‘In groups’ and ‘out groups’ have long been part of the social story within school environments. Nowadays, social exclusion is increasingly being recognised more formally 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.
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. Social exclusion essentially involves a lack of connectedness and participation from a peer group.
While Australian research suggests that approximately 1 in 6 children report experiences of social exclusion, our clinical experience suggests that social exclusion may be more widespread, with much of it occurring in secretive and hidden ways, for example, over the internet and through rumour spreading.
Who are most at risk from social exclusion?
While developing a sense of belonging and connectedness with peers is important at any age, it is particularly relevant in adolescence. 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 very noticeable. The difficulty for adolescents is that ingroup and outgroup rules are fluid and as such, maintaining peer relationships can be fraught with complication.
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 to peer rejection. Neurological studies of children suggest that their brain areas for emotion become most activated in response to peer rejection in adolescence. Adolescence is also a time in which the brain regions governing emotional control are least activated in response to peer rejection. Together, this suggests that adolescence is a time in which social exclusion may be particularly distressing and difficult to manage.
The risks of social exclusion
Children who are exposed to exclusion from their peers are more at risk of physical, emotional and mental health concerns. 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.
What can we do?
Children and adults all have a core need to be loved and valued within secure and lasting positive relationships. Helping children develop and maintain these secure relationships both with their family, peers and wider social group is an important part of their development. We are noticing that children become aware of social rejection from a young age and can reason as to why it is wrong to exclude others from preadolescence. 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 by 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 their 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 social skills programs like the Quirky Kid’s '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.
Recommended Resources and programs
● The Best of Friends program for school and/or parents
● How to be Friend - a book for young children about social skills and friendships
● Changing Behaviour in School - positive relationships in the school setting