A new study by neurobehavioural researchers at Rush University Medical Center has found three key factors in a child's behaviour that can lead to social rejection. The results have recently been published in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology.
“Children’s ability to develop positive peer relationships is critical to their well-being,” said Dr. Clark McKown, the study's principal investigator. “Compared to children who are accepted by their peers, socially rejected children are at substantially elevated risk for later adjustment troubles.”
The three factors are:
The inability to pick up on non-verbal or social cues;
The inability to attach meaning to such cues, even if the cues are picked up; and
The inability to reason about social problems and behave accordingly.
Sadly, the press release does not mention the ages of the children in the study. The above factors do seem a lot to expect from, say, a 5 year-old but certainly not from a teenager. However, with some 13% of school age children diagnosed with social-emotional learning difficulties this is a serious problem. Or is it?
If one looks at a classic bell-shaped curve for IQ then it is perfectly natural that the bottom 15% are very different to the top 15% - this is just part of natural variability. If there was an easy way to measure a social-emotional index we may well find a similar variability. This is not to say that those with problems do not need some assistance, just that in a population with variable characteristics it is not so shocking that there are winners and losers, at least in terms of raw abilities rather than any social measure of success.
The researchers hope that such data will lead to fairly simple tests that can pinpoint children at risk and offer help before the problem becomes chronic. I also think that these are precisely the skills that should be nurtured in the home rather than expecting an often chaotic environment such as a school to teach them. Such findings should also help parents in being more sensitive to how their sons and daughters behave.
One other thing strikes me, though: the idea of peers. As adults, we do not see ourselves as part of one huge homogeneous human family. We have all split into various groups based on education, work, background, hobbies and so on. Hopefully, we see others in such groups as peers and our social behaviour largely conforms to that particular group. Some people may even feel uncomfortable stepping outside of their groups. This is not to condone a lack of social graces but to note that being comfortable within one's peer group does not always translate into feeling at ease outside it.
One can see this happening at school too, with groups and cliques forming, sometimes around special interests but also around social clubs - yes, even gangs. Should we expect a child to conform to a group of which they do not want to be members? Before labelling a child with some social-emotional problem I would look very closely as to whether the child is happy to be who they are, and that is the task of the loving parents.