Is Zero-Tolerance a Form of Discrimination?

I attended a staff meeting recently where we discussed the prevalent zero-tolerance policies in schools today, and the trickle down effect it has on preschools.  We had read some interesting articles in advance (which you can find here, here, and here) and used those as a springboard to talk about the variety of policies schools implement to address difficult behaviors.

These articles compared the popular zero-tolerance policies which lead to suspensions and expulsions on first offenses, to other (highly effective) programs that work to teach, incentivize, and expect positive behaviors.  One seemed to be a reactive approach, the other more proactive.  While the articles primarily addressed the older grades, their application to preschool was easy.

The most recent statistic I’m aware of lists preschool expulsions at a rate THREE times higher than that for grades K-12.  This means there’s a significant number of children out there who have been labeled as too difficult to be included in an environment which should ideally be one of the most capable and well-equipped places for a child to be scaffolded in learning social skills.  If these children are simply sent away, how will their behavior possibly improve?

I’m certainly not advocating for preschool administrators to let children run wild, free of any consequence, but I am sincerely troubled by the question: Where do these kids go next to get the guidance they need?


I think I get the idea behind zero-tolerance policies.  Set high standards, make them clear, and be consistent in administering serious consequences.  But we are talking about children here.  In NurtureShock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, the authors point out that a task force from the American Psychological Association has warned against zero-tolerance policies, stating that kids will make mistakes simply because they’re young and their brains are immature and prone to impulsivity.  In fact, the book notes that these zero-tolerance policies may actually be responsible for an increase in anxiety children and a concern by students that they might break the rules “by accident”.

Again, this isn’t a reason to accept inappropriate behavior.  But to link severe punishments, like expulsion, to these age-appropriate mistakes seems to be more about making life easier for the adults, than about serving and teaching the child.

I can understand that schools may want to send the message that they will not “tolerate” certain behaviors.  But will they take the time to teach the child the appropriate behaviors that need to take their place?

Labeling and Discrimination

I worked recently with a program director who had been under some pressure from a parent to expel another child because of a few biting incidents in the toddler class.  Biting is serious, and scary, but while it isn’t socially appropriate, it is developmentally appropriate.  This director had implemented a plan for addressing and preventing this behavior from recurring and was working vigilantly with the child, her parents, and her teachers to work through this difficult behavior.

When the director started to get pressure towards this zero-tolerance approach, her response was brilliant.  She respectfully told the protesting parent that the center had a policy against discrimination.  Since the behavior was within the norm for the child’s age, to expel her based on those behaviors would be age discrimination and would violate the center’s policy.

I like the approach demonstrated by the director I cited above.  If a child’s behavior is difficult, but within a normative range, it is our job to help them without discrimination.  If their challenges are beyond the service we’re capable of rendering, we are obligated as professionals to work with their families and to help them acquire the appropriate resources within or beyond our programs.

We would never openly discriminate based on disablities.  We wouldn’t expell a child because she was blind, or dismiss a child because he had cerebral palsy.  If we did not have the proper resources to serve them adequately, we would help them find those resources.  We wouldn’t simply “punish” them for posing a challenge by kicking them out.

It’s all too easy to label children as “bad” and “good”, “easy” and “difficult”.  But these labels do nothing to actually serve these children.  When we, as teachers and administrators, go around trying to determine who is easy enough or deserving enough to be included in school, we’re engaging in a very dangerous social experiment.  It’s true, some children need more: more time, more attention, more guidance.  As I often say to my own kids, “Fair doesn’t mean everyone gets the same thing.  Fair means everyone gets what they need.”

A child should never be dismissed for being a “nuisance”.  It’s our job to teach.  It’s our job to be fair.  It’s our job to help them get what they need.

What are your thoughts?  Should children be expelled from preschool? 

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