A national study of preschoolers finds that while their overall numbers are smaller, they are expelled at three times the rate of K-12 kids.

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For most adults, the idea of preschool is characterized mainly by Tonka trucks and sing-alongs. But the pre-kindergarten years can present a thicket of dilemmas for teachers facing difficult children. What to do, for example, with an aggressive 4-year-old who screams, cries and hits other kids?

In many preschools, the answer is expulsion.

In fact, expulsion rates for toddlers are more than three times the K-12 average, according to a Yale University study by Walter Gilliam, who surveyed teachers in nearly 4,000 pre-K classrooms across the country.

Washington ranked a not-so-great 16th in Gilliam’s study, with 8.73 children expelled per every 1,000 enrolled. (Massachusetts logged a startling 27 kids per 1,000.) About 10 percent of preschool teachers, here and nationally, reported that they had booted a child.

And consistent with K-12 removals, African-American boys receive the majority of sanctions.

“Although a pattern of particular risk for expulsion with African-American students has been demonstrated during kindergarten through grade 12,” Gilliam writes, “the pattern of disparity appears to begin much earlier.”

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Two factors appear to make a tangible difference: Lower teacher-student ratios and mental health counselors who can offer guidance on better ways to handle unruly kids and work with their parents. (It’s extremely rare for a child to be expelled from preschool when the teacher and parent know and like each other, Gilliam told The New York Times.)

Yet nationally, only 23 percent of preschool teachers said they had regular access to child mental health consultants.

These trends are of particular concern to state Rep. Ruth Kagi, chair of the Early Learning and Human Services Committee, who thinks that while suspension in elementary school bodes poorly for a child, the odds may be even worse when a kid is kicked out of preschool.

“I talked to a staffer here who said her child was expelled because she wouldn’t take a nap!” Kagi, the Lake Forest Park Democrat,  wrote in an email. “We need to drastically change our thinking about early learning to assure that all children succeed. These are the years when they learn the social emotional skills to succeed in school.”

Preschool programs funded through the state’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program are not allowed to expel kids, Kagi said. But that has no bearing on private or faith-based programs, which have much higher rates of expulsion, Gilliam’s study found. If the goal of early education is to prepare children for success in grade school, he writes, expelling those who most need help runs counter to the mission.