Roosevelt House Faculty Forum Posted on Thursday, April 06, 2017

Preventing the Preschool-to-Prison Pipeline: Examining Preschool Discipline Policy Recommendations

 “The fact that the school-to-prison pipeline appears to start as early as 4-year-olds, before kindergarten, should absolutely horrify us”

—Arne Duncan (National Public Radio, 2014).


Attention to the discipline phenomenon in preschool from media, organizations, and civil rights policy-makers has been growing since the release of the National Preschool Study (Gilliam, 2005) and U.S. Department of Education (2014) Office of Civil Rights (U.S. DOE OCR) data on preschool. These datasets provide information on the use of discipline practices specific to early childhood education. Findings are strikingly similar and equally disturbing: preschool students of color are disproportionately disciplined using out-of-school suspension and expulsion, both in sum (as compared to their kindergarten through twelfth grade [K-12] peers) and by subgroup (e.g. race, gender).

One of the challenges in addressing the discipline problem is that individual, rather than collective, blame is most often assigned as the root cause of out-of-school discipline practices in preschool. First, behaviors are often labeled as the fault of the child. While some reported behaviors are non-compliance, defiance, aggression, and harmful behaviors, other behaviors identified as challenging are seeking attention, being clingy, irritability, and being overly active (see Hoover, Kubicek, Rosenberg, Zundel, & Rosenberg, 2012; Snell, Berlin, Voorhees, Staton-Chapman, & Hadden, 2011). One mother told the story of her three-year old daughter’s suspension from preschool for wetting her pants (Shulte, 2011). It’s difficult to imagine preschoolers punished for behavior many others would expect from young children. As Dr. Walter Gilliam—preschool discipline expert—accurately stated: “Preschool expulsions and suspensions are not child behaviors; they are adult decisions.” This raises a legitimate concern regarding the deficit-based perceptions of the adults making these decisions.

Researchers have suggested that teachers may host their own implicit biases that disproportionately impact the ways teachers discipline certain children (Cyphert, 2014; Gilliam, Maupin, Reyes, Accavitti, & Shic, 2016). These race and gender biases are supported by the data:  Black students represent 18 percent of the preschool enrollment, but they represent 48 percent of students suspended more than once. Boys represent 54 percent of the preschool enrollment, but represent 82 percent of children suspended more than once (U.S.DOE OCR, 2014). Further, teachers often experience high stress, low support, and large class sizes (Gilliam & Shahar, 2006; Wright & Ford, 2016), and when combined with limited cultural knowledge, discipline can be used inappropriately and disproportionately.

Yet the individual teachers’ response to what they perceive as bad behavior is only part of the story. Institutions, too, are cited as playing an integral role in disproportionate discipline practices. Problems include policies of zero tolerance (Cyphert, 2014), lack of mental health support to students, emphasis on high stakes testing instead of social-emotional skills, and misrepresentation or non-reporting of disciplinary data. These are critical to understanding root causes for the disproportionate discipline of 2-, 3-, 4-, and 5-year olds.

Early suspension and expulsion don’t lead to improved behavior; they lead to later risky behavior, later repeated discipline, and negative relationships with teachers and schools. Essentially, the general consensus among scholars and policy-makers is that out-of-school suspension and expulsion of preschool-aged children is inappropriate and comes at a high cost to children, families, and the institutions that serve them. For example, children of such a young age don’t developmentally understand or generalize the reasons they are being sent home. Once they are removed from schools, they’re no longer present to participate in opportunities to develop important skills. Given that preschool children need supervision, being sent away from school requires a family member to stay home from work and struggle to make alternative arrangements (Buck & Ambrosino, 2004). These negative effects provide support for policy and practice guidance to help preschools reduce the use of harmful discipline practices.

Organizations routinely provide recommendations to reduce the practice of disproportionate exclusion in early childhood.  The U. S. Department of Education Guiding Principles (2014) caution that schools should, “explicitly reserve the use of out of school suspensions, expulsions, and alternative placements for the most egregious disciplinary infractions that threaten school safety and when mandated by federal or state law (p. 15)”.  A summary of recommendations from select organizations in the last five years is presented in Table 1.  A close examination of recommendations is needed, as most guidance documents do not sufficiently address the multifaceted aspects of disproportionate discipline in a holistic way and several ignore the systemic nature of disproportionate discipline choices.  While the guidance documents do provide explicit recommendations, it is imperative that to reduce disproportionate suspension, the implementation of the recommendations must include all interconnected aspects in the social-ecological model in toto. Only this multi-faceted approach will result in meaningful change.

In sum, children who are able to access early childhood programs often face a misuse of out-of-school discipline practices by teachers and providers—especially if they are Black or boys. Researchers, practitioners, parents, leaders, and policy-makers all agree the impacts of current discipline practices forecasts a dim future for a preschooler and must be addressed. The “preschool-to-prison” or worse—“cradle-to-prison” pipeline—needs immediate attention. Implications for practice recommendations in the future include requiring multi-faceted approaches and acknowledging the historical complexity of the problem. With the preschool movement in relatively new educational territory (only three states have universally available programs), now is the time to act on the prevention policies based on holistic recommendations before the problem snowballs into a disaster for an entire generation of children.

