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Why are we suspending 4-year-olds from our schools?

REUTERS/Gary Cameron
As the CAP article says, “preschool should be a welcoming place where children grow and develop normally, free from society’s stereotypes and prejudice.”

When I see the 4-year-olds at my school bouncing down the hallway, I see students ready for anything! Excited about school and soaking up a world of knowledge, they are just so cute! So, when I read the Center for American Progress’ (CAP) recent piece, “4 Disturbing Facts About Preschool Suspension,” my heart dropped to the pit of my stomach. Nearly 7,000 3- and 4-year-olds were suspended or expelled [PDF] from U.S. public preschools during the 2013-2104 school year. This is unconscionable. I am already angered and frustrated by the disproportionate number of students of color that we push out and suspend from our K-12 schools, but ostracizing preschool students is even more disturbing — and counterproductive.

Teresa Fenske

Suspensions of young children are not just a national problem; we see them in Minnesota too. According to an October 2015 Star Tribune article, a kindergartner was suspended for playing with ChapStick and then fleeing the classroom when told to stop, despite a Minneapolis moratorium on suspending kindergarteners. Furthermore, the article detailed local disparities in suspensions. When will the Minnesota Legislature and local districts effectively address this inequity? There are alternatives to suspensions that are more effective than this harmful, exclusionary practice; they must become a priority for our school leaders and legislators.

Pathologizes normal child behavior

Suspending young children pathologizes normal child behavior, and these suspensions can be driven by racial bias. It is not abnormal for a preschooler’s frustration to be expressed through physical conflict, as any parent can tell you. When preschool students are suspended for a physical conflict, it sends the message that something is wrong with the child, sometimes leading to medical intervention, even though it is part of a preschooler’s normal social development. I see this firsthand with my 3-year-old son, who will soon start preschool. He pushes his sister and hits me when he’s frustrated — not because he is a bad kid, but because he is still learning how to express his frustration. My son, who is white, will likely not have to worry about being suspended. If trends continue, his black peers won’t be as lucky, as they are nearly four times more likely to be suspended. 

Studies suggest that what we treat as a student problem may actually be an adult one. Research suggests that implicit racial bias — bias that teachers and administrators aren’t even conscious of — can drive preschool suspensions. The recent eye-tracking study that came out of Yale University [PDF] shows that teachers observe African-American children more closely than white children because they expect challenging behavior. This contributes to the disproportionate number of African-American students we suspend while we should be setting up early learners of color for success. Starting on their first day of school, we are effectively sending the message to students of color that school is not for them.

Long-lasting impact

And the impact of school suspensions is far greater than a few hours or days missed from school. Not only is the way they are disproportionately given out a civil rights issue, but when we exclude students from the classroom, they are less likely to graduate. A Texas study found that students who had been suspended or expelled were twice as likely to drop out compared to students with similar characteristics at similar schools who had not been suspended. When students don’t graduate, their chances of falling into the criminal-justice or social-welfare systems increase. Along with the human cost, this takes an economic toll on our state, depleting our workforce and tax base. 

School districts and the Legislature must address this issue by providing training for school personnel. This training should target all staff, not just teachers, and focus on addressing our implicit biases, implementing alternatives to suspensions, and using respectful and positive redirection for students acting out. Even as someone who is aware of this issue, I, too, would benefit from these trainings and continue the work of undoing my biases. I’m also embracing alternatives to suspensions that are based on relationship building with students. We need resources and policies in place that support implementation of these alternatives; without them, our efforts will be inconsistent and we will fall short.

As the CAP article says, “preschool should be a welcoming place where children grow and develop normally, free from society’s stereotypes and prejudice.” It’s time we, the public, our school districts, and our Legislature make the changes necessary to allow school to be a welcoming place that encourages growth and development for all students. As my own child starts preschool this fall, this is what I want for him and all his peers.

Teresa Fenske is a fourth-grade teacher at Valley View Elementary School in Columbia Heights.


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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/09/2017 - 10:08 am.


    If you want to stop suspending kids for Chapstick, great. But most of the suspensions on that list in the linked Star Tribune article involved violence. Sorry, but when my child is injured by yours having his/her issues “expressed through physical conflict” suspensions are appropriate, even for young kids.

