by Katie Samples, Kenyon ’18
Childhood, the sweet time of life that is traditionally thought about in terms of crayons, minor knee scrapes and trivial cares; early childhood specifically is typically not thought about in laymen’s terms as a “critical” juncture in one’s life. Obviously the events that happen to a person in early childhood are important to an extent, but the importance of positive social interactions is associated more with the traumatic, puberty-riddled blur that is middle school. However, a recent study suggests that the social environment and inclusion of young children is instrumental in their emotional stability and growth as they develop and go through early-life transitions. Specifically, a child is more likely to show less self-control if they feel heightened levels of exclusion. So a toddler that is excluded today, might develop the low self-control and risk-taking behavior of a gambler tomorrow.
The feeling of inclusion by one’s peers is one of the most fundamental human psychological needs. The Need to Belong Theory articulates this basic need by illuminating the concept that to be psychologically healthy, a person needs to feel, at least to a certain extent, included amongst his or her peers.
There have been a number of studies conducted concerning the importance of social inclusion amongst adults. These studies show that basic psychological well-being is adversely affected when one doesn’t feel a certain level of belonging. While there has been a decent amount of focus on the effects of exclusion in adults, there has been very little attention paid to the role of feelings of belonging in children. Because the Need to Belong Theory speaks to a basic human psychological need, its implications should be just as pertinent in children.
A recent study speaks to this issue of social exclusion and its consequential ramifications in children (Stenseng et al., 2014). This study delved into particular areas that few, to none, have explored before in terms of the importance of healthy childhood social inclusion. This was a longitudinal study, meaning it tested the same participants over a span of time, that looked at the reciprocal relationship between social exclusion and low levels of self-regulation.
Social exclusion and levels of self-control were gauged by interviewing study participants’ parents and teachers. Children were four years old at the beginning of the study and were six when re-evaluated. The children’s levels of exclusion were determined by asking the child’s questions like “Does he/she get along with others” in a survey. The child’s self-control was reported by parents in a model that mirrored questions asked to diagnose ADHD.
The results of the study showed that there appears to be a reciprocal relationship between a child feeling excluded and the same child showing lowered levels of self-control. In other words, a child who feels excluded is more likely to have less control, and a child that has less self-control is more likely to get socially excluded by his or her peers.
Why is this finding important? Well, it suggests that offering social settings that are specifically designed to prevent exclusion is instrumental in the psychological well-being and adjustment of young children. If a child is predisposed to low levels of self-control, being in an environment that makes him or her feel included and grants that sense of belonging that is necessary to psychological health, the child may develop better self-control.
This study was looking at students specifically in a school environment, but its findings can be extended to social situations for young children outside of the school yard. It would seem that it is imperative for parents and caretakers to encourage socially inclusive settings for children whenever possible— such as in extracurriculars or in the neighborhood.
This particular study is important in a personality perspective because it illuminates a function of development that can lead to a psychologically well-adjusted person. It also raises questions on trait development by incorporating a situational fix to a trait deficiency (low self-control). This study is also interesting to consider because it broadens the understanding of psychological well-being to children, beyond the traditional adult focus. With this study, and the studies that will follow in its footsteps, it becomes a little more clear that interpersonal connections and relationships are important to all people—whether one is 4, or 40, feeling like you belong is key.
Stenseng, F., Belsky, J., Skalicka V., & Wichstrøm, L. (2015). Social exclusion predicts impaired self-regulation: A 2-year longitudinal panel study including the transition from preschool to school. Journal of Personality, 83(2), 212-220.