In August, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed a ban preventing the expulsion of children from state-funded early childhood programs. This week Virginia took steps to follow Illinois’s lead, when the state senate passed a bill barring suspension and expulsion in pre-K through 3rd grade. The Virginia bill is now on its way to the House.
These state-level bans are driven by research demonstrating that suspension and expulsion are ineffective disciplinary practices and not developmentally-appropriate. In addition, the use of suspension and expulsion is disproportional. Children of color and children with special needs are being kicked out of elementary schools and early childhood and care programs at an alarming rate. A recent report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) found that “black children are 2.2 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than other children” and that children with disabilities or emotional and social challenges comprise 12 percent of the early childhood population, but represent 75 percent of all suspensions and expulsions.
Tantrums, aggression, and noncompliance are just a few of challenging behaviors that can cause a three-year-old to be expelled or suspended from a program, according to Zero to Three, a nonprofit, advocacy organization focused on ensuring that babies and toddlers have a strong start in life. Dr. Walter Gilliam, a Zero to Three board member and the director of The Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, said in his testimony during a 2015 budget hearing, “The children most at risk of expulsion from our early care and education programs are the ones that tend to show the greater benefit from attending them, which means that preschool expulsions sabotage the economic benefit of these programs by undercutting the rate of return on investment.” Young children benefit from early learning programs and elementary school, which can help them learn how to appropriately regulate their emotions and behavior.
All children need to have access to positive learning environments to develop both socioemotional and academic skills. When young children are removed from early learning spaces, they no longer have the ability to develop these regulatory skills through positive peer and adult-child interactions. In order to learn, children also need to feel nurtured and supported in their learning environment. Suspension and expulsion break this trusted bond and may sour children’s views of formal learning programs.
Once suspension and expulsion are banned, states and districts should create well-funded policies to give administrators, educators, and families better access to behavioral health professionals, community resources, quality professional development, training, intervention tools, and other positive behavior supports to help young children with persistent challenging behaviors thrive in their early learning environments. These positive behavior supports can be delivered through wraparound services that provide children and families with access to high-quality early education programs, health and social services. Connecticut is one example of a state that banned suspension and expulsion and has been supporting teachers and children by providing early childhood mental health screenings.
As Urie Bronfenbrenner, a famous developmental psychologist, theorized in his ecological systems of child development, formal and informal environments affect child development. When children, particularly those in most need, are exposed to positive early learning environments, the relationships that they build will help them grow and develop the skills they will need for success in the later grades and in life.