Anti-Racist Strategies to Prevent Suspensions and Expulsions in ECE

Anti-Racist Strategies to Prevent Suspensions and Expulsions in ECE

What’s in this article?

Data and Trends
Mindset Shifts for Anti-Racist Disciplinary Changes
Anti-Racist Discipline Changes (Program Policies & Classroom Management)

Did you know that in the 2013-2014 school year, Black students represented 19.5% of preschool enrollment nationwide, yet they made up 48.6% of preschool children suspended one or more times? (CRDC, 2016)

As we move deeper into the anti-racist approaches we can incorporate in our early learning environments and our relationships with young learners, we now arrive at how we view young black, latinx, indigenous, and other children of color’s behavior. As the data shared in this article will highlight, our biases leave us predisposed to misinterpret young BIPOC children’s behavior as mal-intended, harmful, and/or problematic. Much of this is rooted in racism and colorism we have learned as adults and project into our early learning spaces. 

We focus on exploring the data leading to disparities in exclusionary practices on BIPOC children, the factors causing this harmful pattern in behavior management, and the anti-racist discipline changes we can incorporate in our early learning programs.

Data and Trends

Before we dig into what the research shows about suspensions & expulsions, the graphic below shares the context we refer to when speaking about expulsions and types of suspensions, as NCPMI shares

What does the data on pre-school suspensions and expulsions show?

Let’s explore several statistics based on a nationwide level, as shared in Michelle DeJohnette’s dissertation from 2022:

As we can see there are stark disparities in expulsion rates among different races and ethnicities in preschool programs, with Black preschoolers being the most disproportionately impacted. 

Based on this data and knowledge of child development, how are children of color affected?

As we mentioned in previous articles of this series, implicit bias and racism from adults and other children can lead to young children developing low self-esteem, difficulty with self-advocacy, and chronic health problems as adults. In these more specific cases of racism affecting how we view the behavior of children of color, disparate punishments (including suspensions and expulsions) can lead to children of color viewing themselves as more “bad” than their white counterparts. This can further foster low self-esteem and also become a self-fulfilling prophecy as children act based on how others see them. These implied views of “criminality” are one of the key factors we can inadvertently contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline, leading children to harmful paths and decisions down the line.

What effect do suspensions and expulsions have on families of color?

Suspensions and expulsions can create a harmful gap between families and early learning programs. When families repeatedly get negative messages and notice their child receiving more punishments than support, it worsens their sense of belonging and cooperation. This disconnect damages the essential partnership between families and early learning programs, ultimately hurting the child.

Moreover, some programs use “soft” exclusionary practices. These practices prevent children from engaging in learning and/or activities they should be involved in during the school day. For instance, they may:

  • Send a child to the director’s office or another classroom 
  • Isolate a child from their peers 
  • Deny them participation in activities such as outside play, a field trip or party

These practices aim to avoid suspensions and expulsions, but they gradually push families away from the early learning program. Consequently, children and their families feel excluded and unwelcome, which leads to a sense of not fitting in at school and doubting their academic abilities even before entering the K-12 system – in turn pushing the child into the school-to-prison pipeline.

What roles do we as early educators play in committing this harm? How is this happening?

As early educators, our main goal is to ensure the safety and well-being of all the children in our care. However, it’s important to acknowledge that we all have biases that can unknowingly influence our actions and how we treat children in our learning environments.

Research indicates that preschool classrooms often reflect deficit-based perspectives of children of color, particularly Black male criminality.

Essien (2012) shared stories from parents of Black children who described their early childhood experiences in terms of discipline. These parents explained how their children were frequently assumed to be at fault even when they did nothing wrong, or were singled out for punishment when other children were behaving similarly.

The classroom plays a crucial role in preparing children for society, but unfortunately, it still predominantly adheres to white norms and values (Brown et al., 2010; Simson, 2013), which are rooted in negative perceptions of Black children and children of other races (such as Latinx, Asian, etc.).

