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 excluded.

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 Ph.D. 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.

The Mother Company is on a mission to Help Parents Raise Good People. We do this with our children’s Emmy-winning television series, Ruby’s Studio, a series of preschool and early educational picture books, free teacher guides, music and more, all about social and emotional learning, and with TellStella, a digital service that connects parents to parenting experts via text and talk for one-on-one support and guidance around all parenting topics for kids 0-18+

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

Comments (18)

  1. Allegra Helems

    Great Blogpost Thanks for sharing.

  2. Donna

    The article focuses a lot on the child being left out as someone who invites this kind of behavior. I take great concern over this thought process. If you watch kids, some are just mean and really like to control their environment. This speaks very loudly towards the problem of bullying in schools and how educators handle these issues. The wait and see approach. The looking to the victim as the problem. I would really like to see a person answer these issues with compassion and not detachment. Almost always the problem is with the child doing the excluding. Grant it these young children need help navigating the waters of personal interactions but please first address the offender not the offended.

  3. Jennifer

    Hi, I’m currently a preschool teacher and I’m in my 2nd year of teaching.

    I have girl student that tends to leave certain kids out and blame others. Let’s call her Ally. She’s currently 4 years old.

    Ally and Andrew have been friends since early preschool. Ally likes to be in charge and Andrew doesn’t mind following since Ally is the older one. They both moved to the same classroom again for preschool. This time a new classmate comes in. Let’s call her Avery.

    Avery and Andrew become very good friends because they both speak Chinese. At times Andrew and Avery will only converse in Chinese and play together. Ally wants to play too and although Andrew and Avery does not exclude Ally and says she can join Ally is upset because they don’t play the way she wants to play.

    After a few weeks. Ally, Avery and Andrew are great friends. Now Ally is excluding Andrew from play. Ally will say, “Andrew can’t play with us because he’s not a dragon.” or “Those are my blocks, not for you Andrew.” “If you don’t play like this, I won’t give you any jellys.”and even “I hate you Andrew, you’re not my friend.”

    I’m very concern with Ally’s behavior towards Andrew. She loves play with Avery and doesn’t like sharing her friend with him. She would push Andrew out of line when he’s line up behind Avery. (Avery and Andrew line up early while Ally is last to line up. I direct Ally to the back.)

    Ally also likes to lie a lot. She’ll include some truth but in the end the lies she tells her mother comes back to me. For example, Ally would be running on the playground and will collide with a friend on the play ground. She moves on to play for 1 minute or two and then will tell me , “Edward hit me.” and cry. (She’s really good at fake crying). I’d have to correct her and say, “No, Edward didn’t hit you. You both ran into each other. It was an accident. You are fine.” After she hears me say that she’ll immediately stop crying and move on.

    There are other times where she’ll say her friend kicked her in the face or put water on her hair when no such thing had happened. Like she stood too close to the a friend climbing up on the ladder and was accidentally brushed with his foot or a friend put a lego on her head and she would tell me its water.

    What concerns me about the lying is that she goes home and tells her mother that this friend scratched her or hit her. Sometimes I am unsure if it’s the truth or not. Most of the time I would tell the parent, “you child didn’t tell me when it happened” or “I’ll talk to the other child in the morning to ask”. It’s gotten to the point where there’s a specific friend she’s always blaming.

    Her parents are also very permissive. They allow her to do whatever she wants. When she throws tantrums and cries. The parents always end up giving her what she wants without a fight. I understand that this is their first child and they don’t want to be too strict, but it’s causing behavior problems at school. The parents make me look like the bad guy when I don’t give her what she wants.

    Sorry for the rant. I just don’t know what to do at this point. I’ve communicated with the parent over and over again what their child is doing, however they just deny that their child could ever be so mean to another child.

    What can I do to stop the exclusion? I’ve tried talking to Andrew and telling him, “if a friend isn’t nice to you, then find another friend that will be nice.” But, he still really wants to play with Ally.

  4. Erica

    My 4 year old son plays with a little girl who’s our neighbor and the same age as him and they play ok most of the time but when her sister who’s a year older is outside playing as well, she and her sister will be playing and will exclude my son most of the time telling him that he can’t play with them and that to get away and even give him dirty looks it’s mostly the older girl though and most of the time will only play with him because he has a toy (or toys) that they want to play with. I am concerned because they have brought my son to tears, what should I do?

