“Compared with K through 12 students, preschoolers are suspended at nearly 3 times the frequency of older students,” Molly Kaplan, the host of the ACLU’s At Liberty podcast, explains in a recent episode called, “How To End the Preschool to Prison Pipeline.”

The episode focuses on the racial and social inequities that even very young children must face.

To explore the issue, Kaplan interviews Rosemarie Allen, a School of Education professor at the State University of Denver.

As Allen’s faculty webpage explains, “Her life’s work is centered on ensuring children have access to high quality early childhood programs that are developmentally and culturally appropriate… Her classes are focused on ensuring teachers are aware of how issues of equity, privilege, and power impact teaching practices.”

On the podcast, Allen describes the cascade of expulsions that young children can face.

“We’re finding that children as young as eight months old began to be suspended and expelled from their child care programs, usually for doing typical things that babies do, like crying or biting,” she says.

“So, a young child can actually be suspended from their child care program as infants. They are suspended again at two, usually for throwing tantrums by three years old. They can be kicked out of another early childhood program for maybe being boisterous, you know, people warning about terrible twos, but they don’t warn you about three-year-olds, and they are exuberant and like twos on steroids. And by the time the child is four, they may be kicked out for fighting or biting or whatever it is the children do.”

By kindergarten, Allen says, a child may have been kicked out of three or four early childhood programs “because one of the biggest indicators of being suspended is having been suspended before.”

 Suspensions place children at risk, “by the time they get to a K-12 program, they’ve already experienced so many suspensions that they feel the school is not a safe or welcoming place for them. And, of course, then they’re more and more likely to be suspended and referred to law enforcement, which is where that school to prison pipeline actually begins.”

These early suspensions are a national problem. And boys and children of color, especially black children, are more likely to be suspended. Another vulnerable set of children are those who may have undiagnosed disabilities such as autism. Allen says that “very frequently their disability is seen as misbehavior.”

Another challenge in early education are racial biases. Everyone has biases, Allen says, but it’s black children who are the victims of these biases when teachers expect them to behave badly.

“You look for the behavior, you see it where you’re looking and you’re not seeing the misbehavior of all the other children. And that’s what leads to disparities.”

For Allen this issue is personal. As a child she was expelled from three schools. Now as an adult, she understands the forces that led to her being described as a “bad” child, a label she internalized for decades. She tells more of her own story in this Ted talk:

The good news? Allen does see promising opportunities for positive change.

“I think we’re beginning to look at the fact that children must feel safe physically, psychologically, emotionally and even spiritually in our classroom. My push, especially for teachers who may be listening to this, is when we talk about trauma, is not to always look at the child, family, and community, but also to be aware of the fact that school is the source of trauma for many children of color.”

 Allen says it’s crucial to train teachers to expect and to manage a wide range of childhood behaviors.

“We have to be the adult. We have to model behavior. We have to teach them. We have to get over being mad. See, we don’t talk about this. We get mad at children, and we stay mad at them long after. We have to be the grownups, shift the attention from trying to fix a child who’s only being a child to how you will respond to that behavior and really help the child through it?”

To learn more, listen to the podcast or read the transcript. Bringing more equity to early education is a crucial way to produce brighter outcomes in children’s futures.