Implicit Bias and the Preschool to Prison Pipeline

Even without realizing it, biases can affect how we see and interact with young children.
• Did you know children are expelled from preschool at a higher rate than any grade K-12?
• Did you know boys are four times more likely to be expelled from preschool than girls?
• Did you know Black children are expelled twice as often as their White peers and more than five times as often as Asian American children are?
• Did you know kids with challenging behaviors and disabilities make up 75% of all preschool expulsions?

Essentially if you are a preschool aged boy who is Black with a disability or exhibiting challenging behaviors, you are at the highest risk for being expelled from school. 
Why is this? Why do you think Black boys are expelled from preschool at a disproportionate rate? 

The answer is – Implicit Bias. Implicit biases are the attitudes and stereotypes that we have about people that we’re not consciously aware of. We act and judge others based on these stereotypes, whether we realize it or not. We all have implicit biases and if you want to learn more about your own, check out the Harvard University Implicit Bias tests available online.

Implicit biases impact the way we view young children and the decisions we make about their behaviors. 

In 2016, the Yale Child Study Center conducted research on implicit bias in preschools. They showed preschool teachers a video of four children playing – a Black girl, a Black boy, a White girl, and White boy. The teachers were told there might be challenging behavior in the video and to mark when they saw a challenging behavior happen. What they didn’t tell the teachers is that there actually weren’t any challenging behaviors in the video. What the researchers were really doing was using eye-tracking technology to determine who the teachers spent the most time watching. Because this would tell us who they expected to have challenging behavior. Results found that all teachers, regardless of the teacher’s race (both White and Black teachers) spent the most time watching the Black boy, anticipating and waiting for him to show the challenging behavior they expected to see. 

Then researchers went a step further and examined whether knowing about a child’s background would make educators more sympathetic and empathetic when considering that child’s behavior. What they found was educators who knew about a child’s difficult home life were more empathetic, but only if the child and the teacher were of the same race.

Implicit biases have real negative consequences for children of color.

The preschool to prison pipeline is defined as the policies and practices that push our nation’s preschoolers, especially our most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Research shows that young children who are expelled or suspended are as much as 10 times more likely to drop out of high school, to hold negative attitudes about school and to end up in jail.

Let’s walk through a simplified overview of the preschool to prison pipeline:

In early childhood, few early learning programs have formal policies in place to prevent suspensions and expulsions. Teachers become stressed and holds implicit biases. They are at a loss for how to manage a child’s behavior and don’t feel like they have the resources they need.
So, the child is sent to the office (which is considered an in-school suspension), the child is asked to be picked up early (which is a form of soft expulsion), or the childcare says, “This school isn’t a good fit for your child, they are no longer welcome here" (which is an example of hard expulsion). 
When we expel a child, we deprive them of valuable learning and educational experiences and statistically set them on a negative trajectory.

As the child moves through the K-12 system, schools have “zero tolerance” policies, meaning the child is more likely to be suspended and even arrested for minor offenses. The child is more likely to feel disengaged from school (they have been labeled the “troublemaker,” and they may lack friendships and connections with trusted adults in school), they are more likely to experience academic failure, and eventually drop out.
This child who is now a young adult, doesn’t have a basic high school level education, likely has a record from the “zero tolerance” policies, and is now more likely to enter the criminal justice system. Once someone is arrested, they are more likely to reoffend, leading to lifelong consequences.

The consequences don’t end there. Dr. Walter Gilliam, an expert on the preschool to prison pipeline recently expanded this concept while presenting at the Georgetown IECMH Conference in 2022 to capture the intergenerational consequences of early childhood expulsion. This concept, which he calls the “preschool to prison corkscrew” emphasizes how it’s not just one child that is affected. The negative consequences extend through adult life and then impact that individual’s future children. Children of incarcerated parents are at 3 times greater risk of being expelled from preschool, so we see this cycle continue across generations.

If we want to DISRUPT this cycle, our opportunity to change the trajectory begins before preschool expulsions. Inclusive practices in early learning prevent expulsions and disrupt this cycle. We must commit to becoming aware of our implicit biases, supporting early childhood educators with resources, and not expelling kids.