The ‘Problem Child’ Is a Child, Not a Problem

Matt Hannon was in preschool when he started getting into trouble. Teachers quickly labeled his mischievous behavior — like cutting his hair under the table — problematic. His kindergarten teacher warned that if Matt didn’t stop using “potty words,” she would make him do his work in the bathroom. His first-grade teacher forced Matt to copy the phrase “I will not blurt out in circle” 100 times. Matt began to dread school and developed serious separation anxiety. His acting-out got worse.

“I would bring him into the school nurse in the morning, and she would restrain him so I could run out and get to work,” said his mother, Jessica, through tears. “I didn’t know any better.” (Names of children and parents in this article have been changed to protect privacy.) At age 8, he was expelled from an after-school program and, later, from school. Jessica reduced her work hours to deal with frequent calls from the school. When Matt had a psychiatric evaluation in fourth grade, a therapist said he presented like a child who had been traumatized. She believed it was because of how his behavior had been handled early on in school.

Early childhood education can be an invaluable opportunity for learning social and emotional skills. But when teachers repeatedly punish young children, their efforts can cause lifelong harm. Unfortunately, Matt’s story is not exceptional. Nearly 1 in 10 preschoolers is suspended or expelled for behavior problems. Their infractions — generally hitting, throwing things or swearing — need to be addressed, but educators are recognizing that removing 3- and 4-year-olds from classrooms is not the answer. It doesn’t teach children how to behave differently, and it often makes matters worse.

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