What to do When Your Child Feels Excluded at School
Every day we send our kids to school hoping that they behave appropriately in class, learn new and valuable information, and develop effective study skills. And while academic advancement is certainly the main goal of school, we can’t ignore the extent to which our kids are getting an education in social and emotional issues, too.
From their very first day of kindergarten, kids learn social skills by interacting with their peers and teachers in the classroom, playground, cafeteria, and hallways. They practice taking turns, following class rules, listening, sharing, cooperating, and negotiating.
It’s normal for every child to struggle socially from time to time. Kids can be best friends one week and mortal enemies the next. Whether your child comes home reporting that he was excluded from a game at recess, teased because his lunch looked funny, or that he simply felt left out, you may have a knee-jerk reaction to his news.
Some parents feel compelled to protect their child and take immediate action by calling the school or the offending child’s parents. Others are quick to ask how their own child brought on the problems himself. The best course of action is to respond thoughtfully, rather than react emotionally.
Here are five steps to help you support your child when he feels excluded at school:
1. Stay calm.
The last thing your child needs is for you to get emotional and freak out. If you do, you’re likely to blow the situation out of proportion and make it worse.
Do this now: Imagine your child coming home and telling you he feels left out at school. What feelings does that stir up in you? Do you feel anxious? Angry? Ask yourself, “What is being triggered in me?” “What am I afraid of?” Are you worried that your child will fall into a deep depression? End up alone forever? That you’ll be judged as a bad parent?
Whatever your fears, they’re yours – so you need to deal with them separately, rather than projecting them onto your child. Reflect on why you have these fears by thinking back to your own childhood. Once you bring these experiences into consciousness, you’ll be better able to separate out your own experience from your child’s.
2. Gather information.
Be curious. Ask questions, but don’t interrogate. Resist trying to fix the problem, or jumping to conclusions. Your child may use the word “bully,” but there’s a difference between an unkind child and a true bully. Bullies use aggression to control and/or harm others, and their behavior usually occurs repeatedly over time.
“Johnny was bullying me today.”
“Really? What did he do?”
“He told me I couldn’t sit with him at lunch.”
“Hmm. You two usually sit together. Why do you think he said that?”
“I don’t know! He’s been hanging out with Max, the new kid, a lot lately. I think he likes him better than me.”
By becoming curious instead of accusatory, you can get more details while remaining connected with your child.
Keep in mind that many kids who are teased and/or bullied don’t come right out and admit it to their parents or teachers. Know the signs of being bullied, such as refusing to go to school, visiting the school nurse often, and inflicting self-harm. If you have reason to believe that your child is, in fact, being bullied, contact your child’s teacher early on, and follow the steps in this post.
3. Validate your child’s experience.
I can’t emphasize this enough. The most helpful thing you can do to support your child is to listen without judgment and empathize with him. This creates safety, trust, and acceptance of his feelings. Empathizing doesn’t mean you agree with him – it means you’ve heard him, understand his feelings, and accept his point of view.
Help him identify his feelings by naming them. You can say, “Sounds like you’re feeling _____________ (e.g. lonely, angry, sad, embarrassed, surprised, worried).”
4. Help your child problem-solve and understand what he can control.
Once your child feels heard and validated, you can gently ask him how he thinks he can solve the problem. If he answers, “I don’t know,” ask, “Well, what are your options?” Together, you can talk about the different ways he could go about handling the situation, and the consequences of each choice.
It’s never too early to help your child understand that other people’s reactions and behavior are outside his control, but that he is in control of his own thoughts and actions. It’s also important to discuss how to be the kind of friend he wishes to have and treat others the way he wishes to be treated.
5. Practice social skills.
Give your child opportunities to practice skills such as verbal and nonverbal communication, assertiveness, listening, and good manners. Here are some scenarios you can role play together:
a) There's an empty seat on the bus, but another student won’t let you sit there. What do you do?
b) Some students are gossiping about another student in the hallway before class. What do you do?
c) A student in your class makes fun of your lunch. What do you do?
d) You find out there was a birthday party for one of your classmates and you weren’t invited. What do you do?
e) Everyone else is playing on the playground without you. What do you do?
Remember that sometimes the best decision is simply to think about the situation differently, and requires no further action.
In addition to role-play, you can facilitate real-life practice by planning play dates outside of school for younger kids and encouraging older ones to participate in social and team activities. For kids with more challenging issues, look for local social skills groups or a child therapist/counselor.
By knowing these steps, you'll be prepared the next time your child tells you (or you suspect) he's feeling excluded at school.
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