Dealing With Exclusion
Exclusion occurs in classrooms and neighborhoods, on playgrounds and among children of all ages. The reasons for a child to feel like excluding another — or for a child to feel or be excluded — can vary as much as personalities do. How to best help a child, whether she is the excluder or the excluded, depends on the reason for the occurrence, as well as whether it is an isolated or ongoing social difficulty.
Excluding someone from play is a behavior. As with all behaviors, it is the expression of a feeling. The feeling may be about the other person (“She is bossy!”), or stem from a feeling about oneself (“I can only play here if I control who’s here and who isn’t.”).
In some cases, a child may have a valid reason for wishing not to play with a particular child. In other cases, the wish to control the play, exclude others or even tease the other child may be related to inner troubles a child is struggling with. Understanding the cause of the feeling behind the behavior will help provide meaningful and lasting help.
Take, for instance, the following example:
Maya, age 5, and her mother visit the same neighborhood playground on a regular basis. Over time, Maya has started to tell Samantha, age 6, that she cannot play with her and her other playmates. Maya’s mother handles this by telling her daughter to be polite and not leave anyone out. Maya now seems reluctant to play when Samantha is at the playground and instead lingers around her mother.
In this example, both Maya and Samantha need help with understanding what has happened between them. Maya’s mother notices the change in her daughter’s behavior since she asked her to begin including Samantha. After some thought, she realizes Maya doesn’t usually exclude other children and is actually quite open and flexible in her play. She decides to return her attention to the subject to try to understand what happened between the two girls.
This type of conversation can begin with a simple, noncritical observation: “Everything seemed to be going well with the other girls until Samantha tried to join you.” A statement such as this can often pave the way for a child to feel safe enough to share how she feels. Maya may reveal and answer such as, “Samantha always takes all of the shovels! She is so bossy!”
This was an isolated incident for Maya. Samantha, on the other hand, finds herself excluded from groups of play in a number of settings, including school. Samantha’s teacher tells her mother that her daughter has not developed any friendships in class and often moves from group to group. When she does play in a group, she controls the roles of others and excludes those who do not follow her rules. Samantha has a persistent and ongoing problem, which is likely to continue until she can be encouraged to understand and take responsibility for her role in each situation.
When exclusion occurs, parents and other caregivers can help the children involved by encouraging them to think about the reasons for their actions or their role in provoking reactions. Yet there are also many situations in which children feel stuck on one side or the other, and often receive external explanations for the exclusive behavior rather than being encouraged to consider their motivations for and role in what has happened. These situations often occur in the context of other emotional difficulties a child is having and are often reason to seek professional help.
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit lucydanielscenter.org to learn more.