For months, Nadine Anderson picked up her son from preschool dreading that day's report on his behavior. At 3 years old, Devandre had thrown things and pushed classmates so often that he was about to get expelled from his YWCA program in Worcester, Mass. No one seemed to know what to do.
On average, nearly 7 of every 1,000 children are expelled in a given year, according to the first nationwide study of expulsions in state-funded prekindergarten programs. That's triple the rate at which students are expelled from K-12 programs, says Walter Gilliam, an assistant professor of child psychiatry and psychology at the Yale University Child Study Center.
Over the past 25 years, access to preschool has grown dramatically. The number of states funding pre-K for at least some children has grown from 10 to 40. But in a quest to get the most return on such investments, policymakers are shifting attention to quality.
Expulsions are a serious concern because they may prevent the very students most in need of early learning from getting it. They may also signal, suggests the Yale study, that teachers in these programs need more support when it comes to handling behavior problems.
"When we fail to provide these supports, we place children and their families in a very difficult situation - where some children are bounced from one program to the next and parents may end up viewing their child as an educational failure well before kindergarten," Professor Gilliam said in a telephone press conference.
Survey results from nearly 4,000 teachers showed that the more access they had to help from mental-health consultants, the less likely they were to have expelled a child.
A program in Worcester began providing such consultation just in time to keep Devandre from becoming part of the expulsion statistics. A survey of four large child-care centers had found that 18 percent of 2- to 5-year-olds were at risk of being expelled because of "challenging behaviors" such as biting, destruction of property, and temper tantrums.
In response, the Together for Kids Coalition formed, with funding from local branches of United Way and The Health Foundation. Specialists in early childhood mental health observe students and meet with teachers and parents to come up with a plan so that children will get consistent messages at home and at school.