Little Bullies? When Kids Leave Kids Out

An interview with Suzanne Fanger by TMC

“We don’t want to play with you anymore!”

Ouch.  Feeling left out is a cruddy feeling no matter your age.  And it sure smarts when it’s your kid that’s the recipient of the blow.  Bullying on the preschool playground is a hot topic these days, and we thought it might be useful to look at one aspect of it.  Is exclusionary behavior a normal part of early childhood development?  Or should we be worried about raising little bullies? Let’s discuss.

Here to break down why and how kids leave other kids out is Suzanne Fanger, early childhood development expert. She also shares some tips to help us deal with the problem head-on.

How typical is peer exclusion in preschool?

Peer exclusion, or rather, when one kid prevents another from being part of a social group, is very common amongst preschoolers. It may even be a developmentally normal response to a variety of social problems that young children encounter.

What motivates 3-6-year-olds to exclude others their own age?

There are many reasons, but here are a few typical examples:

  • To protect themselves. If a child makes others feel threatened or simply doesn’t look like a safe playmate, they are likely to be excluded.
  • To protect play that is going well. High-level, coordinated play is very difficult for young children and exponentially more so as the number of players increases.
  • To protect a currently rewarding relationship. Because young children live in the moment and often define a “friend” as whomever they are currently playing with, an interloper will feel like a threat to the friendship itself.
  • To ensure their own control of a game. Many children prefer to be the leaders of group play so they can make decisions about “what happens next” in a game. New players mean fewer decisions for others.
  • To avoid playing with children who do not play “the right way.” Just like adults, young children have an established peer culture with its own set of social norms. Children who do not conform to these norms, many of which revolve around the rules of pretend play, are likely to be excluded.

Based on your research, what are the most typical ways parents/caregivers/educators react to this issue? What is your opinion of those reactions?

  • Because exclusion at this age is usually very transient, many adults take a “wait and see what happens next” approach. They may distract the victim or help them to find other playmates. Unfortunately, this shows the excluder that their behavior is both acceptable and effective and doesn’t give either party the opportunity to learn appropriate ways to handle the situation.
  • A number of schools have established a “you can’t say you can’t play” rule in their classrooms. Since there is usually a logical reason for exclusion, children will continue to exclude even with such rules. They will simply find more subtle ways to do so. This approach teaches children to manipulate social situations to their advantage and to make sure that social issues stay “under the radar” of adults.
  • In our culture, many people believe that, when it comes to social issues, it is important for children to “learn to work it out for themselves.” However, conflict resolution is like any other developing skill for preschoolers—before they can become proficient at it, they will need guidance from a knowledgeable adult and many opportunities to practice this skill. Without this guidance, children are unlikely to learn the most equitable and psychologically healthy approach to solving peer conflicts.
  • Some adults may assume that the excluded child has been seriously harmed and that the excluder is “being mean.” Casting the excluded child as a “victim” may cause them more harm than good and make the excluder feel that it is not safe to seek adult help for problems with peers.


How do you think parents/caregivers/educators should respond?

The appropriate response will depend upon the underlying reason for the exclusionary behavior. If that is not clear, it is important to ask the excluder in a non-punitive, non-judgmental way:

It seems like you’re not really wanting Ginger to play with you today. I am curious about what is making it hard to play together. If you can tell me about what’s going on, I can help you to make sure that doesn’t happen.

If this exclusion dynamic is ongoing, it will also help to step back and observe the interactions of the social group.

Once the motive for exclusion is clear, it is important to help the children find a solution that balances the needs of both the excluder and the excluded.

Exclusion is used for many reasons, but some of the more common ones include: The excluded child is not behaving in a way the other children enjoy, or the children playing together are focused on their own agenda, and see the excluded child as an obstacle to their goals. These underlying causes should lead to very different interventions.

For example, if the cause is the excluded child’s behavior (they are clumsy, they are still learning pretend play skills, or they prefer to be the leader), then the excluder will need understanding and support:

I know it can be tricky to play with Owen because (you remember that last time he knocked the blocks down by mistake, he’s still learning how to play, he really likes to make the choices in a game, etc.). If I help him to play, could we join your game together? I can make sure that he (is really safe with the toys, knows how to play the game, listens to your ideas, etc.).

The child being excluded may need some social coaching to help them be successful with their peers. An adult can take a minor role in the play so they are available to provide guidance, should the excluded child begin to go astray.

If one child excludes another because they are trying to meet their own needs (i.e., they are trying to establish a friendship, they don’t want to share the leadership role, etc.) then it is important to validate those needs and, if appropriate, help fulfill them, without condoning the exclusion:

You are really feeling like Mabel is a good friend. It sounds like you would like to play alone with her. Let’s find a time when she can come over for a play date, just the two of you. But this (playground, school, birthday party) is a place where we practice playing with different kinds of people. And you and Mabel will still be friends, even if lots of children are playing. When someone else does come to play, what can they be?

The excluded child may benefit from hearing the others’ perspective and from some help entering the game:

It looks like Roger is worried that Mabel won’t be his friend anymore if you play. But you can all be friends together. Let’s watch what they are doing and see if we can find a way to help out in the game.

If an entering child is able to fill a needed role or offer a useful object, they will often be admitted when a simple “can I play?” would end in exclusion.

Suzanne Fanger has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and anthropology from Stanford University. Currently, she is finishing her Ph.D. in Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. She taught preschool-aged children for nine years—first, at Bing Nursery School, Stanford University’s laboratory preschool and later at Peter’s Place Nursery School, a play-based preschool in San Francisco focused on social and emotional learning. She is well-versed in the current research on child development, linguistics, media studies, psychology, socio-emotional education, and gender studies. Currently, she educates parents and teachers about relational aggression, girls’ development, and peer exclusion.

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Posted in: Behavioral Issues, Expert Advice, Friendship, Learn, School