Teaching compassion and acceptance to elementary school students

Many years ago, it was 6PM on another Friday night. I had just finished swim practice, and my mummy was helping me pull on one of my nicer outfits in the pool change room. Instead of going home that night, I was directly going to go to a restaurant to celebrate a friend’s birthday. Being invited to birthday parties was an incredible honor at this age, and I felt I had accomplished something immense. 

I remember the dinner, the cheesecake and the movie, but I best remember the drive home. Sitting in the back seat, we were just three pre-teens belting the lyrics to songs we didn’t understand the meaning of. But very soon, I felt that I didn’t belong in the back seat with my two friends. Although I was sitting, laughing and creating memories that would be talked about in school on the Monday, I felt lonely. The condensation on the car window suddenly looking more appealing than my friends, I turned to the window and traced hearts on my new canvas and sentimentally watched them fade with tears pooling in my eyes. This memory remains my metaphor for the phrase “alone in a crowded room”. 

I had few friends in my early years of school for various reasons, from my inclination to academics and being a rule-following student in front of my teachers to my day-dreaming personality. It is a reality for many young students, and I was far from the only student condemned to eating lunch alone amidst the bubbling conversations my peers were having all around me. Many of us spent our childhoods trying to shield ourselves from exclusion with things like a new iPhone and clothes from a socially-acceptable brand. In other words, many student’s foundational years of schooling were dominated by fear of exclusion. 

While feelings of exclusion present unique learning opportunities for youth to navigate their insecurities and find conviction in their identities, scientific literature has shown the impacts of exclusion on children. Children’s social exclusion was also the subject of a literature review by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), demonstrating its wide scope as a policy issue (Magrab, 1998). A 2002 study by Baumeister, Twenge, and Nuss found that social exclusion negatively impacts cognitive behavior (Baumeister, Twenge & Nuss, 2002). A paper by Watson-Jones, Whitehouse and Legare demonstrated that children’s human desire for social group living was exhibited through mimicry of in-group children (children who are not excluded) in children five years old (Watson-Jones, Whitehouse, & Legare, 2015). Furthermore, the same experimental group of children who were included and excluded by an out-group individual (child excluded from group) showed no difference in mimicry fidelity. This mimicry refers to in-group children as “leaders” and out-group children as “followers”. 

So, how do we navigate around the issue of children’s social exclusion? I believe it begins with strong support systems which enforce inclusion and compassion for young children. My strong support system was at home. But not all youth had a fiercely protective older sister and parents who regularly enforced the “larger picture” like I had. Here, I believe elementary level education systems need to introduce and encourage these social traits in young children in the classroom. 

I do not see my occasional loneliness early in my school years as tragic, nor do I believe that we can live in a world where all children can avoid feelings of loneliness in social situations. I do believe, though, that compassion and inclusion can be taught, and that emphasis on these traits amongst students early in elementary school can help more children succeed in and beyond the classroom. 

References

Baumeister, R. F., Twenge, J. M., & Nuss, C. K. (2002). Effects of social exclusion on cognitive processes: Anticipated aloneness reduces intelligent thought. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(4), 817–827. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.83.4.817

Magrab, P (1998). Social exclusion and children: A brief review of selected literature. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228923254_Social_exclusion_and_children_A_brief_review_of_selected_literature

Watson-Jones, R. E., Whitehouse, H., & Legare, C. H. (2016). In-Group Ostracism Increases High-Fidelity Imitation in Early Childhood. Psychological Science, 27(1), 34–42. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797615607205

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