When Sarah Davidon’s son was in preschool in Douglas County, he would often bite or hit other kids. Once he pinched a teacher on the arm. Another time he punched her in the stomach.

Although the teachers tried to be patient with his outbursts, Davidon worried that the center’s director would ask that the boy be removed from care—what many might call an expulsion.

“There was a period when we were getting calls almost daily,” Davidon said. “[The director] was getting increasingly frustrated…She would say, ‘Other parents are getting upset and I have to decide if this can continue.’”

The irony is that Davidon is a faculty member of the University of Colorado School of Medicine who studies preschool expulsions and early childhood mental health. She’s also board president of the Colorado Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health.

In those roles, she’s well aware that the odds of getting expelled from preschool are higher than the odds of getting expelled from the K-12 system. A 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Education also revealed that minorities and boys are disproportionately expelled from preschool.

It’s statistics like these that prompted a recent federal push for states to address the issue, a process now unfolding in Colorado. Last fall, a letter from two top federal officials was sent to states urging the development of preschool expulsion policies, analysis of expulsion data, and scaling of preventive practices.

In addition, the recently reauthorized federal Child Care and Development Block Grant—the main source of funding for the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program—includes a requirement for states to publish preschool expulsion policies, and permits some grant funds to be used for teacher training around the issue.

Currently, that there are no statewide policies on preschool expulsion in Colorado or mechanisms to collect expulsion data from childcare providers. The two state studies conducted over the past decade show a decreasing rate of preschool expulsions—suggesting that preventive strategies may be working.

Still, advocates say two data sets with relatively low response rates aren’t enough to provide a full picture of the preschool expulsion landscape or make firm conclusions about the impact of prevention strategies.

“When it comes to data, we are in the dark and that’s one of the concerns,” said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

“We want to be able to advocate for strategies that mitigate the use of suspensions and expulsions. We want to be able to evaluate those,” but that’s difficult without baseline data, he said.

But Noel Nelson, CEO and president of the Early Childhood Education Association of Colorado, said requiring providers to report expulsions could add a new layer of unnecessary regulation and lead to state interference in a provider’s carefully considered decision.

“The decision to disenroll a child…is not taken lightly by owners, managers, teachers,” he said. “There’s just this assumption that providers are quick to disenroll and move on.”

Naming the problem

Preschool expulsions and the events leading up to them are worrisome for several reasons. For parents and providers, they are stressful, time-consuming, and potentially expensive. For children, expulsions can delay needed mental health services, threaten continuity of care and hinder positive social-emotional development.

Some experts say expulsions may also foretell a future of school struggles. Charlotte Brantley, president and CEO of Clayton Early Learning, said it’s likely that many of the children suspended or expelled from preschool will be the ones later suspended and expelled during the K-12 years.

“There’s bound to be a thread,” she said.

Despite disagreement among the state’s early childhood players about whether statewide expulsion reporting is needed and how much state oversight is necessary on preschool expulsions generally, most agree that any strategy should include training and other resources for early childhood teachers.

“You can have all the expectations in the world and if you don’t support early child care settings…you won’t necessarily get the results you’re after,” said Brantley.

State officials, child advocates, and provider representatives also agree that whatever happens around preschool expulsions in 2015 will rely on input from all quarters of the early childhood world.

“We’re naming a problem and we want to bring everyone to the table to think about what to do about it,” said Jaeger.

Limited data

Despite the lack of routinely collected state-specific data on preschool suspensions and expulsions, there are a few sources of information that help provide general outlines of the problem.

  • The 2014 data snapshot from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that nationally black students make up 18 percent of the preschool population but 42 percent of those suspended once and 48 percent of those suspended multiple times.
  • The same report found that boys make up 54 percent of the preschool population but 79 percent of those suspended once and 82 percent of those suspended multiple times.
  • A 2006 study co-authored by Davidon found that 10 of every 1,000 children were removed from licensed Colorado child care settings, compared to a K-12 expulsion rate of nearly three per 1,000 students. (The provider response rate to the study survey was 17 percent.)
  • The 2006 study found that home-based providers had higher rates of expulsion (35 per 1,000) than child care centers (six per 1,000).
  • A follow-up study in 2011 (not yet published) found a significant drop in removal rates from licensed child care—four per 1,000. (The provider response rate to the study survey was 17.9 percent.)

Davidon, director of community education with JFK Partners in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, called the reduction found in the 2011 survey good news. Still, she said, “What we still don’t do is collect information on this every year…We can’t stop expulsions from happening if we don’t know when and where they’re happening.”

There has been some talk about adding an expulsion category to the state’s electronic incident reporting system currently used to report when a child is injured at preschool or day care. But officials from the state’s Office of Early Childhood, which is housed in the Colorado Department of Human Services, aren’t sure that’s the way to go.

Jordana Ash, director of early childhood mental health for the Office of Early Childhood, said she’d like to focus on collecting “lead measures” that anticipate the possibility of expulsion rather than “lag measures” such as the expulsion itself.

“We’re very invested in understanding this phenomenon and understanding really what leads to a child being at risk of expulsion,” she said. “Our efforts will be capturing the right data.”

In terms of what lead measures the state might collect, Ash said the department’s data team and other stakeholders will need to consider that issue.

“That’s the work in front of us,” she said.

Tools for heading off expulsions

While the current spotlight on preschool expulsions is relatively new, some advocates have been working to address it for years. There are several strategies that seem to be effective, including teacher trainings focusing on children’s social-emotional development. These include programs like Pyramid Plus, The Incredible Years and “Expanding Quality for Infants and Toddlers.”

Ash, who studied preschool expulsion rates in Boulder County in her previous position, said the creation of a “warm line” that providers and parents could call to seek phone or on-site help with difficult child behaviors seemed to have an impact in the Boulder area.

Another option for providers is bringing in early childhood mental health consultants. The state funds the equivalent of 17 full-time positions. Such consultants observe classroom dynamics and help teachers adjust schedules, change room lay-outs, and otherwise tweak instruction to better handle challenging children.

That’s what helped in Davidon’s case. Her son, now a first-grader in the Jeffco school district, didn’t end up getting expelled from preschool. Instead, as things deteriorated during his four-year-old year, she called in a friend who worked as an early childhood mental health consultant in Douglas County.

The friend observed Davidon’s son in his classroom several times over a month and then provided the teachers and Davidon with input and suggestions. Some, like a smaller class size, weren’t doable, but others, like better preparing the children for transitions and taking a different tack when the boy got physical, were implemented.

Davidon’s son still had moments of bad behavior after that but the frequency and duration of incidents decreased, said Davidon. Part of it, was helping the teachers frame his physically hurtful behavior not as a personal attack but an issue that would deescalate with calm correction.

“I’m not sure if [he] changed…what I do think changed is that the teachers felt a little more confident in how we addressed things when they came up,” she said.

While research suggests that mental health consultation can help reduce expulsions, there’s concern that the state’s cadre of consultants is too small to help all the providers who could use support. Davidon added that most parents can’t be expected to know about, much less arrange such interventions as she did.

“I can’t imagine if I weren’t working in the field and I didn’t know some of these people, who I would have called,” she said.