Most of us can remember feeling excluded as a child – barred from a pickup basketball game or not invited to a talked-about party. And as adults, we’re all aware of the harm exclusion can do to a child’s self-esteem and emotional well-being.

But new research finds that the kids doing the excluding often have very different reasons for doing it, and that understanding those reasons can help adults guide them to find a better solution. In other words, a one-size-fits-all ban of and punishment for exclusion isn’t the best option.

“Research that looks at kids’ own point of view about social exclusion will help us do a better job of supporting their ability to successfully navigate these situations,” states Holly Recchia, an assistant professor of education at Concordia University and a member of the Centre for Research in Human Development. She’s the lead author of the study, which she conducted as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Utah.

Published in a recent issue of Cognitive Development, the study revealed that kids’ reasons for excluding others are more diverse than past research has shown.
Recchia and her colleagues interviewed 84 kids, ages 7, 11 and 17, about their experiences excluding a peer, why they did it and whether they believed their reasons were good or bad (i.e., “It was a bad reason because now his feelings are hurt,” or “It was a good reason because I don’t work well with her”).

The researchers also found that some kids doing the excluding ignored their own negative feelings about exclusion, while others spontaneously looked for an alternative.

“It’s the search for alternatives to exclusion that we want to encourage. The fact that children can do this spontaneously reflects children’s awareness of their own capacity to behave differently in the future and can be an entry point for intervention,” Recchia states.

Her study also found that exclusion changes as kids get older. At age 7, children blamed peer pressure and uncontrollable circumstances for the exclusion. Teenagers, however, took more responsibility, often admitting to reasons that were within their control.

Recchia believes the study could help researchers devise age-specific interventions to try to prevent exclusion – teaching younger kids what they could have done differently, for example.

– Deirdre Wilson