Racially Disproportionate Discipline in Early Childhood Educational Settings

Updated: 3 days ago

Scope of the Problem

In a recent analysis from Pre-K through elementary school systems, U.S. states reported 1.27 million cases of young children enrolled in public schools being suspended or expelled in a single school year.[i] Analyses also show that preschool children are expelled at rates more than three times higher than children in K-12 settings.[ii] These alarming statistics have led to new legislation, codes of conduct, and efforts by education officials and policymakers alike to reduce the use of suspensions, expulsions, and other exclusionary practices. In addition to overall suspension reports, federal data revealing wide disparities across race in suspension and expulsions has also received notice.

Although the new attention on reducing suspensions and expulsions has led to fewer suspensions overall, disparities continue as Black students are more than twice as likely to be suspended as white and Latinx students.[iii] Disparities appear as early as preschool. Black preschoolers account for 47% of those suspended, even though they represent only 19% of enrollment. And as children transition into their school years, suspension rates are 39% for Black children, 17% for Latinx children, and 16% for white children.[iv],[v] [vi],[vii],[viii] Moreover, nationwide, Black boys are almost twice as likely to experience corporal punishment as their white peers, and Black girls are about three times as likely. It should be noted that Southern states like Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Georgia, and Texas drive much of the difference between Black and white children.[ix]

There is no evidence that Black children display greater or more severe misbehavior.[i],[ii] Disproportionate preschool suspensions are the result of adult behaviors.[iii],[iv] Research suggests Black children are punished more severely than their peers for the same or similar behaviors and that they are subject to increased scrutiny starting as early as preschool. Research further suggests that Black children are often the subjects of teachers’ implicit racial bias, with adults perceiving Black children as older than they are, less innocent than their peers, more culpable and aggressive, and more deserving of harsher punishment than white children.[v],[vi] These disparities are often attributable to the lack of teacher training and ongoing supports.

How is structural racism implicated?

Structural racism is the interplay of policies, practices, and programs across institutions which leads to adverse outcomes and conditions for communities of color compared to white communities, occurring within the context of racialized historical and cultural conditions.[vii] Thus, our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors are significantly shaped by the institutions in which we are embedded.[viii] Using a racial equity lens, disparate treatment of racial and ethnic groups in the educational system is the manifestation of racism at the institutional level.[ix] Thus, disparate discipline rates can be conceptualized as an indicator of institutionalized racism, recognized as “the unexamined and unchallenged system of racial biases and residual white advantage that persist in our institutions of learning (p. 33).”[x]


Suspensions and expulsions negatively affect children’s developmentvi,[xi] and are especially harmful to students of color given the reduced opportunities for instruction and for developing skills needed for school success.[xii] Preschool suspensions contribute to loss of vital school time that contributes to the achievement gap and can set students on a negative school trajectory.[xiii] Further, they reinforce the educational opportunity gap and manifestation of educational inequalities, contributing to lifelong disparities in indicators of health, well-being, and economic success.[xiv] Young children who are expelled or suspended are as much as 10 times more likely to drop out of high school, experience academic failure and grade retention, hold negative school attitudes, and face incarceration than those who are not.[xv],[xvi]

Policy Solutions

Enacted in 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act requires states and school districts to develop strategies aimed at reducing exclusionary discipline practices. Yet, these policies do not address how teachers and early childhood educators are implicated in creating these disparities. Policy recommendations include:

  • Enact legislation requiring teacher educators to complete racial equity training that enhances knowledge around structural racism and systems of oppression and acknowledge and address their own implicit biases.[xvii],[xviii] Compensation should be provided for such training.

  • Enforce the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to ensure that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) students are not more likely than their higher-income and white peers to be taught by inexperienced, unqualified or “out-of-field” teachers.[xix]

Utilizing existing data and research, the Children’s Equity Project and the Bipartisan Policy Center (2020) have also proposed policy recommendations for discipline reform legislation that would apply to all programs that receive federal funding and serve young children.[xx] Based on these recommendations, congress should:

  • Pass discipline reform legislation that prohibits corporal punishment, seclusion, and exclusionary discipline (except in rare cases where there is an immediate and serious safety threat, not based on stereotypes or bias).

  • Limit restraint, including the type and duration and authorize federal agencies to monitor and ensure that restraint is only used as an emergency measure for the briefest time possible, and require training for those restraining children, timely incident reporting, and the triggering of intervention and support.

  • Ensure that all programs that receive federal funding and serve young children are subject to monitoring and accountability measures enforced by an authorized federal agency.

  • Reinstate federal discipline guidance that discourages the use of exclusionary discipline and promotes positive school climates and mental health supports.

  • Encourage states to use flexible federal and state funds to reduce harsh discipline and disparities by investing in prevention, intervention, professional development, data infrastructure, and parent awareness and support.

  • Require federal agencies to conduct a public awareness campaign on the effects of harsh discipline, laws and regulations that protect children, and family rights.

  • Require states to report disaggregated data on use of harsh discipline in child care settings.

