A. and E. C. Frede. December 2007. Challenging Behaviors and the Role of Preschool Education, Preschool Policy Brief, National Institute for Early Education Research, Rutgers University, N_I_E_E_R_Challenging_Behaviors_and_the_Role_of_Preschool_Education.
National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). n.d. Guidelines for Decisions About Developmentally Appropriate Practice,
NAEYC. n.d. Standing Together Against Suspension and Expulsion in Early Childhood: A Joint Statement,
North Dakota State Data Center. 2007. Licensed Child Care Dismissal Study,
Trivedi, P., L. Chadwick and K. Burgess. Jan. 6, 2017. Factors Associated with Reduced Expulsion in Center-Based Early Learning Settings: Preliminary Findings from the National Survey of Early Care and Education (NSECE). ASPE Office of Human Services Policy,
U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. March 2014. Data Snapshots: Early Childhood Education,
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and U.S. Department of Education (DOE). n.d. Policy Statement on Expulsion and Suspension Policies in Early Childhood Settings,
Westerberg, D. October 2016. Understanding and dealing with implicit bias and discipline in early care and education, The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter,


About the authors
Elizabeth Morgan Russell, Ph.D. has recently retired from the School of Family and Consumer Sciences at Texas State University. She has presented at local, state, and national conferences in addition to her preschool and university teaching career. Dr. Morgan is a regular contributor to the Quarterly.