Why do children exclude others?

When children exclude peers with behavioural or academic difficulties, it is likely a reflection of their classroom’s norms
Image by _Alicja_ on Pixabay
Image by _Alicja_ on Pixabay

“I don’t want you on my team.” School can be tough for early adolescents with behavioural or academic difficulties. Many of these children are more likely than typically developing children to be left out of peer groups. While befriending a classmate is a personal choice, recent research has found that classroom norms can play a role in this decision-making process, and it can affect how children perceive inclusivity – whether they view it as beneficial or unnecessary. Consequently, it can also shape the attitudes of early adolescents towards children with behavioural or academic difficulties in general.

“Children from more inclusive classrooms were more likely to sympathise with hyperactive peers and develop inclusive attitudes.”

Inclusive classroom norms and hyperactive peers

Over the course of one year, 1,209 early adolescents, from 61 classes in Switzerland, participated in a research study at the University of Teacher Education Lucerne. The study analysed the effect of inclusive classroom norms on their sympathy and inclusive attitudes towards hyperactive peers. In each of these classrooms, at least one learner was receiving additional support from teachers trained in working with children with special educational needs, and up to seven had been clinically diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The study had two assessment points: first at the end of grade 5, and then one year later, at the end of grade 6.

At both assessment points, the researchers introduced students to a hypothetical story protagonist who exhibited hyperactive behaviour. Students were then asked to complete a questionnaire that assessed their sympathy towards the hyperactive story protagonist and the likelihood they would include that child in social activities.

To evaluate each classroom’s norms, the students were subsequently asked to answer an additional six questions about how they thought their classmates would react to situations in which the hyperactive story protagonist was being excluded. For example, students were asked: “How many children from your class would include Klaus/Maria (i.e. the hypothetical hyperactive story protagonist) in their working groups?” The possible answers on a four-point scale ranged from 1 = “no one” to 4 = “all of them”.

Each student’s subjective perception of classmates’ behaviour was then aggregated to derive their shared perception of their classroom’s environment, and therefore its norms. The researchers based their approach on previous studies, assessing the inclusivity of each classroom’s norms at a systems level and comparing the classrooms on a scale.

The researchers found that children from more inclusive classrooms were more likely to sympathise with hyperactive peers and develop inclusive attitudes towards children with behavioural difficulties in general. They also found that how individual children perceive their classmates’ inclusive behaviours significantly affects the likelihood that they themselves will sympathise with hyperactive peers and include them in activities. “Inclusive classroom norms are a useful reference for children that has a positive effect on their behaviour towards their hyperactive peers,” explains Jeanine Grütter, a member of the research team. Grütter is affiliated with the University of Teacher Education Lucerne.

“Academic achievement and inclusivity do not have to be mutually exclusive.”

Competitive classroom norms promote exclusion

Children from classrooms with more competitive norms, on the other hand, are more likely to exclude peers with behavioural or academic difficulties. Specifically, they tend to exclude hyperactive children more frequently, believing that their behaviour is intentional and therefore irresponsible, and perceiving it as particularly disruptive in an academic context.

“Often, other children do not understand what hyperactivity is, and are unaware that it is a challenging condition that is not easily controlled,” says Grütter. In such an environment, competitive or high-achieving children are especially likely to exclude peers with behavioural or academic difficulties, in order to preserve effective group functioning and achieve their personal academic goals.

Academic achievement and inclusivity do not have to be mutually exclusive, however. In fact, classrooms that nurture an environment that promotes inclusive attitudes towards children with behavioural or academic difficulties do better academically.

“This is a challenge that schools, in general, face as they seek to equip students with the skills they will need in the future. Academic success in adolescence primarily determines entry to higher education and consequently, the pressure to achieve remains an inherent part of the classroom. Teachers can, however, encourage inclusive norms even in competitive learning environments. For example, they can engage in open discussions with their class about the fact that every student has different needs and requires different levels of support. They can also point out that when students help each other, they can succeed as a class,” explains Grütter. “Fairness, social inclusion, and effective group functioning do not have to be mutually exclusive goals,” she adds.

“Teachers can encourage inclusive norms even in competitive learning environments.”

Teachers can encourage inclusive behaviours

According to Grütter, however, teachers are often unaware of the important role they play in guiding how their students relate to their peers. For example, when teachers are emotionally supportive of all their students and treat them fairly, students are more likely to maintain a good relationship with their teachers and model positive behaviour in interactions with their peers. “In the case of students with ADHD, when teachers reprimand them frequently in front of their classmates or mention them in a negative way, this affects how they are treated by other students,” explains Grütter.

Furthermore, when teachers provide their students with more opportunities to connect in the classroom based on shared interests, they are in fact promoting the formation of cross-group friendships, which in turn encourages inclusive attitudes in early adolescents.

Grütter and her team are currently working on ways to help teachers actively encourage peer inclusivity in their classrooms. “Teachers receive intensive training in classroom management. But it is only recently that teaching training has started to provide useful strategies for guiding and encouraging diversity and inclusion in the classroom. This is an important area for teacher training,” concludes Grütter.

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