When a child is excluded by peers, Learning also suffers
It’s a time-honored stereotype: the social outcast who ignores the derision of classmates to become a straight-A student, the kid who madly waves his or her hand in a desperate attempt to answer the teacher’s every question.
Yet the reality, it seems, is starkly different: Researchers who followed 380 Midwestern children from the ages of 5 to 11 found that those who were chronically rejected by their classmates were more likely to withdraw from school activities and scored lower on standardized tests than their more popular peers.
“We’re talking about kids whose classmates don’t let them sit with them in the cafeteria,” said lead researcher Eric S. Buhs, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “This is what happens when a whole group demonstrates, ‘We don’t want you around.’ “
Many educational experts regard peer exclusion as a form of bullying and agree that group rejection is more insidious and harder to address than overt one-on-one acts such as shoving a classmate into a locker or spreading vicious gossip. Ostracism is, they say, particularly devastating to its victims: the only girl not invited to a classmate’s sleepover or the boy no one wants to play with at recess.
Peer-group rejection, Buhs and his co-authors report in a study funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, starts as early as kindergarten. It appears to affect boys and girls equally. And it often triggers a vicious circle that can cause long-term psychological damage and impair a child’s academic performance.
Exclusion obviously makes it difficult for a child to join group activities, so the victim disengages from school as a way of avoiding further abuse. Withdrawal acts as a “persistent signal to classmates” that rejected children are not members of the group and reinforces the ostracism, noted the researchers, whose study appears in the current issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology. Academic achievement can be hampered by diminished participation in class.
Buhs’ team found that students who were rejected by their peers in kindergarten tended to become children who were chronically rejected in older grades. By fourth grade they scored measurably lower on standardized reading and math tests than their classmates.
Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director of the 23,000-member National Association of School Psychologists, headquartered in Bethesda, Md., said he was surprised and disturbed by the study’s findings. Most research on the effects of peer-group exclusion has focused on secondary school students, he said, not on young children.
“My initial impression is that young kids are more malleable and can bounce out of this, but this study suggests that this is not the case,” Feinberg said. “It’s really important for people not to slough this off” and dismiss it as childish behavior that is best ignored – or tolerated.
“Social isolation is one of the most devastating things you can do to a human being; I don’t care how old you are,” said Rosalind Wiseman, a veteran educator in Washington and the author of “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” the bestselling book about girls and cliques that became the basis for the movie “Mean Girls.”
“How are you supposed to concentrate on your schoolwork when all you can think about is ‘Everybody hates me’?” Wiseman asked. Some kids, she said, obsess about the problem, while others withdraw and try to avoid school as much as possible.
Wiseman, co-founder of the Empower Program, an anti-bullying and violence prevention group that works with public and private schools in the Washington area, said that educators have become increasingly aware of the problem of exclusion, one reason for the growing emphasis on group projects.
But, she added, the problem of peer rejection is “very difficult stuff to know how to handle well.”
Often, she said, it involves confronting what bullying experts call “the provocative victim” – a child with poor social skills who repeatedly fails to pick up cues and gets singled out as a target. Researchers who study bullying have found that these children frequently alternate between anxious withdrawal and overt aggression.
In Buhs’ study, aggression was linked to exclusion. Children who were rated by their peers and teachers as more aggressive in kindergarten were more likely to be excluded by their classmates in fourth grade.
To assess acceptance, researchers asked students how much they liked to play with each classmate and how often other kids said bad things about them or barred them from activities. Teachers were asked to rate each child’s acceptance by classmates, to report whether a child was aggressive or withdrawn, and how frequently a child sought to leave the classroom or go home from school.
Wiseman suggests that parents who learn their child is being ostracized try to “avoid freaking out, calling the school and saying, ‘I’m coming over right now’ to fix it.” Instead they should try and remain calm and work with the school to solve the problem, which might involve individual training in social skills for the child.
Parents, she added, can enroll their child in an out-of-school activity based on a passion that can become the basis of a bond shared with other children, such as astronomy, horses or Japanese anime.
One of the most important first steps for parents, she said, is to listen carefully. “You tell the child you’re sorry that this is happening,” Wiseman advised. “Then you say, ‘Together you and I are going to work on this.’ “