'The Single Biggest Risk Factor in Getting Expelled Is Being a Preschooler'

Preschoolers are eight times, on average, more likely to get kicked out. States are starting to notice and intervene.

Father walking with his daughter in school.
(AP/Matt Rourke)
Walter Gilliam, child psychiatrist at Yale University, led the first national study on preschool expulsions in 2005. What he found then still surprises many to this day: Preschoolers are three times more likely to be expelled than K-12 students. In private preschools, that number jumps even higher, to 13 times more likely.

"The single biggest risk factor in getting expelled is being a preschooler," Gilliam says.

Experts don’t have conclusive reasons for why expulsions are so much more common among 3- and 4-year-olds, but they have some ideas. For one, preschools have fewer staff members -- if any -- whose main responsibility is to deal with and discipline children when problems arise. Elementary, middle and high schools have counselors, vice principals and other administrative staff tasked with that. Also, while K-12 parents often have recourse to appeal expulsions, the same options aren't typically available in preschool.

While those reasons are valid, California wants to get to the root of the issue: mental and behavioral health problems, and teachers who are not properly trained to deal with them.

Of kids who have been kicked out of school, mental health issues are common, but preschool counselors with mental health training are not. That's why California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill earlier this year to offer financial incentives to preschools that employ a mental health consultant.

"What we’ve learned is it’s not enough to say 'you can’t do this.' You also have to address the underlying factors, and that is the teachers who struggle with challenging behaviors," says Scott Moore, CEO of Kidango, a California-based nonprofit focused on early childhood education that advocated for the bill.

But when mental and behavioral issues arise, the teachers aren't meant to simply send the kids to the mental health consultant.

"A clinician may decide to intervene with a particular child, but generally speaking, this is a preventative approach. This is an opportunity for us to work with teachers, collaboratively, before the issues get to a point when they need those intervening services," says Moore.

A handful of states -- Connecticut, Colorado, Illinois and Michigan -- have started adding mental health screenings and counselors in preschools. But in Illinois and Michigan, the programs were discontinued amid budget cuts in recent years. 

What makes California’s law different from those other states, Gilliam says, is that it uses federal -- rather than state -- money, specifically the Child Care and Development Fund, which is a federal block grant. Because of that, Gilliam expects other states to copy California’s law. It's not only low-cost to the state, the program isn't likely to get chopped during budget cuts -- like they were in Michigan and Illinois.

California already gives preschools money on a per-child basis. Under this new law, preschools with a mental health consultant will get paid 1.05 percent extra per child. "So if you have 20 students, you’ll get paid like you have 21," Gilliam says.

Advocates argue that reducing preschool expulsions will have a positive ripple effect, especially among low-income and minority families, who are disproportionately impacted when their kids suddenly have nowhere to go during the day.

“When you think about a low-income family, when you lose your child care, that can mean losing your job. When you take away that support," says Moore, "you’re taking away their livelihood."

California's new law comes on the heels of a similar one, passed in 2017, that made it much harder to expel a preschooler in the first place. It requires state-subsized preschools to follow a long list of possible interventions that include alternative placement. Connecticut was the first state to pass legislation of this kind, in 2015. Since then, 14 states and the District of Columbia have followed.

Mattie covers all things health for Governing.

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