Preschool Suspensions: Addressing Disproportional Discipline Practices

Guest Blog Post by Rosemarie Allen

I was suspended multiple times each year from the time I started school until I entered high school. The trouble I found myself in seemed minor and was often the result of my natural curiosity: climbing on the roof of the auditorium to see what the playground looked like from that angle; taking the heads, arms, and legs off baby dolls to see how their body parts fit together; and sharpening pencils down to the erasers to see how long it would take. I was busy. I was curious. My teachers had difficulty knowing how to support this curiosity within the classroom.

The recent data documenting the high rates of suspension and expulsion in early childhood programs should be a wake-up call for all of us. African American preschoolers and boys are being suspended at rates that are alarming and expose serious issues with disproportionate discipline practices. These data suggest that programs are not sure how to understand and address child behavior that is regarded as challenging, that discipline practices are likely influenced by biases, and that programs and practitioners need additional support to effectively educate all children.

The Obama Administration’s initiative, My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) is focused on ensuring that all youth, including boys and young men of color, have opportunities to improve their life outcomes and overcome barriers to success. MBK has outlined six milestones, the first of which is Getting a Healthy Start and Entering School Ready to Learn. We know that early childhood presents a profound opportunity to advance children’s cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development. We also know that children who are suspended in preschool are more likely to be suspended throughout their school career. MBK includes a key recommendation to eliminate suspension and expulsions in early learning settings. (View the ED and HHS Policy Statement on Expulsion and Suspension Practices in Early Childhood Settings to learn more.)

A first step towards addressing this issue is the development of policies that end the practice of suspension and expulsion of young children from the programs that were developed to help them learn the critical social, emotional and academic readiness skills to be successful in school. The second step is to ensure that early childhood educators and programs can implement effective practices so that all children can be successful in preschool.

Supporting Early Childhood Teachers and Programs

One of the greatest needs that teachers have is how to address challenging behavior. Many teachers report that they do not feel that they are knowledgeable or skilled in this. Suspensions and expulsions occur when teachers lack the expertise and the program support to prevent and address behaviors they identify as unwanted, annoying, and aggressive. Without support there is a greater likelihood that children will be suspended.

The perceptions teachers have of boys and children of color, may be influenced by unconscious gender and racial bias. Many programs operate on the values of the dominant culture. Children bring to school the culture and values of their home and community. These conflicting values can create cultural disconnects based on mismatched behavioral and educational expectations.

The challenges that teachers and programs face in addressing behavior, teaching children social and emotional skills, understanding their own biases, and using culturally responsive practices require more than training. These challenges require a program-wide approach where administrators are committed and teachers are trained, supported, and guided to implement effective practices.

Pyramid Equity Project

Through the Departments of Education and of Health and Human Services’ Preschool Development Grants Program, the Pyramid Equity Project will collaborate with programs to demonstrate the use of a multi-tiered system of support for promoting social competence in young children that has been designed to address issues related to disproportionate discipline and the use of culturally responsive practices in early learning programs. In these program-wide demonstrations, the Pyramid Model for Promoting the Social Emotional Competence of Infants and Young Children will be used along with enhancements for addressing implicit bias, implementing culturally responsive practices, and using data systems to understand potential discipline equity issues. The Pyramid Model provides a framework of early childhood teaching practices that are organized in tiers to include the promotion of social and emotional skills of all children, the prevention of challenging behavior of children at risk of challenging behavior, and individualized interventions for children with persistent challenging behavior.

Program-wide implementation will involve establishing a program implementation team that will meet monthly to establish and support staff buy-in, promote family engagement, establish systems for providing individualized intervention, provide professional development and classroom coaching to teachers, and use data for decision-making on how to improve implementation, intervention, and outcomes.

There is no evidence to support suspension as an effective intervention for improving behavior but unfortunately for many it has become standard practice for addressing inappropriate behavior. Most early childhood teachers enter the field with a heart for children and a desire to make a difference. Children enter early childhood programs bright-eyed, curious and ready to learn. When we give teachers the tools they need to implement an engaging strong developmentally appropriate program, prevent and address challenging behaviors and identify and respond to implicit bias, and give children the social and emotional skills they need to be successful in the classroom, we can stop suspensions.

Rosemarie Allen has been a leader in early childhood education for over 30 years. Her life’s work has centered on ensuring children have access to high quality early childhood programs that are developmentally and culturally appropriate. She is a team member on the Pyramid Equity Project, which is being funded by the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services’ Preschool Development Grants Program through the Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports ( Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, and such endorsements should not be inferred. For information about the Pyramid Equity Project, contact Steven Hicks [] or Jennifer Tschantz [], or for information related to this blog, contact Rosemarie Allen [].