Mark Breary, a headmaster in the UK, recently sent a letter to parents asking them to invite the whole class whenever their child was having a birthday party.
The headmaster’s goal is commendable, and inclusion for all school children is a process that every teacher should strive to achieve.
But while exclusion can have negative psychological effects, instructing parents to invite every child in the class could have potential problems too.
You’re in or you’re out
Inter-group relations and the development of the “us” and “them” phenomenon in groups were famously investigated by British social psychologist Henri Tajfel.
Tajfel showed through a number of studies that individuals would form groups and develop a bias towards those in the group based on minimal reasons. An “out-group prejudice” – a bias against those outside of the group – was also easily formed by in-group members.
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence for this, particularly from teachers. Students will quickly form friendship groups and dismiss anyone not a part of it.
Favouring those closest to us and caring less for strangers or outsiders has an evolutionary explanation and it’s not limited to children. Adults form similar bonds and in-group biases.
Ask your average football supporter or music fan what they think of another team or music group outside of their favourite genre and you’ll quickly see this phenomenon at work.
Making things worse
Imagine what would happen if the letter actually did force parents to invite all the children in a class to a party. It is likely that there will still be certain children who are aware they are the “forced” invitees – a feeling that could be as damaging as not being invited in the first place.
Labels can have a strong and pervasive influence on a person, leading to them living up to their label. Psychologists call this a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. Issues like ostracism could be exacerbated if the underlying causes are not addressed.
If an individual is being ostracised, then forcing them to socialise with the perpetrators outside of school has the potential to increase the experience of this feeling.
A noble goal and better ways
In trying to overcome this problem, the school’s headmaster is trying to do the right thing. However, the psychological processes that lead to this bias are unlikely to be overcome by his simple inclusive invitation policy.
But if this policy wouldn’t work, what would? Another famous psychologist, Muzafer Sherif, investigated this with groups of school children at a summer camp. Through a series of tasks, Sherif showed how inter-group conflict could arise through in-groups blaming out-groups for failures.
This process happens in the classroom, too. If sub-groups form, they can blame other members of the class when things don’t go their way.
An important outcome of Sherif’s research, however, was how he overcame the conflict between groups. More than simply making sure children invited each other into their groups, Sherif noted that conflict between groups reduced when teamwork was required to attain a mutually agreed-upon, desired goal.
Furthermore, successful attainment of the goal helped to cement the group bond – even between those who had previously been in-group/out-group members.
Along with team building, there are other of good ways to build inclusive groups. For example, one of the most harrowing memories for most adults is being picked last for a sports team (a process that makes those who are last feel ostracised and unwanted). This can be overcome by a numbers-based allocation system. This way, no-one is left feeling unwanted and the allocation remains impartial.
The group dyanmic
Inclusive invites have the potential to increase exposure between children, perhaps allowing them to find mutual likes and integrate into a collective harmonious group.
But there is a sizable concern that simply inviting all students will not be enough, and may result in children opposing the pressure to do so, making it clear when invites are not truly meant to be there. This may take more dismissive or confrontational forms than simply not handing out an invite to begin with.
Overcoming ostracism is a big issue for schools, teachers and students alike, and novel ideas in this area are welcome. But these need to be considered carefully. Even with the best intentions, things can easily be made worse.