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Expulsion and suspension policies in early childhood classrooms

Published January 2020

Educators, medical professionals, civil rights advocates, and children’s advocates have recently begun to scrutinize the use of exclusionary discipline in early childhood education settings. This includes the suspensions, expulsions, and other removals (“push-outs,” so-called “soft” suspensions, calls home for the parent to pick up a child “who is not having a good day,” etc.).  Furthermore, suspension and expulsion is an emphasis in the State Report Card provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA, § 1111(h)(1)(C)(viii)(I)).

Why is this important?  Early childhood programs must protect children from harm but must also use alternatives to effectively support and respond to problem behaviors so that disciplinary removals such as expulsion and suspension are infrequent or unnecessary. Expulsion and suspension should only be used as a last resort when there is a serious safety concern that cannot be reduced or eliminated with reasonable modifications.

Factors that may increase expulsions and suspensions during early childhood education may include:

  • Lack of positive relationships between educators, families, and children
  • Misguided or missing policies
  • Insufficient training and/or support for staff for promoting social-emotional development and managing challenging behavior

Results of expulsions and suspensions during early childhood education may include:

  • Negative impact to the development of positive relationships
  • Disruption to early learning
  • Unintended and undesirable results (instead of reduced or eliminated targeted behaviors)
  • Delay or interference with the process to identify and address underlying issues, which may include disabilities or mental health needs
  • Increased family stress and burden, including location of alternate services, often without assistance

What can educators do to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline in early childhood settings?  Consider other requirements and guiding frameworks for appropriate discipline policy and practice:

  • Applicable early childhood program requirements (e.g., IDEA, SWVPP, Shared Visions Preschool, Head Start, etc.), including minimizing disruptions and transitions in programming.
  • Appropriate practices defined by program standards and criteria adopted (IQPPS, HSPPS, NAEYC)
  • Positive behavior supports frameworks adopted (EC-PBIS)

What is the legal framework for exclusionary discipline in early childhood settings? First, the parents of a child in a publicly funded early childhood program are constitutionally entitled to notice and an opportunity to be heard before any expulsion or lengthy removal (removal of more than ten days).  See, e.g., Goss v. Lopez (U.S. Supreme Court, 1975). These are the same disciplinary protections that children in grades kindergarten through twelve receive.

Second, children with disabilities in early childhood programs are entitled to additional protections when they are removed from their educational program for disciplinary reasons. These protections are required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504.

Third, early childhood programs must implement disciplinary removals in a nondiscriminatory manner. Suspensions and expulsions of children administered in a discriminatory manner may violate Federal civil rights laws. Discipline practices should not disproportionately impact any group of children. For example, for young children with disabilities (or for whom a disability has not been ruled out), the program is obligated to consider the implications of the child’s behavioral needs, and the effects of the use of disciplinary removals when ensuring the provision of FAPE. Failure to make behavioral supports available throughout a continuum of placements, including in regular education settings, could result in an inappropriately restrictive placement (and denial of placement in the Least Restrictive Environment).

What must early childhood programs do? Early childhood programs must provide procedure protections required by Goss to all children and required by the IDEA and Section 504 to children with disabilities. Early childhood programs must report suspension and expulsion of all children as required by SRI, including all children in Statewide Voluntary Preschool Programs and all preschool children with IEPs. This would apply to suspension and expulsion decisions from SWVPP programming made by SWVPP community partners. Early childhood programs must also review their policies and procedures to ensure they have alternatives and prevention strategies and that they use exclusionary discipline appropriately and equitably.

To which programs does this guidance apply? This guidance applies to the following types of entities.

  1. Early childhood programs operated by public school districts, including but not limited to SWVPP programs and ECSE programs.
  2. Early childhood programs operated by other public entities or by private entities that partner with public school districts to operate early childhood programs, such as SWVPP community partners.

What resources are available to early childhood programs? The joint policy statement on expulsion and suspension policies in early childhood settings between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education includes the following recommendations for early childhood programs:

  1. Develop and clearly communicate preventive guidance and discipline practices.
  2. Develop and clearly communicate expulsion and suspension policies.
  3. Access technical assistance in workforce development to prevent expulsion and suspension.
  4. Set goals and analyze data to assess progress.
  5. Make use of free resources to enhance staff training and strengthen family partnerships.

Additional resources include:

For more information, visit the Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program webpage.

For questions related to special education, contact Dee Gethmann at or Thomas Mayes at

Students with Disabilities

For questions regarding students with disabilities please contact Thomas Mayes at