Racism leads to internalized negative beliefs about Black [and Latinx] children, resulting in subconscious biases that can affect our disciplinary practices as teachers (Gregory & Roberts, 2017).

Curious to see how these biases play out in the classroom? Take 2-minutes to watch this NPR video, “Bias Isn’t Just a Police Problem, It’s a Preschool Problem.”

This disciplinary gap starts as early as preschool, where Black children are three times more likely to be expelled compared to white children. Data points like these give us valuable perspective, prompting us to reflect on our practices, increase awareness, seek help and resources, and adjust behavior management strategies accordingly. For more insights, strategies, and resources around mitigating our biases, visit the previous articles in this anti-bias, anti-racism series

Mindset Shifts for Anti-Racist Disciplinary Changes

As the data shows above, we have a problem when our youngest children of color make up the largest number of learners who are suspended or expelled from early childhood education environments. In many ways, this problem reflects how our educational system mimics our criminal justice system. As educators and unintentional gate keepers due to our positions of power, we need to ask ourselves the impactful questions, be reflective, and stand in our truth. Here are three questions to guide our reflective practice and actions, as anti-bias early educators.

  • When disciplinary decisions are being made, who has a voice and who is left out?
  • Are families involved in the design of disciplinary practices? 
  • Who determines what disciplinary practices are fair and unfair?

We must examine our actions and practices in serving learners, striving to establish a foundation for socially just education in all early learning environments. Merely teaching children to follow rules and take orders falls short of cultivating the skills required to become innovative thinkers who can shape and reimagine our world. A socially just education is not just about intentions, but about actively implementing beliefs and practices that support all children.

What factors lead to inequities in how we apply disciplinary practices on young learners of color?

Now let’s delve into what factors create the conditions for the inequitable disciplinary practices on young children of color. Here we focus on 5 key factors and the necessary mindset shifts for us to bring an anti-racist approach towards discipline and our work with children and families

Unconscious Bias in Ourselves as Educators

As aware anti-racist educators, we have a responsibility to overhaul our way of thinking and look at the biases that have plagued our educational practices. “Implicit bias refers to unconscious attitudes, reactions, stereotypes and categories that affect behavior and understanding” (Boysen, et. al 2009). Our unconscious racial views can produce biased treatment with real implications for a child’s educational progress and personal development. Consider this data point and it’s impact:

For more information about bias and examples about how it affects our relationships with children and families, check out our article, “How Bias Impacts Our Relationships with Children and Families.”

Becoming aware and transforming our unconscious biases is particularly important for deconstructing structural racism as well. Structural racism is the interplay of policies, practices, and programs across institutions which leads to harmful outcomes and conditions for communities of color compared to white communities, occurring within the context of racialized historical and cultural conditions. 

For more information about the different types of racism and how they show up in early learning programs, check out our article, “Applying Anti-Racist Strategies in Early Learning Environments and Family Engagement.

In other words, challenging our unconscious biases is not solely about being a good, caring teacher – it is also about dismantling existing systems of harm that hurt and hinder our young learners, their families, our staff and ourselves. If we don’t become aware of and challenge our unconscious biases, we risk perpetuating many forms of racism, including structural racism in our early learning programs. This is why, in order to create anti-racist early childhood spaces, we as early childhood educators must embrace the concepts and practices of anti-racism.

Mindset Shift: We must take direct and intentional action against racist behaviors, practices, policies, and beliefs to dismantle and interrupt racism and biases.

Educator-Family Relationships

As mentioned previously, suspensions, expulsions, and other forms of exclusionary discipline can damage the educator-family relationship dynamic, especially considering the biases we bring to the table. In fact, the use of exclusionary discipline is more likely in programs where teachers have 1) negative perceptions of families, 2) poor communication with families, and 3) perceive the program as less supportive/respectful of families (Martin et al, 2018; Zulauf & Zinsser, 2019).  

