Human beings are born dependent. In order for a baby to survive and thrive, it needs the constant support of other humans. Yet, as we grow, we do not gradually become independent of others; rather, we become interdependent. In the course of our lives we form many give-and-take relationships, building a healthy interdependence with family, community, and culture. Humans are so adept at this because we are biologically designed to live, play, grow, and work in groups. We are, at our cores, social creatures. Affiliation is the strength that allows us to join with others to create something stronger, more adaptive, and more creative than any individual: the group.
It Starts With the Family
A family is a child's first and most important group, held together by strong emotional bonds. Yet infants are indirectly connected to other groups; they are born as a part of a larger culture and community. As they grow, children will encounter and take part in many groups outside the immediate family-during school, at a neighbor's house, on a sports team, and so on. As a part of these groups, a child will have thousands of brief emotional, social, and cognitive encounters that help define his or her development. The capacity to join in, contribute to, and benefit from these various groups is essential to healthy development.
However inclined they are to group activities and behavior, humans must learn how to interact successfully within a group. We must learn how to communicate, listen, negotiate, compromise, and share with many diverse people in many situations. These social skills are not always easy to master.
The Rules of Play
From the primary relationships with adults-parents and caregivers-the child learns basic rules of social interaction. Group relationships, however, are more complex and dynamic than one-on-one relationships. For one, the first social rules a child learns are influenced by the child's dependence on the adult, and the adult's inherent size, strength, and power. None of these factors are present when a young child first starts to interact with other young children. In fact, young children are often more adept at affiliating with adults than with peers.
As children play together, they begin to learn and formulate their own social rules. Children with siblings have a head start in this process, as do children who have been involved in day care or play groups before beginning school. Children learn to join in with other children gradually. First, they observe what other children are doing. They often play in parallel, working side by side with others. Children then begin to explore dyadic, or one-on-one, interactions. They play together, pooling their strengths to build a tower out of blocks, for instance, or share imaginary characters and stories. Finally, children negotiate the transition to more complex, multipeer groups.
Best Friends and Enemies
Learning and mastering the rules of groups are very important yet difficult processes for many children. "Best friends" emerge. Temporary alliances form and may exclude one child and then later incorporate him or her. Being "in" or "out" can shift from hour to hour and day to day.
Some children manage this process well. Others do not; these tend to be children with immature attachment or self-regulation skills. A child's acceptance into a group depends heavily on his or her capacity to regulate anxiety, impulsive behavior, and frustration. Without these prerequisite strengths, a child will have difficulty forming and regulating the relationships with others that are necessary to develop affiliation skills. Group members will likely reject a child who is impulsive or disengaged. Unfortunately, this creates a negative cycle-having fewer opportunities to socialize leads to slower social learning. These children become more isolated from their peers. They perform poorly in group interactions and avoid opportunities to be with others.
Over time, the excluded child can take this pain and turn it inward, becoming sad or self-loathing. Or the pain can be directed outward, leading to aggression or even violence. Later, without intervention, these individuals are more likely to seek out other marginalized individuals and affiliate with them. Unfortunately, the glue that holds these groups together can be self-destructive or hateful beliefs.
Teachers Can Help
Teachers can intervene to stop this cycle from progressing. Structured and regulated group interactions, such as those found in school, give children essential practice in experiences that they might avoid if left to their own devices. Picking a partner for paired-reading sessions, playing a two-person computer game, or creating a group-science project provide opportunities to wait, share, take turns, cooperate, and communicate with others. The games and tasks can increase in complexity as the child grows and builds skills.
A teacher can help a socially isolated child by building on the prerequisite skills he or she will need to succeed in a group. (See box, below.) First, observe the child to discover if he or she seems to do better in smaller groups or in one-on-one situations. If the child seems to have trouble being part of a group, try initially pairing the child with a reliable peer in a safe setting to build self-confidence and trust. Once the child has experienced success in a one-on-one setting, he or she will be more inclined toward group interaction-especially if the supportive peer is still by his or her side. The teacher can work to introduce the child into increasingly larger groups, making sure to give the child a group role in which he or she can prevail. For example, if a child is particularly good at math, make the child the "banker" in a group project to raise money for school supplies; if a child has artistic talent, give him or her opportunities to share and display artwork. Once other children observe the strengths this child can offer a group, they might be more likely to seek out him or her.
Of course, there is only so much an adult can do to promote friendships among children. Urging the class to make friends with a reticent child may backfire, making the child you are trying to help feel singled out. It's better to simply provide frequent opportunities for the child to work with other children without drawing attention to your goals. One thing you can do, however, is to step in immediately to prevent bullying, exclusionary behavior, and cruelty. If you work to provide all your students with a safe environment, they will be more likely to thrive in group settings.
Adapted from the the article, "Belonging to the Group," which originally appeared in the January/February 2002 edition of Instructor magazine.
Dr. Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., is an internationally recognized authority on brain development and children in crisis. Dr. Perry leads the ChildTrauma Academy, a pioneering center providing service, research and training in the area of child maltreatment (www.ChildTrauma.org). In addition he is the Medical Director for Provincial Programs in Children's Mental Health for Alberta, Canada. Dr. Perry served as consultant on many high-profile incidents involving traumatized children, including the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado; the Oklahoma City Bombing; and the Branch Davidian siege. His clinical research and practice focuses on traumatized children-examining the long-term effects of trauma in children, adolescents and adults. Dr. Perry's work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain. The author of more than 200 journal articles, book chapters, and scientific proceedings and is the recipient of a variety of professional awards.