Excluding a child from a group is a form of social bullying, no different than scape-goating or public humiliation. While many people may be quick to chalk it up to "kids will be kids," the effects of this type of behavior aren't so innocent. In fact, according to a study in the Journal of Educational Psychology, youngsters who are excluded by their peers suffer both emotionally and academically.
Watch the youngsters the next time they get together to play. Whether it's your kiddo doing the excluding or the one being excluded, you want to gather the facts before your proceed. As you watch, pay careful attention to exactly what takes place. Does the entire group shun an individual or is there a "ring leader" encouraging the other youngsters to exclude a child?
Talk to all the youngsters together if you have the opportunity. If the kids in your playgroup are leaving a child out during playtime, talk to the group at the beginning of your next get-together. If the exclusions are taking place at preschool or daycare, address the issue with the teachers or care providers. They will be able to incorporate anti-bullying and respect teaching into class time to neutralize the situation.
Pick up a storybook about respect and anti-bullying to read to the group. At this age, youngsters likely do not realize that their actions are hurting another child. They may think it's funny to run off and hide from him if this elicits a positive reaction from the rest of the group. It's more than likely though that they just aren't aware of the consequences of their actions. Stories use examples to bring problems out in the light and provide a better understanding of what's taking place. When the youngsters see Tommy crying in the storybook and they hear that the character is crying because he's been excluded and left alone, sometimes it just suddenly clicks.
Reinforce the message with some role playing. Help your youngsters take turns being the child who is excluded. Preschool-age children have a tough time with empathy -- that's why they have no problem asking if the overweight woman is pregnant while you're standing in the checkout line.
Have all the children work together on an art activity or divide them into different little groups for a variety of different arts and crafts. To help reinforce empathy, have the youngsters draw pictures of what they think it feels like to be excluded. Create a group painting of all the kids working or playing happily together.
Hang the empathy pictures and the group picture up for everyone to see and for a constant reminder of the importance of respect and playing together nicely.