Keep the following valuable perspectives in mind when it comes to your relationship with families:

  1. Families of color and their children, as with all families, are not a homogenous group, and life experiences vary significantly among families who share the same race and ethnicity. Within educational equity conversations, the term “within group differences” is used to explain that not all members of one group act the same way, believe the same things, or are the same. Assuming otherwise can limit our understanding of and connection with families.
  2. Each family has unique strengths, knowledge, experiences, and forms of cultural capital. Listening and learning about each family’s values and experiences is key to having responsive early childhood programs. (CDE, 2022 p. 89). Remember to bring this strengths-based perspective to your interactions with families! What do they bring to the table?
  3. Recognize and challenge the inherent power dynamics that exist in the relationships between teachers and families. Teachers hold credentials, formal education, and a status of “knowledge keeper” in our societies, leading to positive and negative perspectives from families. How can we level the playing field in a way that highlights families’ capacity and uplifts their pivotal role as their child’s first teacher?  

Mindset Shift: All families are unique, bring strengths to the table, and form a valuable part of each child’s education team. 

Teacher Stress and Wellbeing

When we’re stressed, we tend to react more and rely on our biases and stereotypes. In fact, research shows that higher stress levels are linked to using exclusionary disciplinary practices more frequently (Gilliam 2008, cited in CDE, 2022). Teachers who report feeling depressed, stressed, and unsupported in their programs, and who doubt their ability to address challenging behavior in children, are more inclined to resort to exclusionary discipline (Gilliam & Reyes, 2018; Gilliam & Shahar, 2006; Silver & Zinsser, 2020).

With the manner in which our educational systems place many roles and responsibilities on teachers while not providing the support, time, and wages necessary for them to succeed, it’s no wonder many teachers struggle with their stress levels and well-being. 

Mindset Shift: Our wellbeing and stress levels matter and need tangible, continuous support – from ourselves and our early learning programs. 

Lack of Behavior Support, Resources, and Expertise

Many structural and systemic factors hinder our efforts in education, including insufficient funding for our early learning programs, which make it harder for our teachers and staff to build positive relationships with children and effectively manage their behavior. This lack of support also makes it challenging to incorporate an intentional anti-bias, anti-racist lens. Adequate funding can play a crucial role in addressing these issues.

Research reveals that programs without the necessary resources for interventions and support for children with challenging behavior are more prone to resorting to exclusionary discipline (Gilliam & Shahar, 2006; Giordano et al., 2021, 2022; Zinsser et al., 2019). What’s more, as educators, we often lack the necessary support, training, and time for reflection on how our actions may harm boys of color (CDE, 2022) and children of color in general.

To foster positive behavior and move away from exclusionary discipline, we need:

  1. Education and ongoing training on age-appropriate social-emotional development and self-regulation abilities. Understanding children’s social-emotional development at different stages helps adjust our behavior expectations and create environments that promote their positive social-emotional learning and overall well-being. 
  2. Additional staff, interventions such as classroom assistance, behavior specialists, and early childhood mental health consultants to help us establish the essential one-on-one connections our young children need.
  3. Intentional time and supportive peers to reflect on our training/learning and engage in conversations, particularly about anti-racism education and necessary changes to our practices is another critical component to shift away from exclusionary discipline in our anti-racist journey as educators. Ongoing training and learning are valuable, but without sufficient time to digest and reflect on new knowledge, it cannot be effectively translated into action – particularly with more controversial efforts like anti-racism education.

Data from the past several years have demonstrated that suspensions and expulsions limit learning opportunities, contribute to the achievement gap, and set students on a detrimental educational path. 

Mindset Shift: By pushing for our programs to be adequately funded for these essential learning and supports, we can build our capacity to create a more equitable education system.

