We all want our children to have a friend and feel accepted. Sadly, this isn’t always the case. How do we make sure our children are included, and what do we do if they’re not?
Merriment resonates throughout the air at a local primary school as children play. However, when we zoom in, there is a child, sitting alone, eagerly awaiting the bell that signals the end of lunchtime and beginning of the afternoon session. Yet again, their request to join in the play has been met with, “No! Go away! We don’t want you to play! You’re not my friend!”
The social aspect
Whenever asked about his school day, my son’s reply was about who he had played or not played with. Any lessons he told me about were generally in relation to some social interaction with another child. For many children, it is the social aspect of school which either makes or breaks it. Unfortunately for some, the humble playground is transformed into a torturous battleground inflicting invisible scars of loneliness and rejection that can last well into adulthood.
Verbal and social bullying
When we think of bullying, it is easy to think of physical violence, yet the effects of teasing and both verbal and social bullying can be devastating to a child’s psyche. It can be an unkind comment, snicker or glance, or children being repeatedly told, “Go away! We don’t want to play with you.”
Sometimes children are not even aware of the soul-destroying effect their comment may have had on another child. Sometimes this exclusion happens from one of their best friends. Suddenly that friend will no longer play with them because of some difference another ‘popular’ child may have objected to (gender, appearance, speech, learning issues, interests, social or cultural background, quirky nature, etc). While some kids have the resilience to bounce back from such incidents and find new friends, for others, the hurt caused by such rejection runs deep.
Bullying can be more damaging than it appears
Sometimes as parents we inadvertently condone it, “Well, if you don’t want to play with so-and-so, that’s alright, you don’t have to.” I know some people who don’t think anything about excluding someone for whatever reason; they may even think that it’s just part of life and that children need to toughen up and learn to deal with some unpleasantness. However, bullying in whatever guise can be very damaging.
Learning social skills in early years
The social skills developed and honed in the playground is pivotal. The NZ School Curriculum identifies five key competencies, one of which is relating to others. “Relating to others is about interacting effectively with a diverse range of people in a variety of contexts. This competency includes the ability to listen actively, recognise different points of view, negotiate, and share ideas.” It is easy to relate to those you naturally get on with, yet children need to learn and be encouraged to get on with others in spite of their diversity, how to make the ‘other’ feel welcome, to empathise, to be socially inclusive. If they do not learn this while young, then excluding others can carry on throughout their school life with exclusive in-crowds and out-crowds, and into the workplace – resulting in many prejudices and ‘isms’, and social stereotypes.
[pullquote]As Dr. Leo Buscaglia wrote, “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”[/pullquote]
SO WHAT CAN WE TELL OUR KIDS WHEN OTHERS ARE UNKIND TO THEM?
As parents, we need to use our parental judgement to determine if something is a one-off incident or an ongoing issue. If a child asks to join in the play of another, and is told “no”, encourage our children to reply, “Oh, why not?” That then allows the other child or group to give a reason. If the reason is trivial such as: We don’t like you; you look funny; dress funny; talk funny; eat strange food; still read baby books; can’t write; have four eyes; girls don’t play with boys, etc, then that prejudice needs to be addressed.
Reasoning behind rejection
Maybe there is a valid reason stemming from something that happened in the past, i.e. Last time you played with us, you . . . (broke this/did that). In class you knocked over some chairs and that scares us. Yesterday you took food from my lunchbox, etc. Maybe the child wasn’t aware that what they did last time annoyed or scared the others, maybe they’ve forgotten what happened last time, maybe they have some moderate need that hasn’t been diagnosed or if it has been diagnosed, there is no funding for support.
There are many reasons why a child may be told “no, you can’t play with us.” Still our society is diverse and we need to find ways to accommodate and include everyone.
Keeping it to yourself
If a specific incident can be addressed straight away, then brilliant. However, often our littlies, and not-so-littlies, don’t say anything. Maybe they don’t feel comfortable telling the duty teacher or classroom teacher. They may bottle their frustrations and hurt in, until they finally tell you that “so-and-so is being mean to me” or ‘I have no-one to play with”. Whenever it comes out, or whenever you suspect that they may be being excluded, the classroom teacher should be told so they can fix the issue.
YOUR SCHOOL OBLIGATIONS
Exclusion can be addressed indirectly, maybe as a class talk or syndicate talk on “respecting diversity” and “finding ways to include others.” Then the parent or teacher can go over what’s acceptable behaviour when playing with others. Maybe your school could start a buddy system. Perhaps your teacher could role-play with the children so they all get a turn at experiencing how it feels when people say “no” to playing with them.
Wellbeing is crucial to learning
Under the National Administration Guidelines (NAGs) schools must “provide a safe physical and emotional environment for students”. One of the principles of the NZ Curriculum is inclusion and students need to feel that they belong. If a child is constantly being excluded from play, then their sense of belonging is affected. A child’s mental and physical health affects their wellbeing, and good sense of wellbeing is vital to learning. If your child is constantly being excluded, and the teacher does nothing about it, take it to a higher authority (syndicate leader or higher). If the teacher or school does nothing about it, their inaction is indirectly condoning social bullying caused by exclusion.
Wouldn’t it be great if a group of kids who are playing together, see someone approaching them or someone sitting alone and say, “Hey, we are doing… do you want to join in?” Or even, “Hey, last time you played with us, you… broke this/did that). That wasn’t okay. But if you can play nicely, without … (hurting anyone, throwing sand, doing x,y,z), then you can join in.”
Let us teach our children to consider the way they speak to one another, especially those unlike them. School is a big melting pot of a wide range of children. Diversity needs to be respected and inclusiveness encouraged. He waka eke noa. A canoe which we are all in with no exception.
AJ Feist is a primary school relief teacher and mother to one. She completed the SPELD Certificate in Specific Learning Disabilities due to her interest in dyslexia.