  5. Echo Spangler

    My 5 year old little girl and two neighborhood little girls always come play. Mine and one are both 5 the other is 4 and is a little slower many times they fight but my little girl and her friend were mean to the 4 year old. I teach her about thing and she is very good, I never thought she would be so mean. The two were taking pictures and the little one asked for her turn. They said and made it to where the little one couldn’t even sit. I walked in a she was almost crying. How do I teach and also show her how it feels to be mean and let out because she never has been left out or been made to feel how she made the little girl feel.
    Are there any videos that I can watch with her to show and teach what she did was wrong and it makes them sad and feel left out?
    My little girl lives to play with everyone, especially ones who are different. She knows that the little boy in her class with one arm had no friends and made fun of and she knows that she is his friend and when no one plays with him she does. She is not afraid of being made fun of for it, and he is different but that doesn’t matter he is still just a little boy. I’ve taught her that special needs kids are no different than her and even if they use a wheel chair or can’t talk anything she knows if they don’t have a friend or is sad from others being mean she goes and plays or talks no matter what the other kids say. I don’t know why she did it to this little girl , other than the two sisters but they always play side by side no matter what. I don’t know what to do. I’ve never had any problem with her leaving out and being mean too any other child before this.

  6. Jay


    I have a “problem” with my almost 5 year old son. He just started kindergarten in September, before he was full time in daycare. There he made friends and with one he was particularly close (also lives in our building). Both of them happen to go to the same school now and are even in the same class. Both where so happy about that but recently my son is excluding the other boy because he found another friend from Grade 1. This boy tells my son not to sit with his other friend on the bus (all three also take the same bus to school and are in the same after-school-daycare class). My daughter goes to the same school, she’s in grade 2 and she told me that the boy from grade 1 always bosses around my son and tells him what to do and not to do and that my son just does it. I must admit I hate hearing that. Of course I’m happy when he makes more friends and I don’t mind if he has friends which are in higher grades. That can even be beneficial but this grade 1 kid is no good. Often when I pick up my kids from daycare I notice that grade-1-kid is in trouble because of some stuff he did/said.
    Today, when I brought my kids to the bus, grad-1-kid was there too and immediately my son ran towards him, ignoring his “former” friend who lives in our building and is in his class. The bus lady (she makes sure that kids from our building get safely into the bus ^_^ ) came to me and asked me, very nicely, if I could talk to my son and have him sit beside his former friend. He always keeps a spot free for my son but he always goes and sits with grade-1-kid….. Further did the bus-lady tell me that his “former” friend then starts to cry because he wanted to sit with my son. When I heard that it totally broke my hear. I like the boy from our building. He was wild at the beginning but kindergarten calmed him down *haha* Often, when I pick up my kids, I see this boy sitting at the table, by himself, eating his left over snacks he wasn’t abele to eat at school.
    So, this morning I did call to my son and when he came I told him that I would like him to sit beside is other friend (their are actually also bus buddies, arranged like this by the school so no kids sits alone). Then grade-1-kid came and said that HE tells him to sit with HIM and not with the other boy. I was really very upset, he practically admitted that he’s bossing around my son. Since I was so upset I told grade-1-kid (in a mommy like tone LOL) that I want my son to sit with his other friend, that they are bus buddies and it was set like this by the school. Today I will learn from the bus lady if my son and his “former” friend actually sat together.
    I really want my son to be sociable, that’s a great skill, but I would really hat it if he becomes a follower and does what ever he’s been told by other kids, particularly older kids who take advantage of a younger child.
    Any ideas how I could best explain this to an almost 5 year old boy who’s very stubborn and short tempered? LOL

    Thanks in advance.


  7. candy gantt

    My 7 year old is being bullied by another 7 year old if this other 7 year old is not in charge then he doesn’t want to play with him or he will tell another kid if you play with Devon your not my friend. This other kid will show no respect to any person including an adult and if you talk to the parent they just say my kid doesn’t lie even though several parents in the neigborhood has brought it to their attention they just say he feeds of negativity. This kid is contantly trying to get my child in trouble then I found out he is on medicine. He pinches, hits, and calls others name what can I do to protect my child. His parents seem not to notice his bad behavior it’s sad when my child is happy he can’t play with him anymore and some of the other parents are worried about their children as well playing with him. If this child is caught red handed by another adult doing something and we confront the parents they will ask their child if he did it and he will say no and they just say well he said he didn’t do it. How should I handle this I know I don’t want to go off on the parents but I am about to because this child is physically hurting my child I want to call the police, but not sure what they will do to a 7 year old.

  8. Tractari auto Bucuresti

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

  9. 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!

  10. 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.

  11. 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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  15. sonali laschever

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