Shifting from Punishment to Restorative Justice

Lastly, a necessary shift from a traditional punishment-based system to a restorative justice system would create an incredible change to our relationships with young children and to their perspectives of the world. According to the International Institute of Restorative Practices (IIRP), restorative practices are about “strengthening individual and community relationships to create a sense of belonging and provide a system of communal accountability”. This sets the stage for repairing harm that may arise from a child or adult’s behavior. Though a traditional justice system has its place and importance, incorporating elements of a restorative justice system can have profound effects in a shared learning environment. As inspired by Restorative Resources, what could this shift look like?

Mindset Shift: With restorative justice, children and adults work together to create safe, respectful relationships and keep children in the classroom where they can learn.

Exploring the roots leading to unfair disciplinary practices on young learners of color helps us better understand the need for these mindset shifts shared above. Our “why” becomes that much clearer as we move into the anti-racist discipline changes needed in our early learning environments, many of which are shared in this next section. 

Anti-Racist Discipline Changes: Program Policies & Classroom Management

Taking a deeper look at these factors, what can we do to address them and counter them? Explore each category below: 

Addressing the Our Unconscious Biases & the Lack of Behavior Support, Resources, and Expertise

It is critical that we have the support and resources needed to engage in ongoing professional development related to positive behavioral supports, as well as, anti-racism, equity, inclusion, and diversity to mitigate our biases and racism. This is an important step toward reducing exclusionary and disciplinary practices. As early childhood educators, we can:

Strengthening Educator-Family Relationships

Creating culturally responsive, strength-based relationships between educators and families of color can also reduce the likelihood of suspension and exclusion. As early childhood educators, we can:

  • Find opportunities to connect with families in formal and informal ways. For instance: 
    • Connect and get to know families, including learning their names, relationship dynamics, and unique strengths 
    • Interviews, including asking parents/caregivers about their goals for their children
    • Casual conversations like asking about their weekend
    • Give compliments to families and their children
  • Connect family engagement to student learning through events, educator-family conferences, and occasional casual check-ins. 
  • Create welcoming, inviting environments where all families and cultures are represented. 
  • Encourage and support the participation of family members, especially fathers, stepparents, grandparents, foster parents, and other folks sharing non-traditional parent/caregiver roles. 
  • Acknowledge that all families want the best for their child and contribute to their child’s learning (Henderson et al. 2007, 115).
  • Learn more about family engagement by reading the California Department of Education’s publication, Family Partnerships and Culture.

Addressing Teacher Stress and Supporting Teacher Wellbeing

Reflecting on our stressors and biases is an important step in improving fairness in the way we respond to the children in our classrooms. Other strategies we can use to decrease our stress and increase our wellbeing include:

    • Integrate physical activity in classroom daily routines, such as going on nature walks, practicing yoga, or playing tag. These are simple ways that we can reduce the tension and stress that we may experience during the day.
    • Incorporate creative outlets such as art (ex. freeform finger painting), music (ex. A drum circle), or dance (ex. freeze dance) can reduce stress and tension in teachers and children.
    • Display the Help Us stay Calm: Strategies That Help You and Your Child during Challenging Behavior poster in the classroom.
    • Focus on creating a healing environment at your program, including calming rituals, a calm zone full of tools for children and adults to soothe themselves, and using a trauma-informed approach in setting up your environment. 
    • Practice daily self-affirmations, and/or send positive affirmations to colleagues, children, and families. 
    • Engage in daily guided meditation or mindfulness practices, such as these meditations and breathing exercises offered by Headspace.
  • Provide space for teachers to take a brief break during particularly stressful situations so they can decompress before returning to the classroom. 

