Discipline Discussions: Suspension, Expulsion & Informal Removals: Unexpected Realities in Preschool

Discipline and Behavior Series -- Suspension, Expulsion & Informal Removals: Unexpected Realities in Preschool

Play. Learn. Grow.

Valerie C. Williams Director, Office of Special Education Programs Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

By Valerie C. Williams
Director, Office of Special Education Programs

These are the words that come to mind when I think about preschool and our youngest learners. But the reality is far different for many children and their families: suspensions, expulsions and other forms of exclusionary discipline remove children from their preschool environment and create stressful and isolating experiences.

What message are we sending to our 3 through 5-year-old children if one of their first educational experiences involves a disciplinary removal? How does this experience shape their perspective, engagement, sense of belonging and future approach to school?

In 2014, the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services called for the prevention, severe limitation and ultimate elimination of expulsions and suspensions in early childhood settings. Additionally, the departments addressed the need to improve school climate and approaches to discipline more broadly across the educational spectrum. Rightfully so, this joint policy statement called for immediate attention from the early childhood and education fields given the negative short-term and longer-term impact on exclusionary discipline for young children, including negative educational and life outcomes. Sadly, nearly a decade later, the data continue to show the frequency of exclusionary discipline used for our youngest learners.

An examination of the most recent Civil Rights Data Collection (2017–2018) shows:

  • Black preschool students accounted for 18.2% of the total preschool enrollment but received 43.3% of one or more out-of-school suspensions;
  • Black preschool students were expelled at rates that were more than twice their share (38.2%) of total preschool enrollment (18.2%); and
  • 7% of the nation’s 1.5 million preschoolers were children with disabilities served under Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and were expelled at rates 2.5 times greater than their share of the total preschool population.

Additionally, the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) is concerned with informal removals and shortened school days, practices in which a child is removed by school personnel for part or all of a school day, or even an indefinite period of time, in response to the child’s behavior. I described OSEP’s concern with informal removals in greater detail in an earlier blog, and OSEP addressed this concern in the IDEA discipline requirements guidance package released in July 2022. In this guidance, OSEP reminded stakeholders:

  • Despite their young age, preschool children with disabilities are too often removed from their current educational placement for disciplinary reasons.
  • IDEA’s disciplinary protections are available to children with disabilities who attend public preschool programs operated by a school district, those who attend preschool programs operated by another public agency (such as Head Start or community-based childcare), and those who are placed in a private preschool program by the school district to ensure the provision of a free appropriate public education (FAPE).

While it is critical to know and understand IDEA’s discipline protections, it is equally important to focus on preventing challenging behavior before it occurs. To echo the call for immediate action issued in the ED/HHS 2014 joint policy statement, we must gain a better understanding of why exclusionary discipline occurs so that we can build inclusive preschool systems, schools, programs and practices.

To continue this conversation, I am joined by three OSEP technical assistance centers:

NCPMI: the National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations

ECTA: the Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center

DaSy: the Center for IDEA Early Childhood Data Systems

I hope the resources featured below will support you and your colleagues in your own discipline discussions as you work to support young learners with disabilities.

Click on the questions to view the responses.

NCPMI/ECTA/DaSy: The use of exclusionary discipline is common even though early childhood researchers, professionals and families agree that preschool suspensions and expulsions are harmful to children’s development, are linked to negative impacts on children’s later school outcomes and cause family stress.An exclusionary climate prevails in some preschool programs, and children must meet adult expectations for behavior and learning to be included and supported. We also know that most exclusionary discipline is a result of developmentally appropriate behavior. While that behavior may be deemed challenging by an adult, the behavior itself is often expected of young children. We cannot discount that many challenges persist within our early care and education programs. Challenges include staff turnover, lack of ongoing professional development, and lack of expertise related to behavior and early childhood mental health. The persistent systems’ challenges lead to programs using exclusionary discipline as the expedient pathway for addressing child behavior that is deemed challenging.

Preschool teachers, practitioners and families can support children who have behavior that adults find challenging by working in partnership to understand the behavior and promote the development of children’s social, emotional and behavioral skills.

First, adults should view behavior as having a communicative message and determine if the child is seeking something (e.g., attention, safety, an object or activity) or avoiding something (e.g., non-preferred activity). Adults identify what triggers the behavior (e.g., the child is tired, a demand is placed on the child) and what follows or reinforces the behavior. Once there is a good understanding of the why and when of behavior, adults can work together to design prevention strategies to reduce the likelihood of challenging behavior while they teach the child new skills to replace the behavior. This positive behavior support approach has decades of research showing its effectiveness for children with and without disabilities.

