Social exclusion in the school environment is increasingly being recognised as a form of relational aggression or bullying, in which a child is exposed to harm through the manipulation of their social relationships and status (Edith Cowan University, 2009).
Social exclusion can take many forms, with children reporting a range of experiences from being deliberately excluded from a peer group to having rumours spread about them, being called names and being purposefully embarrassed. In any sense, social exclusion is fundamentally entails a lack of connectedness and participation from a peer group. Australian research suggests that approximately 1 in 6 children report experiences of social exclusion, however, this may under- represent true prevalence rates given the difficulties in measuring social exclusion which is often undertaken in covert and hidden ways (Edith Cowan University, 2009).
Who does it affect?
While belonging and connectedness to peers is important at any age, it is particularly relevant in adolescence. Research suggests that adolescents are particularly sensitive to peer rejection and as a group, may experience the most significant mental health effects such as depression and anxiety in response peer rejection. Adolescence is typically a time of increased independence from parents and family and increased dependence on their peer group. Identities are developed in relation to peer groups and peer group differences can become highly salient. The difficulty for adolescents is that ingroup and outgroup rules are fluid and as such, maintaining peer relationships can be fraught with complication (Leets & Wolf, 2005).
Studies on the neurological profile of children suggest that their brain areas for emotion (such as the Anterior Cingulate Cortex) become more activated in response to peer rejection with age, peaking in adolescence. In contrast, adolescents show significantly less activation in the brain regions which govern emotional regulation such as the Ventrolateral Prefrontal Cortex in response to peer rejection in comparison with younger children (Bolling, Pitskel, Deen, Crowley, Mayes & Pelphrey, 2011). This unique neurological profile for adolescents suggests that social exclusion at this age may be particularly distressing and that they may have significant difficulty in managing their distress.
Effects of social exclusion
Research suggests that the physical, emotional and mental health of children exposed to social exclusion can be compromised. For example, lower immune function, reduced sleep quality, reduced ability to calm oneself in times of distress, reduced self esteem, feelings of anxiety, depression and aggression have all been observed in children who have been excluded from a peer group (DeWall, Deckman, Pond & Bonser, 2011).
So what can we do?
Children and adults all have a core need to be loved and valued within secure and lasting positive relationships (DeWall et al., 2011). Helping children develop and maintain these secure relationships both with their family, peers and wider social group is an important part of their development. Research is telling us that children become aware of social rejection from a young age (Leets & Wolf, 2005) and can reason as to why it is wrong to exclude others from preadolescence (Killen, 2007). Thus talking with your child from a young age about inclusion of others, feelings that occur when exclusion is encountered and strategies to manage social exclusion is important. Some helpful tips are:
For the excluded child:
- Be open, available and calm when your child needs to talk with you. Children often worry about upsetting or worrying their parents, so it is important to remain calm and engaged with your child.
- Be responsive to your child. Affirm to them that they have the right to be safe and feel secure and that you will help them by talking with the school and providing a safe haven at home. For older children, listen to the action that they would like you to take and negotiate with them when it would be appropriate for you to talk with the school, for example, if they are still being excluded at the end of the week or if things escalate.
- Be affirming. Tell and show your child that they are unconditionally loved and valued as a person. Enlist the support of family friends to share positive messages about your child and engage in their gifts, talents and interests. Build a circle of security around your child.
- Make your home a safe haven. Minimise the risk of online social exclusion and bullying by monitoring technology use and using privacy settings and parental controls. The change of email addresses and mobile numbers may be necessary.
- Help your child manage emotional distress but talking about their feelings and developing some self-coping statements such as “relax, don’t take it personally”. Help your child focus on their gifts, talents and interests.
- Build your child’s friendships. Having one close friend has been shown to strengthen a child’s connectedness to school and self esteem. Help your child identify a friend or friends that share similar interests and foster the friendship through play dates and scheduled activities.
- Use the high five principal. Help your child identify five people that they can seek support from and /or things to do, one for each finger, if they are being excluded. For example, seek out a special teacher, find a friend in an older year, go to the library or offer their help to the teacher on duty.
- Develop ways your child can have some clear boundaries. Help your child communicate their distress and name the inappropriate behaviour of others through statements such as “I don’t like what you are doing and you need to stop” , “That is bullying and it is not right”. Help your child know that they need to seek support if the social exclusion continues.
- Consider programs like the Quirky Kid ‘The Best of Friends’ program.
For the parents/ school
- Develop a tone in your family and school that demonstrates an environment of mutual respect and responsibility.
- Have clear and well communicated policies on bullying and social exclusion and explore these regularly with the school community.
- Encourage class-based discussions on the meanings of ingroups and outgroups and common misperceptions, such as “kids who wear glasses are not good at sports”. Find examples in everyday life that will challenge these misperceptions. Extend discussions to help children realise the moral and emotional implications of social exclusion.
- Facilitate teamwork and an atmosphere of inclusion by choosing working or sporting groups based on arbitrary characteristics such as birth months, favourite animals or having a rotating system by which every half day, the group rotates by one member.
- Develop strong networks between teaching staff and children by including children in lessons, school activity planning and open discussions. Having the principal visible and available can also help develop an atmosphere of inclusion and connectedness.
- Get the wider peer group involved. Social exclusion thrives when surrounding peers do not intervene. Help children understand why it is important to help others and strategies to do so, such as saying things like “stop that is not fair, leave her alone, she’s my friend” or know a teacher whom they can approach.
- Again, programs like ‘The Best of Friends’ can be offered school wide to ensure the social skills and communication strategies are consistently applied.
1. Leets, L. & Wolf, S. (2005). Adolescent rules for social exclusion: when is it fair to exclude someone else? Journal of Moral Education, 34 (3), 343-362.
2. Killen, M. (2007). Children’s Social and Moral Reasoning About Exclusion. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 6 (1), 32-36.
3. Bolling, D., Pitskel N., Deen, B., Crowley, M., Mayes, L. & Pelphrey, K. (2011). Development of neural systems for processing social exclusion from childhood to adolescence. Developmental Science, 14 (6), 1431-1444.
4. DeWall, C., Deckman, T., Pond, R. & Bonser, I. (2011) Belongingness as a Core Personality Trait: How Social Exclusion Influences Social Functioning and Personality Expression. Journal of Personality, 79 (6), 979-1012.
5. Edith Cowan University (2009). Australian Covert Bullying Prevalence Study, CHPRC http://deewr.gov.au/bullying-research-projects}