What Happens When Kids Are Left Out of School?

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It’s not unusual for young people to be left out of friend groups at school. Social exclusion is sadly common among children and adolescents, from occasional ignorance to persistent bullying.

However, this doesn’t mean that social exclusion isn’t harmful. Social exclusion and peer rejection can have serious consequences for young people’s mental health, leading to emotional and behavioural problems and low self-esteem. Social exclusion that is based on prejudice or bias is particularly damaging.

This blog offers some information on the causes and effects of social exclusion, especially for young people in international schools. It also provides advice for parents on speaking to young people about their experiences and how schools can intervene to prevent and protect children and adolescents from harm.

Understanding Social Exclusion in International Schools

Social exclusion can happen to anyone, regardless of their individual characteristics. But it’s more likely to happen to certain groups of people. For example, social exclusion may be based on:

  • socioeconomic status
  • personality traits such as being shy or withdrawn
  • gender
  • nationality

In international schools, some types of social exclusion may be more common than in other places because of the unique mix of young people living in a country other than their country of birth.

Sometimes social exclusion is based on a young person’s ethnicity, culture, or other parts of their identity. Prejudice and discrimination are serious no matter how young a person is and require an immediate response.

Other times, social exclusion may happen because a young person has just moved into the school or acts and behaves differently from other young people. This is common among young people who move from one society to another and have to adjust to new social norms and practices.

Is Social Exclusion a Type of Bullying?

Social exclusion can cause young people serious harm, no matter what form it takes. But to be considered bullying, patterns of social exclusion need to have certain characteristics.

Social exclusion may be considered bullying when:

  • there is a power imbalance between the people who exclude others and those excluded
  • it happens repeatedly

However, social exclusion that isn’t considered bullying can still seriously damage a young person’s mental health, causing a range of symptoms including depression and aggression. This means that any young person who is being excluded requires support from parents, teachers, mental health professionals, and/or others.

Interpersonal Rejection and Intergroup Exclusion

Experts often describe social exclusion and rejection using two categories: interpersonal rejection and intergroup exclusion.

Interpersonal Rejection

Young people who experience interpersonal rejection are rejected or excluded because of their personal characteristics and behaviours. For example, they may be left out because they are shy, withdrawn, or anxious. Exclusion can also be caused by aggressive or harmful behaviours towards others.

Young people who have fewer social skills are also more likely to be excluded. This can cause a harmful cycle where exclusion prevents young people from developing social skills and increases shyness and anxiety, leading to further exclusion.

Interpersonal rejection is also linked to bully-targets – young people who both bully and are targeted by bullying. Bully-targets may be excluded and rejected because of harmful, aggressive, or violent behaviours. This exclusion can cause more harmful behaviours, leading to more exclusion, and so on.

Intergroup Exclusion

Intergroup exclusion happens when children or adolescents are rejected from social groups because of their gender, religion, culture, ethnicity, sexuality, language, or other parts of their identity.

Research shows that young people tend to identify with groups through gender, ethnicity, and language from early childhood and seek to reinforce their group identity. This can lead to the inclusion of young people who belong to the same group and the exclusion of those who don’t. 

Intergroup exclusion is often rooted in prejudice. This means that young people are left out because others discriminate against them because of their group identity. Research shows that the harm caused by prejudice-based exclusion is even greater than other forms of exclusion. It’s linked to higher levels of substance abuse, risky behaviours, and mental health concerns like depression.

What Are the Consequences of Social Exclusion for Young People’s Mental Health?

Social exclusion can have serious consequences for many aspects of a young person’s health and well-being. Research shows that social exclusion is associated with emotional and behavioural health problems, academic difficulties, and low self-esteem.

According to one study, around 35% of students may have experienced social rejection. Those who experienced social rejection were more likely to have symptoms of depression, PTSD, and social avoidance. Other research has found that among adolescent girls, peer rejection is also linked to physical health problems.

A research paper exploring the connection between peer rejection and mental health problems including depressive symptoms and substance abuse found that young people with higher self-esteem may be less likely to experience mental health problems as a result of peer rejection. This means that supporting young people to develop and maintain high self-esteem may be an important step in protecting against the impact of social exclusion.

What Can Schools Do to Prevent and Reduce Social Exclusion?

Social exclusion and peer rejection are often based on discrimination and group membership. This means that effective interventions should focus on creating inclusive environments in schools that encourage equal treatment of others, teach young people to see things from other perspectives and take a no-tolerance approach to prejudice and bias.

Schools may support young people from different groups to interact and work together positively, through equal status, collaboration, and common goals. Research shows that these kinds of interventions effectively reduce prejudice and foster positive attitudes between young people from different backgrounds.

Social exclusion may also be prevented by bullying-prevention programs that address patterns of targeting, rejection, exclusion and other types of bullying. These programs use a variety of methods and strategies, such as communication with parents, supervision during break times, and collective responses to bullying. Interventions that raise awareness about bullying, including apps, videos, and games, can also be effective.

How Can Parents Support Young People Who Are Left Out at School?

Learning that a child is being left out at school is psychologically difficult for any parent. At the same time, parents are often among the best-placed people to give their child support that is both caring and empowering.

Offering effective support sometimes requires thought and planning – and not always following your first instincts. If a young person shares with you that they are being excluded from school, it’s important to respond in an appropriate way.

When speaking to a young person who is being left out, try to:

  • validate their emotions
  • give them time and space to talk
  • if they are reluctant to share more, revisit the topic later and let them know you are there to speak with them when they are ready
  • avoid offering ideas of quick and immediate solutions but try to work through their challenges together

Explain that Social Exclusion Is Common Among Young People

Many young people experience feelings of shame or isolation when they are left out at school. Explaining that social exclusion is common can help young people maintain self-esteem and understand that what’s happening isn’t their fault.

It can also help to explain some of the reasons that exclusion happens – such as prejudice and bias – and emphasise that these are the root of the problem, rather than their own identity or character.

Share Specific Coping Skills

You can also share specific skills with your child to help them manage and respond to social exclusion. To begin with, it’s good to ask them how they would like to react to the situation and what tools they think they could use. You could ask them simply, “What would you like to do next time it happens?”

Support your child to identify their positive qualities, especially those that they have agency over. For example, you could remind them that they are a very caring person, thoughtful, or make others laugh.

You could also talk about skills that may help them feel more confident when playing and socialising with others. This might include showing interest in what others are doing or being flexible about how they want to spend their time.

Sometimes, it can help for a young person to meet others who share similar interests and where they may find it more natural to spend time with peers. Extra-curricular activities can be a useful tool for identifying other young people who enjoy similar hobbies or share life perspectives.

Speak With the School

If your child is persistently being excluded or you notice prejudice, discrimination, or other patterns of bullying or victimisation, you should speak with the school. Many schools have an anti-bullying policy with an appointed member of staff as a contact point. You could also reach out to a teacher or pastoral support staff member.

The school should draw up a plan about how they will respond to and deal with the issue. The school should follow up with you about their progress and how the issue is being resolved.

The Wave Clinic: Making a Difference in the Lives of Young People

The Wave Clinic is a residential treatment space in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Our programs are dedicated to young people’s mental health, specialising in eating disorders, trauma, and borderline personality disorder.

We believe mental health support involves a whole-person approach that combines clinical care with education, enriching experiences, and social responsibility. We work with young people to continue their learning, take new qualifications, explore life paths, and find their place in the world.

If you’re interested in our programs, contact us today to find out more. We’re here to make a difference.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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