Table 1

Reports, Briefs, and Policy Statement Recommendations

TitleAffiliated organization(s)



Racial Gaps in Early Childhood (2011)National Center for Children in Poverty
  • Mental health prevention and intervention for children and parent
  • Income enhancement for parents and educational resources to children
  • Increased educational opportunities for mothers


Point of Entry: Preschool-to-Prison Pipeline (2015)Center for American Progress
  • Prohibit suspension and expulsion in early childhood
  • Teacher preparation and education toward cultural responsiveness and racial equity
  • Expand access to mental health consultation
  • Increase funding to home visiting program
  • Support diverse teacher workforce and pipeline
  • Promote meaningful family engagement


School-to-Prison Pipeline (2016)American Bar Association
  • Support legal representation for students at point of exclusion
  • Develop training models on implicit bias
  • Remove zero-tolerance policies from schools
  • Support demonstrated alternative strategies to address student misbehavior
  • Provide for continued and more detailed data


Report of the NEA Committee on Discipline and the School-to-Prison Pipeline (2016)National Education Association
  • Discourage referrals to special education and 504 plans as a response to disciplinary issues
  • Publicize school district models that have proven effective in reducing suspension/ expulsion
  • Increase access to mental health consultation
  • Comprehensive/ wrap-around services
  • Require cultural competence and implicit bias training
  • Educate stakeholders
  • Parent and family engagement


Policy Statement on Expulsion and Suspension Policies in Early Childhood Settings (2014)U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; U. S. Department of Education
  • Form strong, supportive, nurturing relationships with children
  • Developmental monitoring and universal screenings
  • Comprehensive approach to services and supports
  • Strong relationship with parent and families
  • Strong understanding of culture and diversity
  • Employ self-reflective strategies to prevent and correct biases
  • Eliminate discriminatory discipline practices
  •  Promote teacher health and wellness


Expelling Expulsion: Using the Pyramid Model (2015)Pyramid Model Consortium
  • Train teachers in the Pyramid Model which addresses bias and disproportionality
  • Effectively implement culturally responsive practices
  • Provide teachers with access to professional development activities


Out-of-School Suspension and Expulsion (2013)American Academy of Pediatrics
  • Early pediatrician screening for behavior problems
  • Provision of community supports for intervention, including mental health consultation




Buck & Ambrosino. (2004). Children with severe behavior problems: A survey of Texas child care centers’ responses. Early Childhood Education Journal, 31, 241-246. doi:10.1023/B:ECEJ.0000024115.51009.e6

Cyphert, A. (2014). Addressing radical disparities in preschool suspension and expulsion rates. Tennessee Law Review, 82, 893-936.

Gilliam, W. (2005). Prekindergarteners left behind: Expulsion rates in state prekindergarten programs (Foundation for Child Development Policy Brief Series No. 3). Retrieved from

Gilliam, W. S., Maupin, A. N., Reyes, C. R., Accavitti, M., Shic, F. (2016). Do early educators’ implicit biases regarding sex and race relate to behavior expectations and recommendations of preschool expulsions and suspensions? Yale University Child Study Center. Retrieved from

Gilliam, W., & Shahar, G. (2006). Preschool and child care expulsion and suspension. Infants & Young Children, 19, 228–245. doi:10.1097/00001163-200607000-00007

Hoover, S., Kubicek, L., Rosenberg, C., Zundel, C., & Rosenberg, S. (2012). Influence of behavioral concerns and early childhood expulsions on the development of early childhood mental health consultation in Colorado. Infant Mental Health Journal33(3), 246–255. doi: 10.1002/imhj

Schulte, B. (2011, January 30). Three-year-old suspended from Arlington preschool for too many potty accidents. The Washington Post.

Snell, M.E., Berlin, R.A., & Voorhees, M.D., Staton-Chapman, T.L., & Hadden, S. (2011). A survey of preschool staff: Concerning problem behavior and its prevention in Head Start classrooms. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, XX, 1-10. doi:10.1177/1098300711416818U. S. Department of Education (2014). Guiding principles: A resource guide for improving school climate and discipline. Retrieved from gen/guid/school-discipline/guiding-principles.pdf

U.S. Office of Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education (2014). Civil rights data collection snapshot: Early childhood education. [Issue Brief No. 2]. Retrieved from

Wright, B., & Ford, D. (2016). “This little light of mine”: Creating early childhood education classroom experiences for African American boys. Journal of African American Males in Education, 7, 5-19.


This article is part of a series of faculty commentary around issues of equity and justice in education policy. Click here to read the full series.

Chelsea T. Morris is a Ph.D. student in the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Miami. After receiving her Master’s degree in early childhood special education at James Madison University, she was an infant educator for inpatient and intensive care units in a Hospital Education Program at the University of Virginia and later, a teacher in an early childhood special education preschool. The graduate courses Chelsea has taught have focused on teacher attitudes and beliefs about children with medical or special education needs and their families. Currently, Chelsea is exploring data on families and teachers to improve teacher responses to perceived challenging behavior in preschool classrooms.