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 excludee.

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 PhD 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.

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

Comments (10)

  1. Tractari auto Bucuresti

    There is certainly a great deal to know about this issue. I love all of the points you made.


  2. Sarah

    My kid is is in an extracurricular activity where all of the other children, except for one, are in school with her (the other kid is from another school); My kid has a very strong personality and she is the leader type and doesn’t want this particular girl in the group, nor to sit with her… I did ask the person in charge and she said the kid hasn’t done anything to my daughter for her not to want her around; so if there is no motive other than the kid being an “outsider” for not being in school with my child, then there is a clique problem and my kid is the “Regina George” …last time all the kids took a photo together and the “outsider girl” didn’t take it with them… I don’t know what to do, other than have a conversation with my daughter today that it isn’t pretty to leave other kids out .. Also I know from personal experience how terrible it feels to be left out by the rest of the group and to be bullied just for being the “different” one, and I think my kid might be able to see the other kid’s perspective if I tell her what was my experience as a non-popular girl when I was a kid… hope it works!


  3. anon

    My 5 year old is very strong willed and abstract in her thinking so comes across as very different from her peers. She has now given up on school friends as has been consistently told by peers she cannot play with them and as now started to play with her shadow and make believe friends as well as count butterflies. She is an independent sole who I have enrolled in ballet, athletics, swimming and music to try and provide her with social groups. She participates well and enjoys them. She has two brothers older and younger than her who is she is able to play games with at home. I am worried about her and am open have always been open with the other parents about my concern about her exclusion from friends. She is happy to go to school and has accepted her role to be alone but is this ok? Should I talk to the school about strategies or leave her to be in her own world without the friendship of her classmates?


    • Andrea

      I am responding to your loner daughter concerns. Our daughter was much the same with peers in our nice local school. During school and socially out of school mingling with peers was hard for us to witness and hear about. One on one on play dates the play went very well but it was us asking for the play dates. After reading up on her learning style l learned that one of the most important things for her was to have regular port unities to develop a learning community of similar minded peers. We moved her to a smaller school, 195 kids from k-12. The learning is in the liberal arts philosophy and it’s been the best move ever!! Her extra curricular activities are now there for mingling with typical kids around the community and her unique learning style and personality now fit with her 9-3, M-F school work environment. She’s very happy, we don’t miss the old school scene and are still friends with some of he parents of her old peers there. I would also suggest getting her a physiological educational assessment. It will likely reveal her gifts as well as reveal any learning difficulties that may make a typical school a less ideal setting for her. STEM stream schools with a built in inquiry based model may also fit her style. Help her find ” her people”,?and enjoy an educational adventure and detach from typical, it’s sounds like she already has.


    • eileen

      Hi, im sorry to hear about your daughters problems. Im interested to know how you handled it?
      My 7 year old son is having similar issues with a girl at school. He is a free spirit, he has varied interests from dinosaurs to dress ups & barbies. He is comfortable in his own skin (or seems to be ?) We part of a group of friends all with kids in the same year at school.
      One of the mothers apporached me saying that my son had been nasty to her daughter according to her he pushed her, flicked her nose & called her a bully. As far as i know it was in the context of a game. . I talked to my son & he seemed very surprised. He said they aren’t in the same class & that they dont play together much but there was no nastiness from either side as farcas he was concerned. The girl has been known to lie once telling me that she was allergic to peanut butter whenI made her a peanut butter sandwich. She told me if she has peanuts she has to have special medi & go to hospital. Her mum later confirmedshe had no allergies!

      The mother also informed me that out of our friendship group my son was the only one not invited to her birthday party which is in a few weeks.
      Since then i have been told by other parents that their kids have seen this girl being nasty to my son, excluding him at school saying you cant pkay with us we dont like. My son denied any problems.
      I think the world of my child but i know he is not without fault. Im sure there are two sides to this story.
      Im not quite sure how to handle it? My gut is telling my something is going on & my son is not talking? Any advice is welcome.


  4. Sally

    My 10 Yr old has this consistent problem with 1 girl who at times becomes her very good friend and then starts ignoring her. She is playing with my child’s feeling. How do I deal with this please please help? Also she talks behind my child’s back to n e one who is trying to be friend with my child.


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  8. sonali laschever

    Another really helpful article that I can put into play immediately. Thank you MOtherCompany!


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