Peter Pizzolongo remembers the moment well. He was working as a student teacher in a preschool classroom while his college professors observed, through two-way mirrored windows, from another room.

As he stood among his small charges, one of them – a little girl – approached and bit him in the thigh.

“Tears were coming out of my eyes,” Pizzolongo says, laughing now and recalling that – as a fledgling educator being monitored – he needed to remain calm. “She wasn’t even mad at me. I was there. My thigh was about at her mouth level.”

Preschool teachers and many parents can relate, having themselves been the target of a well-placed bite from a young child still learning how to express frustration, anger or the need to get around an obstacle. Unfortunately, children displaying this kind of behavior in preschool may find themselves suspended or even expelled.

Eight years ago, Walter Gilliam, Ph.D., director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University’s Child Study Center, and Golan Shahar, Ph.D., a visiting professor at Yale, published research on just how often 3- and 4-year-olds were getting expelled.

The first-of-its-kind study found that preschool expulsions nationwide were occurring at a rate three times the expulsion rate in grades K-12.

In Massachusetts alone, Gilliam’s research revealed that in one year:

  • 39 percent of preschool teachers expelled at least one child, and
  • preschool expulsions occurred at a rate of 27.4 per 1,000 students – more than 34 times the K-12 expulsion rate in Massachusetts and more than 13 times that rate nationwide.

The findings grabbed headlines and stunned many, including the Foundation for Child Development, which was funding Gilliam’s research into pre-K programs at the time. “He just kind of stumbled upon this,” says Mark Bogosian, the foundation’s communications and program officer. “When he found it, we were all just – wow – who could believe it?”

In the years since, several states have committed to addressing the problem, and the American Academy of Pediatrics and National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) have recommended against preschool expulsion.

But despite nearly a decade of awareness, most preschools still don’t have supports in place to address the problem, and Gilliam believes that expulsion rates remain alarmingly high.

Why It Happens

Preschools are designed to teach young children the academic, social and emotional skills they’ll need for elementary school and beyond. A child expelled for behavior problems misses out on that essential learning, and a key opportunity to correct the behavior is lost.

Gilliam likens it to “kicking a person out of a hospital for being sick.”

Pizzolongo, now an associate executive director for NAEYC, which promotes excellence in early education and accredits thousands of preschools nationwide, agrees. Nothing, he says, should prompt an expulsion.

“We believe in inclusion, that children with varying needs should all be in a learning environment together. The environment and the teaching staff need to be ready for the child you’re going to get, including challenging behaviors. When you’ve tried everything and it isn’t working, you make referrals for a mental health evaluation. Sometimes a child can go into an alternative program,” Pizzolongo says. “But you never abandon a child and a family. That is just unethical.”

Gilliam’s research found numerous reasons for expulsions – “basically, anything that would make a teacher or preschool director worry that something bad is going to happen and they’ll be held liable for it,” he says.

“It could involve a child who is physically aggressive to other children, a child who is running out of the classroom and into the parking lot, or a child who climbs on top of a bookshelf and the staff is worried the shelf will fall over and even onto another child.”

Regardless of the reasons, given the finality of expulsion, Gilliam takes a child-centered point of view. “Children don’t get expelled for behavior problems. They get expelled because of how badly those problems are perceived by adults,” he says.

His numerous papers on the issue recommend never expelling a child. Instead, he argues, preschools should provide the support a child needs to succeed or refer the child to a program that can.

He also found that when preschool teachers could consult with a psychiatrist or psychologist about ways to address a child’s behavior problems, expulsion rates were much lower.

Today, only eight states provide preschools with regular access to an early childhood mental health professional (Massachusetts isn’t one of them). But until more states offer similar support, Gilliam believes the expulsion rate will continue to rise.

When Young Children Act Out

Preschool expulsion isn’t something that adults in the trenches are eager to talk about. Many parents shy away from the sensitive topic; preschool administrators decline to be interviewed.

There is also the perspective that when children come to preschool needing more attention – even professional help – their behavior can affect an entire classroom.

Bridget, a North Shore mom, and her husband did their homework before picking the preschool their 3 1/2-year-old son still attends – part of a chain of childcare centers touting a great curriculum and top-notch facilities. Last year, however, half a dozen teachers transitioned in and out of her son’s classroom and the school changed preschool directors twice. New children joined the class, including some who acted out by swearing, hitting other students and climbing onto tables.

“All of a sudden, my son was coming home with the foulest mouth … telling me to shut up or that I was an idiot,” says Bridget, who took her concerns to school staff several times. “I was telling them I felt they were putting my son in jeopardy in a classroom where he was learning inappropriate words and children were jumping onto and off of tables.”

The staff tried to manage the problem, she says, “but when one teacher was occupied by child X or Y, you had the other teacher handling 18 or 19 kids.” Finally, she contacted the school’s corporate offices. Her son and the children of other parents who complained were moved to another classroom. So far, she says, there’s an effort “to really turn things around” and the school year has been better.

“To their credit, the corporate office said they would not remove the children who were acting out from the school,” Bridget says. “It may not be your child causing the problems, but it can be just as impactful if you’re losing out because of a couple of kids.”

Corey, a kindergarten and pre-K teacher in Boston for nine years, has another perspective. Her classroom of 15 students, ages 3-5, includes several children with special needs.

“One child who came to me was always sad and would have tantrums, cry or scream all day long. He was rigid and closed down and his private preschool really didn’t know how to help him. After three months in my class, he was smiling, using his words and doing 100 percent better,” Corey says. “I used consistency, consequences, firmness, love and tons of positive language. None of that really had anything to do with his special needs. … They need to sometimes be ‘fed’ appropriate language, behaviors or choice-making.”

What to Look For

The NAEYC believes that preschool staffing, expectations and environment all play a role in reducing child behavior problems, Pizzolongo says. Look for preschools with:

  • at least two teachers in classrooms of 12 or more students;
  • teachers who understand child development and have appropriate expectations for this age group;
  • a spacious classroom with separate places for calm learning and play, particularly for kids who are acting out; and
  • a partnership between teachers and parents so that expectations are consistent at home and at school.

Mostly, he says, you want a preschool that can meet the needs of all of its students, including those with challenging behavior. Echoing Gilliam, he insists that the school needs to work with the child, family and a mental health professional or refer the child to a program that can.

“A preschooler with challenging behavior is at risk for later problems,” Pizzolongo says. “We need to deal with it … because there’s a risk that this kid is going to have problems for the rest of his or her life.”

 Deirdre Wilson is a freelance writer and former editor of Boston Parents Paper.