Two realities based in evidence are clear: (1) sociodemographic factors underpin and exacerbate these disparities and (2) several remedies are at our disposal with potential to significantly reduce them. The federal government—congress and agencies—has a role to play in ensuring that our national strategy and guidance to states and local districts is science-based, equitable, and effective.

Jenille Morgan, MA, Research Associate, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, UNC – Chapel Hill

Doré LaForett, PhD, Advanced Research Scientist, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, UNC – Chapel Hill

Allison De Marco, MSW PhD, Advanced Research Scientist, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, Equity Lead, Jordan Institute for Families, School of Social Work, UNC – Chapel Hill

Image adapted from: Morgan, W., Ayankoya, B., De Marco. A. C., Morgan, J. D., LaForett, D. R., Franco, X., & FPG's Race, Culture, and Ethnicity Committee. (2017, September). Racial Inequities in Preschool Discipline: An Infographic. Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Available at: http://fpg.unc.edu/sites/fpg.unc.edu/files/resources/other-resources/RacialInequitiesSchoolDiscipline.pdf

[i] Anyon, Y., Jenson, J. M., Altschul, I., Farrar, et al. (2014). The persistent effect of race and the promise of alternatives to suspension in school discipline outcomes. Children and Youth Services Review, 44, 379-386 [ii] Skiba, R. J., Arredondo, M. I., & Williams, N. T. (2014); Skiba, R. J., Chung, C. G., Trachok, M., Baker, T. L., Sheya, A., & Hughes, R. L. (2014). Parsing disciplinary disproportionality: Contributions of infraction, student, and school characteristics to out-of-school suspension and expulsion. American Educational Research Journal, 51(4), 640-670. [iii]American Psychological Association. (2016). Presidential Task Force on Educational Disparities. (2012). Ethnic and racial disparities in education: Psychology’s contributions to understanding and reducing disparities. [iv] Quintana, S. M., & Mahgoub, L. (2016). Ethnic and racial disparities in education: Psychology's role in understanding and reducing disparities. Theory Into Practice, 55(2), 94-103. [v] Epstein, R., Blake, J., Gonzalez, T. (2017) Girlhood interrupted: The erasure of Black Girls’ childhood. Center on Poverty and Inequality Washington, DC: Georgetown https://www.law.georgetown.edu/news/Black-girls-viewed-as-less-innocent-than-white-girls-georgetown-law-researchfinds-2/ [vi] Staats, C. (2014). Implicit racial bias and school discipline disparities. Retrieved from Columbus, OH: http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/ki-ib-argument-piece03.Pdf; [vii] Seattle Office of Civil Rights Race and Social Justice Initiative. (2012). Racial Equity Toolkit. [viii] Jones, J. M., & Rolon-Dow, R. (2018). Multidimensional models of microaggressions and microaffirmations. In G. C. Torino, D. P. Rivera, C. M. Capodilupo, K. L. Nadal, & D. W. Sue (Eds.), Microaggression theory: Influence and implications (pp. 32-47). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. [ix] Havens, B., Yonas, M., Mason, A., Eng, E., Farrar, V. (2011) Eliminating inequities in health care: understanding perceptions and participation in an antiracism initiative. Health Promotion Practice, 12(6):848–57. [x] Singleton, G. E., & Linton, C. (2006). Courageous conversations about race. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. [xi]Gregory, A., Skiba, R. J., & Noguera, P. A. (2010). The achievement gap and the discipline gap: Two sides of the same coin?. Educational Researcher, 39(1), 59-68. [xii] Reyes, J. A., Elias, M. J., Parker, S. J., & Rosenblatt, J. L. (2013). Promoting educational equity in disadvantaged youth: The role of resilience and social-emotional learning. In Handbook of resilience in children (pp. 349-370). Springer, Boston, MA. [xiii]Losen, D. J., Hodson, C. L., Keith II, M. A., Morrison, K., & Belway, S. (2015). Are we closing the school discipline gap? The Civil Rights Project, UCLA. [xiv] American Psychological Association [APA], 2012 [xv] Lamont, J. H., Devore, C. D., Allison, M., Ancona, R., Barnett, S. E., Gunther, R., ... & Young, T. (2013). Out-of-school suspension and expulsion. Pediatrics, 131(3), e1000-e1007. [xvi] Petras, H., Masyn, K. E., Buckley, J. A., Ialongo, N. S., & Kellam, S. (2011). Who is most at risk for school removal? A multilevel discrete-time survival analysis of individual- and context-level influences. Journal of Educational Psychology,103(1), 223–237. [xvii] Miles, K. (2013). To serve all students: The case for racial equity professional development for public school district central office staff. EMPA Capstone Paper. [xviii] Palmer, E. L. (2013). Talking about race: overcoming fear in the process of change (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from http://purl.umn.edu/156010. [xix] Losen, D.J. (2011). Discipline Policies, Successful Schools, and Racial Justice. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/discipline-policies. [xx] Children’s Equity Project and the Bipartisan Policy Center (2020) Start With Equity: From The Early Years To The Early Grades Data, Research, And An Actionable Child Equity Policy Agenda.

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