The ECTA Center has also developed tools that support practitioners and families in effectively partnering and using the Division for Early Childhood’s Recommend Practices. These practice improvement tools, along with practice guides, support families and practitioners in partnering to identify effective supports and to achieve the goals developed for each and every child.


NCPMI/ECTA/DaSy: The Pyramid Model is a multi-tiered framework of promotion, prevention, and intervention practices for early childhood programs.In this approach, staff are trained and supported to use practices that promote all children’s social, emotional and behavioral skills; provide targeted support to children who might struggle to learn those skills; and implement individualized interventions for the few children who have persistent challenging behavior or social-emotional needs even when the other supports are in place.

When early childhood programs implement the Pyramid Model as their multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) for preschool classrooms, they are systematic about providing support to teachers to implement evidence-based and culturally responsive practices to support the inclusion of each and every child, and the promotion of children’s social, emotional and behavioral skills. Those supports include:

  • establishing a leadership team that includes teachers and family members to guide implementation,
  • establishing policies to eliminate the use of exclusionary discipline,
  • fostering partnerships with families,
  • cultivating teacher wellness and buy-in,
  • providing ongoing professional development including classroom coaching,
  • supporting a trauma-informed approach,
  • establishing procedures to address challenging behavior through an individualized intervention that uses positive approaches, and
  • collecting and using data for decision-making.

The Pyramid Model also created tools that allow programs to identify and address the disparate use of exclusionary practices. For example, the Behavior Incident Report System (BIRS) provides early care and education programs with data on the frequency of behavior incidents over time and analysis of potential equity issues by calculating disproportionality by race, ethnicity, Individualized Education Program (IEP) status, gender and dual language learners. The BIRS could be a critical tool for programs to understand how exclusionary discipline is applied, for whom, and where professional development and coaching might be needed.

You can read more about the Pyramid Model in our January Discipline Discussions.


NCPMI/ECTA/DaSy: State and local program leaders can coordinate efforts across early care and education programs (including child care, Head Start, state and local funded PreK) to develop policies that prohibit the use of exclusionary practices and provide guidance for how programs and teachers can access training, technical assistance and crisis intervention support.States can provide training and support to local programs to implement the Pyramid Model as an MTSS for promoting social, emotional and behavioral skills.

Local programs implementing the Pyramid Model can invest in providing ongoing professional development and classroom coaching to support teachers in implementing social-emotional promotion and prevention practices and their partnerships with families.

State and local program leaders can use fidelity tools to identify program and practitioner strengths and needs and identify where to provide additional training and support so that promotion and prevention efforts are effective.

The adult actions that occur in response to challenging behavior may also be important to consider. Continued suspension, expulsion and informal removals may be reflective of a general culture that does not equitably promote a sense of belonging for all young children and families. Consider if continued decisions about initial placements that exclude and segregate children with disabilities from peers without disabilities are more closely related to suspension and expulsion than it may seem. Put simply, suspending and expelling young children in response to their challenging behavior may continue as long as exclusionary educational norms are maintained.

States, communities and programs would benefit from concerted efforts to promote high-quality inclusion and eliminate exclusionary discipline practices. Using an implementation science approach with state, community and local program teams can help to promote systems change that reduces exclusionary discipline for young children and increases inclusive practices.

ECTA and NCPMI developed the Indicators of High-Quality Inclusion to support states in removing infrastructure barriers at the state, community and local program levels and implementing evidence-based practices that lead to belonging for each and every child.


NCPMI/ECTA/DaSy: NCMPI provides free training materials and resources for educators to use to address challenging behavior:

The ECTA Center provides free resources for IDEA Part C (early intervention) and Part B, Section 619 (preschool special education) programs in developing more equitable, effective, and sustainable state and local systems that support access and full participation for each and every young child with a disability, and their family. The following resources support leaders and educators with engaging all young learners, partnering with families and affirming the identity of every child served:

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Early Childhood Development (ECD) recently released a set of resources to support early childhood mental health and social and emotional development. These resources are organized for families and caregivers, early care and education program staff and administrators, state and territory leaders, and tribal leaders and programs.


NCPMI/ECTA/DaSy: Our youngest children with disabilities start their educational journey in a variety of settings ranging from childcare to Head Start to preschool classrooms. These early experiences shape and influence their lifelong learning. Strong partnerships across the early care and education programs through joint professional development, shared commitment to inclusion and supportive program policies would further support inclusion.Ideally, we would have a system of supports and services in a comprehensive early care and education system based on the principle of inclusion for our youngest children with disabilities and their families throughout their lives. We must continue our commitment to including every child to ensure they can reach their full potential.

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

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