Center for Injury Research and Prevention

Can Pre-Schoolers Show Aggression? Opportunities to Address High Expulsion Rates of Youngest Children

September 19, 2017

Recently, my CHOP Psychology colleague Marsha Gerdes, PhD authored an in-depth blog on the alarmingly high expulsion rates of preschoolers and other very young children, under age 5, in a variety of child care settings. This was based on a survey Dr. Gerdes and her colleagues completed last year, which revealed the primary reason for expulsion to be a combination of aggression and disruptive displays of emotion. Her post goes on to explore the short and potentially long-term consequences of expulsion on these children, as well as efforts both nationally and right here in Philadelphia to support success in early childhood education. As co-director of CHOP’s Violence Prevention Initiative, a lot of our bullying prevention work in Philadelphia schools is directed at helping youth learn strategies to better control their anger and emotions in an effort to improve the school climate. This is extremely important as expelling children without providing them with support, modeling, and opportunities to be successful may only increase their frustration without directly addressing the problem.

An abbreviated version of Dr. Gerdes’ blog post is included below. Click here to read the full blog on CHOP PolicyLab’s website and here to access their free webinar.


What if I told you that Philadelphia’s preschoolers are being expelled from classrooms at high rates? Would you believe me if I told you that the rate of expulsion for these young children nationwide is even higher than for high school students?

It’s hard to imagine a three-year-old being told that they can no longer come to school, but preschools are expelling children at a rate three times higher than K-12 schools. In Philadelphia, 26 percent of child care settings reported in a survey we conducted last year that they expelled at least one child, and 37 percent reported having suspended a child under the age of five in the 2015-2016 school year. This is not just a preschool issue, but occurs across a variety of child care settings.

Furthermore, minority children nationwide are expelled or suspended more often than their peers; Hispanic and African American boys combined represent 46 percent of all preschool-age boys, but 66 percent of preschool suspensions.

The Impact of Expulsion and Suspension

Why are these children being asked to leave school or child care? Our survey revealed that the primary reason cited for expelling students is aggression – hitting, kicking, biting or otherwise physically lashing out – followed by poor control of emotions, including frequent tantrums and angry outbursts. For teachers, these behaviors are challenging and they worry about the safety and well-being of all of the children.

Child care settings should be inclusive of all children, including those with behavioral issues and those with special needs, and early childhood leaders need to take additional steps to build those inclusive environments. Unfortunately, early childhood leaders face a number of challenges:

  • Currently, teachers cannot always access the appropriate training or support to help all preschoolers excel.
  • Support is also lacking for parents who may be reluctant to use mental health services because of the stigma involved.
  • Communication and collaboration is not common among service providers working with young children.
  • Finally, there are no mechanisms for tracking outcomes for those children who are expelled or for helping expelled children find support or the next location for child care.

High-quality, inclusive child care and preschool programs not only prepare students for elementary school, but provide them with important cognitive, academic and social-emotional skills that are necessary to succeed at every education level. In fact, children who attend preschool are much more likely to graduate high school and less likely to have children as a teen or find themselves in jail.

So, not only does expulsion or suspension hinder a child’s social-emotional development, but it also removes them from early learning programs that are known to contribute to academic success.

Opportunities to Ensure Early Childhood Success

The high rates of preschool expulsions and suspensions have become so troubling nationwide that, in 2016, two federal agencies jointly released recommendations for how early childhood programs and state governments can work to reverse these trends. They advocated that states develop and clearly communicate statewide expulsion and suspension policies, invest in workforce training, and establish and implement policies for high-quality early care and education programs. These are just recommendations – it’s up to the states to create plans and find the funding and the will to carry out these efforts.

Here in Pennsylvania, we’ve made strides towards helping more children succeed in early childhood programs with the Office of Child Development & Early Learning’s (OCDEL) release of policy statements on inclusion and expulsion and suspension. Additionally, the Pennsylvania Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 budget, though not yet funded, includes an expansion of investments in preschool and child care services that would go a long way to help young children and their parents.

This effort is just beginning and we will need to monitor the implementation of these new policies as time goes on. In the meantime, there is more that we can and should be doing to support families who need behavioral health supports to help keep their children in school and on track for success.

**Like what you’ve read? Subscribe to Research in Action to have the latest in child injury prevention delivered to your inbox.**