It's virtually an epidemic. Across the country, kids are getting kicked out of early grades such as preschool and kindergarten in unprecedented levels. In fact, statistics show that three- and four-year-olds are more likely than teenagers to get expelled from school. Even two of Kate Gosselin's lucky eight were booted from their kindergarten class and had to be home-schooled.
But what's behind the soaring expulsion rates of young children? Is it because kids have more psychiatric problems than ever before, or is it because school administrators have a zero-tolerance policy towards misbehavior in classrooms where the clock is ticking on kids in crowded classrooms who have to take high-stakes standardized testing?
While experts are trying to understand why kids are being thrown out of school, it is clear that one of the factors behind the soaring rates of children's expulsion is that more kids than ever before are attending school at young ages. More than 40 states have publicly funded pre-school programs, and many private schools also have preschools. Kids may be going to school before they are mature enough to really understand the demands that a school environment places on them. Many boys mature at slower rates than girls, particularly in the area of language development, and they may react to structure with what looks like misbehavior but may actually be anxiety or developmental needs.
While Kate Gosselin told the media that she was pleased that her two expelled kids were blossoming with at-home schooling, the consequences for other parents whose kids have been kicked out school is not as rosy. A 2005 Yale study found that in state pre-school programs across the nation, over 10% of teachers had expelled a student in the previous two months. In states such as New York, over 16% of pre-school teachers had expelled a student. The rates were highest for African-American students, and boys were over four times more likely to be expelled than girls.
So what can teachers and parents do to help pre-school age children learn better? The Yale study suggested that behavioral consultants can help. For example, having a behavioral consultant in the classroom cut the expulsion rates by 50%. Sometimes, teachers, even though they are conscientious, may not fully understand how difficult--and stressful--the demands of pre-school are for kids of that age. The pre-school day involves following routines and rules and getting along with other kids, all of which may be very demanding for some children. Children's unruly behavior may be an expression of how stressful those demands are and of the need to learn skills to cope with the demands--rather than simply willful defiance. If teachers work with behavioral experts, they may be able to develop routines and strategies to help their pre-schoolers understand the rules of the classroom and behave better.
In addition, experts believe that pre-schools may have evolved to place too many structures and routines on young children, who learn best and function naturally when playing. In fact, experts believe that children learn the most from unstructured play and that children who are subject only to direct instruction in the younger grades may not develop the skills they need for later years. For example, children who are instructed about how to play with a toy only know one use of that toy, while children who are allowed to experiment with the toy on their own are able to create many uses for the toy. It's clear that a pre-school program with a rigid schedule and direct instruction may seem rigorous on the surface but is actually depriving students of the play they need to develop strong minds in later years. Such programs may also result in behavior problems among stressed-out preschoolers.