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The unseen bullying of social exclusion

Bullying has taken a new form on playgrounds across the country. Instead of children being teased, pushed around or called names, they are shunned and not invited to join games and activities.

Children are being socially excluded.

According to Dr. Lynn Todman, the term “social exclusion” was initially used during the 1970s by a French politician trying to describe those excluded from the labor market. Todman, executive director of the Institute on Social Exclusion at Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago, studies the subject in terms of socioeconomics.

“Social exclusion is actively created by the structures and systems that organize and guide the functioning of our society,” said Todman. “These structures and systems determine the allocation of rights, resources and opportunities such as food, safety, education, health, due process and shelter.”

While Todman’s studies focus on social exclusion in underserved populations, she is quick to point out that the result is the same in groups.

“There is research . . . showing that when people feel like they’re being excluded, they lose their willingness to self-regulate,” said Todman.

Dr. Edyth Wheeler of Towson University in Baltimore County, Md., agrees and has studied social exclusion of children and young adults.

“Four-year-olds are masters at this,” she said. “When they say ‘I’m not going to be your friend anymore,’ they are making the threat of exclusion. Children at that age are at the point where their need for adult approval is declining and they are dependent on peer approval.”

Wheeler said she doesn’t believe that children learn from their parents or other adults how to exclude others. Instead, she believes it is a knowledge of the human condition which leads to the ability – and desire – to exclude peers.

“It’s this innate understanding that makes people want to be accepted and let in,” she said. “To show we have power, we cannot accept them and leave them out. Or to cement ourselves as a group – to be a stronger ‘we’ – we’ll identify a ‘them’.”

According to her work, young girls are specifically good at performing acts of social exclusion. For them, it’s a strong and powerful tool used to negotiate their world and relationships.

There is good news, according to Wheeler, if you’re the victim of social exclusion.

“It’s not a permanent condition,” she said. “It peaks and then goes away. Part of it is about finding your own identity.”

Teachers and parents may also play a role in preventing social exclusion or healing the hurt.

“Adults really need to listen to their children and to pick up the signals,” said Wheeler. “Children need to trust that somebody can help them. If the message can be that everyone is valued and everyone will be listened to, the situations can become better.

She added, “In classrooms, teachers can create a sense of community and be very aware of grouping. Really, it all goes back to the responsibility of the adult.”

— Dustin Petty

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