Playground politics: Why do some kids get rejected?

Rejection is part of daily life - and it starts early. Many of us can remember sitting in a classroom feeling like we had been left out by classmates. Yet that may be just a feeling. Many kids regarded as popular believe they were rejected. Some children clearly are, they suffer widespread rejection at school and this can this can have a long-term effect. Or the effect was the cause of the rejection.

How to know? In an effort to reduce negative relationships, some psychological studies focus on the behavior of the disliked child, asking, 'What did they do to warrant rejection?'  Basically, are they 'strange' to other kids? Less often is it wondered if rejection makes them act in odd ways. And what about the instance of when an aggressive child other kids like might sometimes be popular classmate.

A new paper asked children doing the rejecting, the 'rejecters', for the reasons they disliked certain children. The study revealed the act of rejection is complex - the behavior of the rejected child is only partly, or not at all, to blame. Of course, this has confounders, the same way asking a mugger why they commit a crime has confounders. Then turn the mugger into a child. 

Francisco Juan García Bacete, a Professor in the Department of Developmental, Educational and Social Psychology and Methodology, at the Jaume I University, Spain and colleagues interviewed hundreds of 5- to 7-year olds and asked them to describe who, in their class, they liked least and why. The researchers were left with a long list of reasons, such as "I don't like playing football", "He's boring", "He's new", and "She cheats", to sort through to find common themes. To do this, they used a method with the proper name 'Grounded Theory' even though it may not really even he a hypothesis yet.

"Grounded Theory starts from the reasons provided by the children and, by constantly comparing them, categories emerge that explain differences between the motives for rejection," according to Garcia Bacete. "Most of the reasons could be grouped under what the rejected child does, says or tries, such as aggression, dominance, problematic social and school behaviors, and disturbance of wellbeing. However, we also noticed that these reasons came with context - specifically, which classmates or groups were involved in the rejection and the frequency it happened."

It became clear they had discovered that rejection does not appear to be the direct result of the behavior of the disliked child, but whether the rejecters saw this behavior as harmful to the needs of themselves or their friends.

The Grounded Theory method also revealed two new categories of reasons that do not usually appear in traditional rejection studies - preference and unfamiliarity. Garcia Bacete explains, "Preference highlights the power of particular likes and dislikes in that it strengthens personal identities. Sometimes it manifests in a negative context, for example, when prejudices are shared, which reinforces the feeling of belonging to a group. Reasons governed by unfamiliarity highlight our tendency towards choosing and doing what has already been preferred and done, or the fear and mistrust to what is unknown or unfamiliar."

The authors hope this study will provide a solid framework for developing programs to tackle rejection.