When the phrase “doesn’t play well with others” shows up on a T-shirt or a bumpersticker, it’s meant to be funny. But when preschool children are described this way, it’s a serious situation: These children can end up being kicked out of preschool and child care, losing out on services with proven links to later academic achievement.

The need for early intervention is made abundantly clear by the results of a survey from the Maine Children’s Growth Council, commissioned by the Legislature and conducted earlier this year.

So-called “challenging behaviors” — including hitting, pushing and biting — are ubiquitous in Maine child care centers and preschools, occurring in 92 percent of prekindergarten classrooms, according to the study. What’s more, more than 10 percent of Maine’s preschool teachers and care providers have expelled children for challenging behavior.

There are generally few good options for preschoolers who’ve been expelled, researchers found. Either their parents can’t find another provider, or the children wind up in settings that aren’t regulated by the state.

So children with a history of problem behavior — many of whom come from families dealing with issues like substance abuse, domestic violence and homelessness – miss out on the support that a well-run program can provide.

And kindergartners who lag their peers in social skills like listening and sharing are more likely to drop out of school, get in trouble with the law and struggle to find work as young adults, according to a research team from Penn State and Duke universities.

Is there a way to stop this negative cycle before it starts? Connecticut has been pioneering a program that has shown signs of success. State-funded mental health consultants are sent to any child care program or preschool that requests them. There, providers are trained in techniques to help calm a classroom and coached in connecting with parents to address the source of the challenging behavior.

Such innovative interventions have drawn the interest of state Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, who requested the Maine study; she’s working on a policy to combat expulsions and hopes to have the proposal ready by the next legislative session.

Meanwhile, the study results should be a lesson for us all: Providing more supports for Maine providers, teachers and families is essential to getting our youngest learners the help they need before they fall behind and stay there.

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