  2. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 06/09/2017 - 12:21 pm.

    Time out

    The writer says more training is needed. What is needed is for time-out to be de-crimininalized. Time-out is one of the most studied and effective interventions to change behavior. But the advocacy community was successful a few years ago in ignoring science (just as climate deniers do) and making time out a restrictive procedure. Since then there has been more suspensions and staff injuries have increased. The most tragic outcome though is that children who need time out are practicing inappropriate behavior, being reinforced for their violence, and becoming more anti-social and pre-criminal-all due to the “positives movement” (which is otherwise meritorious.)

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/09/2017 - 01:41 pm.

      Exact opposite

      The rise in staff injuries is the direct result of the failure to remove kids for violent behavior. I saw my kids classrooms in St. Paul descend into chaos as teachers were disempowered to manage their own classrooms and disruptive and violent students were given a message that there were no real consequences for behavior. The termination of Silva finally got things on the right track again.

      The most tragic outcome is that giving timeouts for serious behavior is destroying the value of school and enabling bullying. Spend some time in a junior high or high school and you will see how ridiculous that is.

      • Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 06/09/2017 - 08:50 pm.


        Don’t you wish your school could use a locked time out room [also known as Locked Quiet Rooms or contingent time-out] so that kids could stay in school and that they could participate in in your classroom CONTINGENT on having acceptable behavior???

  3. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 06/09/2017 - 02:55 pm.

    The correct response?

    If a 3-4 year old is violent, and it isn’t curbed, they will have a lifetime of problems. So short of suspension, what is the remedy? Pretending the bad behavior will magically go away. The primary responsibility lies with the parent. Starting with the second offense, how about a mandated mental health day where an adult is home with the child and expected to work on teaching discipline? Kids stay home if they are sick. Violence is an illness and a habit that can be unlearned as soon as parents take it seriously. Hit someone in my family, and you get an automatic timeout. Consistent parenting is much simpler for the child to grasp.

    • Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 06/09/2017 - 09:14 pm.


      Schools love parents but many parents’ life conditions (job, transportation etc.) do not generally make them a resource when a behavioral emergency occurs (and sometimes a medical emergency.) Schools could have a tool to deal with dis-regulated behavior and it is CONTINGENT TIME OUT (and please note NAMI and others that this is NOT SECLUSION.) Staff are being seriously injured and classrooms are being seriously disrupted because schools do not have a means to immediately remove students to LOCKED QUIET ROOMS. The reason for this is that state policy erroneously classified contingent time out as a REGULATED PROCEDURE (get out the paperwork.) Preschoolers could especially benefit from this intervention.

      Some smart reporter should connect the dots between emergency room nurses, St. Paul school teachers, residential programs, school Level IV’s, day treatment programs, and districts that are seeing an ENORMOUS rise in staff injuries. The common denominator besides client/student assaults on staff is that policy will not allow scientifically proven interventions such as CONTINGENT TIME OUT INCLUDING THE USE OF LOCKED QUIET ROOMS to be used to protect staff but more importantly to change the dis-regulated behavior of children and adults. So enter the police into the emergency room and the classroom.

      The pendulum needs to swing from the 2000’s when zero tolerance was the standard to the current era when “trauma informed”, “positive” approaches and foolishly outlawing scientifically validated effective practices as “regulated procedures” are the norm to a middle ground that is based on well studied evidence-based practices as found in the scientific literature about behavioral change. Let’s banish ideology and re-introduce science to the arena of student/client/staff interactions.

      Sadly, the loser here are students/clients who miss out on opportunities to learn to regulate and change their behavior. How many of them go on to more serious legal trouble and incarceration because we do not want the helping professions to help with dis-regulated behavior?

  4. Submitted by rolf westgard on 06/10/2017 - 06:11 am.


    Four times as many black children are suspended because they misbehave four times as often. Some of it relates to fewer fathers in the home, an issue schools can’t correct. The issue continues as far more black males are involved with the justice system. It’s because they commit more crimes. I don’t know the answer, but thinking it is because of white bias doesn’t help us deal with the problem.

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