A successful trait that has evolved in our species is that we have learned to take the advantage of living in groups. It is ‘the group’ that provides us with an advantage in survival through things like shared meals and shelter and has presented us a range of potential partners so we can reproduce. The development of our sense of belonging comes through the process of attachment.
Attachment is a process that begins at birth and evolves from the formation of intimate relationships with our primary carer, usually mum and on through to our attempts to join in with our peers from preschool through our schooling years. It is well understood that healthy attachment is essential for physical and social wellbeing.
However, it is when our attempts to attach with others are declined, our wellbeing is threatened. In recent years since the advent of brain imaging techniques it has been shown that rejection activates the same brain regions as a physical injury. It is the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex that becomes active when people are experiencing physical pain and the same area is initiated when we experience social pain. Research into this process has shown that the use of pain relief medication can assist people to deal with social rejection just as it does with physical pain relief.
It follows that rejection experienced by our students has an adverse impact on their psychological wellbeing. Karen Bierman of Pennsylvania State University has shown that children who are rejected display one or more of the following behaviour patterns:
- Low rates of pro-social behavior, e.g. taking turns, sharing
- High rates of aggressive or disruptive behavior
- High rates of inattentive, immature, or impulsive behavior
- High rates of social anxiety
These rejected children suffer internalizing problems that lead to depression and social anxiety and of course these psychological impediments will have a negative effect on their learning. Their obvious social clumsiness leads them to be the target of teasing and bullying which exacerbates their isolation.
The leader of this victimization from the social group that produces the rejection is usually that member with the most ‘social power’. These are often those with the most confidence, physical prowess or social status. The archetypical, main bully, in the popular media is the star footballer or for the girls the ‘queen bee’. They are so threatening there is obvious pressure on the others in the group to ‘go along with the bullying’ because if they refuse they risk being ostracized as well.
Some children with long-term rejection will eventually deal with their pain by acting out, externalizing their problems. This lashing out can be directed at them selves with the tragic extreme of suicide or in a few but significant cases it can be outward displays of violence towards others.
In an analysis of 15 school shootings in the United States between 1995 and 2001 found that peer rejection was present in all but two of the cases that is in almost 90% of the cases. These perpetrators had suffered both acute and chronic rejection being bullied, ostracized and had been unable to form a relationship with a romantic partner. Of course in these extreme cases there would be other pathological symptoms like extreme depression but it could be argued that these negative traits were a result of the rejection. The question is could these children’s violence been avoided if they had experienced some form of acceptance? This is the tragedy of the lack of genuine psychological support provided for children who are easily identified as being in need.
The pain of rejection is not limited to children; adults who have taken place in experiments including the famous ‘cyber ball trial’ have shown similar feelings of ‘pain’ if they feel excluded. This experiment takes many forms but fundamentally involves three participants, only one that is truly involved. In a simple form each member of the group pass a Frisbee between each other with a generally fair amount of sharing. After a period of time the two confederates, those ‘members’ who are really part of the experiment reduce the number of passes to the research subject and eventually leave them out all together. The subjects consistently report the feelings associated with rejection. This feeling has been confirmed by playing a similar game in a functioning MRI. When the subject is rejected the parts of the brain associated with physical pain light up.
So what to do for those students in your class you know are suffering from rejection? In a perfect world we could send them to the school counsellor where they could be treated professionally but we know that this is not always, if ever available and so it is left to the teacher to at least try to minimize this.
One of the easiest things you can do is manipulate the combinations of students for group work making sure you place that student away from the perpetrators and with empathetic classmates. Teachers already construct groups to achieve the best learning outcomes and so to incorporate the goal of reducing the ostracism is appropriate. In any case I would never allow the students to pick their working partners for any project work, apart from this being a chance to academically strengthen all students it will avoid that most tragic happening I see in schools and on sports teams. When picking teams the process is usually the choice of the best player and down until we get to the last chosen and that is a public display of their lack of value to the group!
You can also weave social skills training into your lessons and even manipulate public speaking exercises that focus on the problems of isolation in general allowing the students to apply this to their life. Make sure that your classroom is inclusive and everyone is of equal value.