Preventing Preschool Suspension and Expulsion: Advocating for Holistic Assessment to Identify Assets of Young Children

Dr. Dolores “Dee” Stegelin, ICS Policy Research Senior Fellow & Professor Emerita at Clemson University

Preschool suspension and expulsion should only be used as a last resort.

4-year-old suspended from preschool class

Evelyn is the mother of a 4-year-old boy, James, in a public-school preschool program. She received multiple behavior incident reports over several months about his behavior. Despite meeting with the school staff about next steps, her son was suspended for 2 days for misbehavior and threatened with expulsion. In shock, Evelyn asked these questions of the teacher and program director about her son’s preschool suspension:

  • Why is my preschool child being suspended? I didn’t even know that could happen!
  • How does suspending or expelling my child help solve his behavior issues?
  • I thought socialization was one of the main goals in preschool. How can we guide and correct his behavior when he’s not in the classroom? (Byers, B., 2017)

Is this a common occurrence? Surprisingly, suspension and expulsion of preschool children is much more common than many realize. In fact, preschoolers are suspended or expelled at a higher rate than students in elementary through high school ages. (NAEYC.ORG, 2023; Levin, D. & Jones, D., 2016) To make matters worse, children of color, particularly Black boys, are suspended and expelled at disproportionately high rates due to implicit biases of staff and overly strained preschool systems. (Novak, 2023)

In response to this scenario, an experienced, child-focused preschool teacher reviewed Evelyn and her son’s case and offered these comments:

“As a preschool teacher, I keep track of incidents, to help determine if there is a pattern, what the triggers are, and what the child is trying to tell us. Are the incidents increasing? Decreasing? These reports are not to criminalize the behavior, but to help us understand what is happening. And understanding the child’s development over time is critical. Is the child immature? In need of attention? Confused about something they have witnessed? It takes a team that includes both the family and the school (and sometimes a pediatrician) to figure out what is going on and how to best support the child.” (Byers, B., 2017)

Making the case for holistic assessment to avoid preschool suspension

This is just one example of a situation where holistic assessment is essential to understanding and meeting the child’s needs. Rather than criminalizing children’s behaviors, our first responsibility is to understand the behavior and then guide the child toward more constructive ways of expressing themselves.

Holistic assessment is the combination of evidence from a range of developmental and health-related tools and perspectives, to help develop an accurate picture of the learner’s prior and current ability. Effective assessment systems offer valuable information to parents about their child’s progress, and they allow tracking of students towards key expectations by teachers and administrators. (Devi, 2023)

Children communicate the best way they know how. Determining the message the child is trying to send, and then teaching a replacement behavior, is key… Preschool suspension and expulsion should be a last option and only when behaviors are truly dangerous for the child or their peers.”

Using holistic assessment data in this and similar situations

  • Review the child’s developmental, health, mental health, and family data:
    • Are there unusual stressors in the home?
    • Does this child have a medical history that might explain their behaviors?
    • Are there indicators of developmental delays in social-emotional or other areas of development?
  • Consult a pediatrician and include a counselor or psychologist in planning next steps.
  • Work within the school/program to find a new plan for the child for a day or part of a day.
    • Seeing the child in a different setting such as another classroom can help shed light on the situation: How does that child act with other students? Older students? Different role models? With a different teacher?
  • Children communicate the best way they know how. Determining the message the child is trying to send, and then teaching a new replacement behavior/way to communicate, is key. And it does take time. 
  • Avoid suspension and expulsion. This should be a last option and only when behaviors are truly dangerous for the child or their peers. (Little, C. & Reschke, K.,2022; Byers, B. 2017; &  Levin, D. & Jones, D., 2016)

Holistic child assessment is essential to planning for and meeting the needs of young children, including helping to avoid preschool suspension and expulsion, and we now have appropriate tools for assessing both developmental and health measures of each child. (National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations, 2023; Little & Reschke, 2022)

Utilizing health-related data serves the child more effectively, and it also helps make the case for employing early childhood professionals with health/mental health expertise in early learning settings.

Resources for Parents and Professionals

  1. Byers, B. (2017). Blog: “A Mom’s Story about Her Son’s Suspension from Pre-K”, Defending the Early Years, April 26, 2017. https://dey.org/a-moms-story-about-her-sons-suspension-from-pre-k/
  2. Levin, D. & Jones, D. (2016). Here’s Why Preschool Suspensions are Harmful, Education Week, Feb. 23, 2016.
  3. Little, C. & Reschke, K. (2022). Foundations of Assessment for Preschool Settings, Teaching Young Children, October 1, 2022.
  4. NAEYC.ORG (2023). Standing Together Against Suspension & Expulsion in Early Childhood: Resources, https://www.naeyc.org/resources/blog/suspension-and-expulsion-early-childhood
  5. Novak, S. (2023). Half of the 250 Kids Expelled from Preschool Each Day Are Black Boys. Scientific American, January 12, 2023. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/half-of-the-250-kids-expelled-from-preschool-each-day-are-black-boys/
  6. National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (2023). Suspension and Expulsion in Early Childhood. https://challengingbehavior.org/pyramid-model/suspension-expulsion/
  7. Devi, A. (2018). Holistic assessment poster. Optimus Education. https://my.optimus-education.com/holistic-assessment-poster
  8. Stegelin, DA. (2018). Preschool Suspension and Expulsion: Defining the Issues. Institute for Child Sucess. https://www.instituteforchildsuccess.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/ICS-2018-PreschoolSuspensionBrief-WEB.pdf
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