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Implicit Bias and Preschool Expulsion

As we continue our season focusing on systemic racism lurking in unlikely places, Yale researcher and professor Dr. Walter Gilliam provided us with a shocking look at how implicit bias can impact us before we even enter kindergarten. 

Dr. Gilliam helped co-author a study exploring how implicit bias impacts teachers’ decisions—and it turned up some disturbing results. We’ll let you find out what they are in the interview because we’re focusing on something else shocking Dr. Gilliam told us: “Children were expelled from preschool programs, three or four-year-old children, at a rate more than three times that of grades K through 12 combined,” he told Mila. “And when talking about child care programs, the rate’s about 13 times that of schools.”

Your angelic little one is significantly more likely to be expelled or suspended from a preschool program than they are from regular school, even when they’re in their teenage rebellion phase. 

And worse, black boys make up 18% of the preschool population and 46% of suspensions, while black girls make up 19% of the population 53% of suspensions. 

It’s one thing to suspend a junior in high school who was smoking in the boys’ room or bullying the chess club, but what possible reason could there be for suspending a four-year-old who misses their mommy? As it turns out, sometimes not much. 

“What we found is that oftentimes, it’s for very simple things, like not complying, not going along with rules,” Dr. Gilliam said. “I’ve heard of children expelled for running down the hallway in a way that makes the program administrators afraid that the child might get hurt… In many cases, the main reason that children are expelled are three or four years old often seems to be because they’re acting like three or four-year-old children.”

The consequences of these disciplinary actions have ripple effects. Many working-class parents rely on childcare to keep their job or jobs. Losing that support might mean losing a job or losing the balance of a savings account in the process of finding a replacement. Suspending black children at a significantly higher rate puts an already disadvantaged group of parents in an even more challenging position. 

More damaging, however, is the way harsh punishments hurt preschoolers.

“When children are excluded from services, they assume that they are not wanted, not valued, and not capable of succeeding in school. What a devastating message to communicate to any young child,” Joesph Johnson, former dean of the College of Education at San Diego State University, told EdSource

One study found children suspended in preschool are more likely to drop out of high school and go to jail.

Imagine showing up to your first day of Kindergarten with a record of previous suspensions or expulsions. For many children in America, this is a reality. 

Some municipalities and states have passed laws trying to curtail these disciplinary actions, with mixed results. The problem is that the ban doesn’t address underlying issues like implicit bias or provide teachers with extra training to deal with difficult children—if indeed they are difficult. 

In response, some states are putting mental health professionals inside the classrooms to help defray the friction between teachers and students. California recently implemented such a strategy, and Connecticut has had a similar program in place for decades. A study done on the Connecticut program found that classrooms with these consultants had far fewer behavioral problems. This idea might be a way forward where outright bans have failed. 

As long as children are severely disciplined and black children are disciplined at significantly higher rates, our education system cannot be just and inclusive. Dr. Gilliam believes that universal, free pre-K is the beginning of the solution. By providing access to early learning to all children, we can start to level the playing field.

 “Preschool Children Have a Higher Expulsion Rates Than K-12.” CWLA, 

Adamu, Maryam, and Lauren Hogan . 2015, Point of Entry: The Preschool-to-Prison Pipeline.

D’Souza, Karen. “Why California Needs to Ban Preschool Suspensions and Expulsions, Experts Say.” EdSource, EdSource, 5 Jan. 2021, 

Einhorn, Erin. “Kicking Kids out of Preschool Is Damaging, Experts Say. So Why Is It Still Happening?”, NBCUniversal News Group, 3 Aug. 2019, 

Gilliam, Walter. Do Early Educators’ Implicit Biases Regarding Sex and Race Relate to Behavior Expectations and Recommendations of Preschool Expulsions and Suspensions?

Mader, Jackie. “California Adopts a New Model to Curb Preschool Suspensions.” The Hechinger Report, 30 Mar. 2020, 

“U.S. Department of Education Releases 2017-18 Civil Rights Data Collection.” U.S. Department of Education Releases 2017-18 Civil Rights Data Collection | U.S. Department of Education, 15 Oct. 2020, 

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