Pre-leukemic stem cells (pre-LSCs) give rise to leukemic stem cells through acquisition of additional gene mutations and are an important source of relapse following chemotherapy. We postulated that cell-cycle kinetics of pre-LSCs may be an important determinant of clonal evolution and therapeutic resistance. Using a doxycycline-inducible H2B-GFP transgene in a mouse model of T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia to study cell cycle in vivo, we show that self-renewal, clonal evolution and therapeutic resistance are limited to a rare population of pre-LSCs with restricted cell cycle. We show that proliferative pre-LSCs are unable to return to a cell cycle-restricted state. Cell cycle-restricted pre-LSCs have activation of p53 and its downstream cell-cycle inhibitor p21. Furthermore, absence of p21 leads to proliferation of pre-LSCs, with clonal extinction through loss of asymmetric cell division and terminal differentiation. Thus, inducing proliferation of pre-LSCs represents a promising strategy to increase cure rates for acute leukemia.