What’s driving teachers to expel students from preschool and daycare?

In the U.S., hundreds of kids are suspended or expelled each day. A University of Illinois Chicago professor explores what she calls a “crisis.”

In a new book, a University of Illinois Chicago professor examines why young kids are being pushed out of daycare programs and preschool classrooms. Susie An / WBEZ
In a new book, a University of Illinois Chicago professor examines why young kids are being pushed out of daycare programs and preschool classrooms. Susie An / WBEZ

What’s driving teachers to expel students from preschool and daycare?

In the U.S., hundreds of kids are suspended or expelled each day. A University of Illinois Chicago professor explores what she calls a “crisis.”

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

A new book explores why the nation’s youngest kids are three times as likely to be expelled from daycare and preschool classrooms as K-12 students.

In No Longer Welcome: The Epidemic of Expulsion from Early Childhood Education, author Kate Zinsser draws on research and interviews to bring attention to what she calls a crisis.

Zinsser, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois Chicago, said the children who are expelled for misbehavior are often the ones most in need of extra social and emotional support. Research shows a failure to support teachers could hurt students and schools down the line, she said. Children who are repeatedly suspended are more likely to drop out of school and be incarcerated.

In the 2016 school year, Zinsser found that 30% of Chicago teachers expelled at least one child, and 10% excluded three or more children.

A 2018 Illinois law that limits when students can be expelled from preschool programs led to a big drop in expulsions. However, formal expulsions continue, as well as informal withdrawals pushed by school administrators, Zinsser said. These decisions are shaped by several factors, including personal biases, teacher burnout and the quality of the relationship between families and schools.

“[This issue] gets a lot less attention because we don’t think of preschool and childcare as being compulsory education. And so you won’t hear a teacher or often even a parent, use the phrase expel,” Zinsser said. “But in the end, what happens is a child is told they’re not welcome. They’re not wanted in a certain learning space, and they’re encouraged or forced to leave.”

WBEZ education reporter Nereida Moreno sat down with Zissler to discuss her new book. Below is a lightly edited excerpt from their conversation.

Why young kids are being excluded from childcare

We hear stories of children who were engaging in some really scary behaviors — throwing chairs, hurting teachers, biting to the point of drawing blood. And that can be really terrifying for a teacher, especially when you have 18 other kids in the room you need to keep safe. But we also hear some of what I think of as inconvenience behaviors — children who are refusing to nap. Children who don’t settle well after the drop off by their parents. Children who just are really kind of emotionally needy and clingy and cry too much.

But these are 2- and 3-year-olds, and even biting is a very developmentally appropriate behavior for young children, especially children who are preverbal. So it makes us question what’s really going on for the folks who are making decisions about discipline because, in the end, you can think of all of these behaviors as being an effort to communicate. Behavior is a form of communication, and so who’s listening? And what are they hearing? A lot of my work has really focused on trying to understand what’s going on for the teachers that lead them to believe that their only choice is to expel a kid.

On creating a negative feedback loop for kids

You can imagine how being told multiple times that you’re not welcome in school influences your perception of yourself as a learner, as someone who’s part of a community. So we hear accounts from parents of children who, when they drive through the neighborhood [past a] childcare program they used to attend… You might look out the window and say they didn’t like me there or they didn’t want me to be there with them and they carry that forward.

And so when that child arrives in kindergarten, they’re now going to question the stability of that relationship with their kindergarten teacher and their parents are going to question their own parenting techniques. We hear a lot of parents who are just wrought with guilt and fear and shame when their children are excluded from childcare. But it also makes that parent less likely to trust a kindergarten teacher and trust the education system in our country. And we have ample evidence from multiple studies in elementary school students that [the] parent-teacher relationship is really critical to children’s early learning success and their likelihood of staying in school long term.

How early childhood exclusion impacts the classroom

One of the strongest ways that children learn in early childhood is through observation. They are observing everything around them. And so if you’re in a mixed-race classroom and you observe children of color, especially Black boys, being repeatedly disproportionately called out for their behavior, other children are going to observe that and start to form discriminatory perceptions of children’s behavior.

Especially when you look at the disparities and who is expelled or who is suspended — that starts to reproduce the same biases in children that we hope we can interrupt in adults. Those kids are also going to carry those biases into elementary school. And so you think about early formation of friendships, that children who have a perception of boys as being more aggressive or Black boys as being less trustworthy or less innocent, which some of the research has pointed to. We can see how that’s going to reproduce negative classroom climates and feed into our discriminatory elementary school climates.

The teacher burnout factor

I view expulsion as being really symptomatic of a much larger problem in our country with an early childhood system that has been historically underfunded, undervalued, and honestly, disrespected as a profession and skilled labor. And we put teachers in stressful situations with children who need a lot from them, but we haven’t adequately invested in their preparation.

We haven’t adequately invested in their compensation and we’re expecting them to be part nurturer, part social worker, part school psychologist and part disciplinarian — while also educating children, feeding them and keeping them safe. It’s a lot to put on someone that you are paying at a staggeringly low wage. Nearly 50% of early educators in our country qualify for some form of public assistance. Many childcare providers do not receive health benefits. Many do not have retirement benefits.

And unlike their elementary school peers who are teaching kids who are just a few months older, they don’t have a union. They don’t have collective bargaining. They don’t have protected planning time. They barely have protected time to eat lunch and go to the bathroom. So this is a really exhaustive workforce and the content of psychology literature has shown us time and again that when we put our minds under stress, we tend to make shortcut cognitive decisions. We tend to look for easy solutions and that’s just a natural way of preserving our energy and our resources as humans.

So it’s not surprising to me at all that early educators who are under so much strain are looking for ways to manage their own emotions in the classroom by limiting the number of hassles they have to deal with.

On what Zinsser wants policymakers to take away from her book

We need to invest in our systems for understanding what’s really happening. We don’t have the same data infrastructure in childcare as we do through the Department of Education for systemic ways of collecting and analyzing data nationwide, and what that means is that we can kind of wipe our hands of knowing whether or not our efforts have an influence.

In K-12 data, we tend to see that when expulsions and suspensions are banned or restricted, it primarily benefits white children and it leaves racial disparities and ethnic disparities in place. The expulsion rates overall might come down. But it’s mostly the white kids who are not getting expelled as much. At present we don’t have a way to do parallel analysis in most of our childcare systems across the country.

Nereida Moreno covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter  @nereidamorenos and at @WBEZeducation.