The Maryland State Department of Education recently released its data on suspensions, expulsions, and health-related exclusions for the 2009-2010 school year. As I was preparing an OSI-Baltimore factsheet using the numbers, an alarming data point arose: 75 pre-K students in Maryland received an out-of-school suspension or were expelled during the school year. The punished incidents include: disrespect (3), classroom disruption (12), refusal to obey school policies (7), and inciting/participating in disturbance (4).1
Of course, the details of each incident remain unknown but it seems as if some of these children are being punished for simply being four years old. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine/National Institutes of Health, states that the typical four-year-old:2
- Lacks moral concepts of right and wrong
- Is rebellious if expectations are excessive
- Will ask the most questions of any age
- May use words that aren’t fully understood
- May begin using vulgar terms, depending on their exposure
- Tries to be very independent
- May show increased aggressive behavior
Without knowing the facts of each case, one might say that some of the disruptive behaviors leading to the out-of-school suspension can be directly connected to age-appropriate actions by the four-year-old child. As a former special education teacher of four-year-olds, I can tell you that not a day went by when a student did not aggress. We did not chalk this up to only a manifestation of the disability, however; we also connected it to the fact that four-year-old children cannot self-regulate their behavior to fit what we adults think is appropriate. We have a responsibility to teach our children the right way to behave, not punish them and expect them to connect-the-dots on their own.
I propose a policy change in which pre-K students cannot be suspended or expelled. Pre-school children will not (dare I say, cannot) make the connection that being sent home was for “disrespect.” If we continue to punish our children by blocking them from an education because their age-appropriate attempts at independence are viewed as “refusals to obey school policy,” we are doing them and society a great injustice.