Restorative Practices

Making a cultural and programmatic shift away from traditional punishment based discipline towards restorative justice practices gives our early learning programs opportunities to focus on relationships and repairing harm over consequences and rules. Explore implementing restorative justice practices through practices like these:

Shifting the Paradigm: Moving away from Deficit-Based Views and Embracing Strength-Based Views

“It is our responsibility to find and look for what’s good, right, and best in every single child.” – Rosemarie Allen

Ted Talk: School Suspensions are an Adult Behavior  – Rosemarie Allen

As Rosemarie Allen shares above, creating positive change for our perspective of children’s behavior begins with shifting our thinking to look at managing the behavior of adults rather than managing the behavior of children. In that same thinking, consider this quote from Howard 20214, “…educational institutions including early learning programs and their staff must consider their collective responsibilities for the outcome disparities Boys of Color experience. We do not ask how to ‘change’ Boys of Color, but instead, how we can fix schools, programs, and practices to better serve them.”

Blaming children for unequal educational outcomes and the patterns of exclusionary discipline is very harmful to children, families, and communities overall. Instead, as early childhood educators, we can emphasize a strength-based and equity-oriented approach in working with children of color and their families. Consider this approach of honoring and recognizing the cultural capital of the families in your programs and what those various aspects look like, as outlined in the graphic below.

In seeing the roots of why children of color’s behavior is viewed and treated unfairly compared to that of white children – the lack of support and adequate resources, teacher stress, and a deficit-based perspective of children of color and their families – we are reminded yet again that all behavior is communication. All children behave as best they can given the conditions and relationships we set up. All families connect with our programs as best they can given their realities and the relationships we can extend to them. All humans show up as best they can given their social conditioning and openness to others. Let’s show up and support our collective humanity through anti-bias education.  

“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” – Desmond Tutu

If you have followed along throughout this series, thank you for taking the time to dig deep into the knowledge and inner changes necessary for this long-term change. Hope is what drives anti-bias, anti-racist education and our pursuit for a more equitable world. It is our hope that you carry with you mindsets, tools, and strategies from this series with PEACH to inspire you and your early learning program to hope and create change.


Boysen, G. A., & Vogel, D. L. (2009). Bias in the Classroom: Types, Frequencies, and Responses. Teaching of Psychology, 36(1), 12–17.

California Department of Education. (2022). Creating Equitable Early Learning Environments for Young Boys of Color. BEST PRACTICES FOR PLANNING CURRICULUM FOR YOUNG CHILDREN.

DeJohnette, Michelle. (2022). Black Preschool Minds Matter: A Critical Examination of Preschool Teacher Beliefs About Discipline. CGU Theses & Dissertations, 416.

Gilliam, W. S., & Shahar, G. (2006). Preschool and child care expulsion and suspension: Rates and predictors in one state. Infants & Young Children, 19(3), 228–245.

Gilliam, Walter S. PhD; Reyes, Chin R. PhD. Teacher Decision Factors That Lead to Preschool Expulsion: Scale Development and Preliminary Validation of the Preschool Expulsion Risk Measure. Infants & Young Children 31(2):p 93-108, April/June 2018. | DOI: 10.1097/IYC.0000000000000113

Henderson, A. T., Mapp, K. L., Johnson, V. R., & Davies, D. (2007). Beyond the Bake Sale The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships. The New Press.

Punitive vs. Restorative Approach to School Discipline. (n.d.). Restorative Resources.

Silver, H. C., & Zinsser, K. M. (2020). The interplay among early childhood teachers’ social and emotional well-being, mental health consultation, and preschool expulsion. Early Education and Development, 31(7), 1133–1150.

Staff, I. (n.d.). Restorative Practices: Explained | Restorative Practices.

Zulauf, C. A., & Zinsser, K. M. (2019). Forestalling Preschool Expulsion: A Mixed-Method Exploration of the Potential Protective Role of Teachers’ Perceptions of Parents. American Educational Research Journal, 56(6), 2189–2220.

Our Authors: Members from PEACH and QSLA

Toni Isaacs Cristina Espinoza La Tanga Hardy
Program Director of PEACH,
Faculty at Moorpark College, Child Development & Education Department
Family Education Coordinator, Quality Start Los Angeles Director, Child Development Center, LA Trade Technical College