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Research-Based Practice

Invisible Youth: Understanding Ostracism in Our Schools

By Ashley M. Leja & Eric D. Wesselmann

Jennifer (not her real name) was in kindergarten and acted maybe a bit too impulsively. She ran up to a boy and kissed him. Embarrassed, the boy recoiled and then told his friends. Their response; to spray him with imaginary Jennifer germ repellent. They also told other girls. They joined the boys in perpetuating the Jennifer germ response, spraying anything she touched. If Jennifer drank out of a fountain, the children would spray the fountain before using it; if she got up from her seat in the cafeteria, the next child would spray the seat before sitting down. Within just a few days, none of the children would be caught talking with her including her in their activities. Jennifer was no longer invited to parties, to sleepovers, to recess games. Jennifer was ostracized. Not for a day, a week, or even a month; her classmates ostracized Jennifer until her parents decided to move her to another school…in fifth grade (Williams, 2007).

Few people would contest that school is an important part of children's lives. Children spend an average of 33 hours per week in a school setting; this amount of time is just shy of what adults spend in a full-time job (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2009). Thus, it is likely that schools provide children more than just a venue for academic development, but also for the development of interpersonal skills. Both researchers and educators have recognized the role schools can play in the socialization of today's youth, indicated by the creation of many school-based interventions targeting students' social–emotional development (Greenberg et al., 2003). Indeed, children are almost always in the presence of other students while at school. Many schools offer their students a safe place to interact positively with peers; unfortunately, negative interactions are also possible (and even common) for many students. In a recent study headed by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), approximately 28% of students (ages 12–18 years) reported that they had experienced bullying at school in 2009, with boys reporting more instances of physical bullying and girls reporting more experiences with relational bullying (Robers, Zhang, & Truman, 2012). Victimization can increase students' risk for multiple negative outcomes, including anxiety and depression, poor academic performance, feelings of loneliness, and suicidal ideation (see Smokowski & Kopasz, 2005). Bullying has become a major discussion point among parents, educators, and policy makers on a local, national, and global scale as evidenced by the popularity of the well-received and internationally premiered documentary film Bully (Waitt & Hirsch, 2011).

Relational aggression, a facet of bullying that involves behaviors meant to threaten another's inclusion in a group (e.g., spreading lies about or ignoring the individual), has been studied extensively by researchers in recent years (Murray-Close, Ostrov, & Crick, 2007). Given that this form of aggression targets relationships, it is especially relevant to the school environment where children are constantly interacting with peers. Studies examining girls' values regarding relationships suggest that they may be particularly vulnerable to the sting of relational aggression, as girls are more likely than boys to hold relationship-maintaining goals, desire closeness with others, and worry about abandonment and loneliness (Rose & Rudolph, 2006). Children who engage in relational aggression toward their peers have many weapons in their arsenal, but one form of relational aggression that is extremely harmful yet often underestimated by parents, educators, researchers, and practitioners is ostracism. Indeed, some researchers have argued that ostracism may be more destructive than other types of relational or physical aggression (Saylor et al., 2013).

Ostracism—being ignored and excluded—is a painful experience that can occur in both face-to-face and electronically based (e-based) social interactions (Williams, 2009). There are many reasons why individuals ostracize others, but a common reason is to use ostracism as a form of punishment or a form of relational aggression (Nezlek, Wesselmann, Wheeler, & Williams, 2012; Williams, 2001). Regardless of the reason, ostracism causes immediate emotional distress and psychological need threat (i.e., threats to the needs for belonging, self-esteem, control, and meaningful existence; Williams, 2009). Data from fMRIs suggest that when ostracized, individuals report that their feelings are “hurt” and this language is not just hyperbole. Ostracism activates the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), the same brain region associated with physical pain (Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003; Onoda et al., 2010). Ostracism literally hurts. Part of what makes ostracism so painful is that its negative outcomes are not limited just to the time when it occurred. Simply reliving a past ostracism episode, or even imagining a hypothetical future episode, is enough to induce psychological distress (Chen, Williams, Fitness, & Newton, 2008; Chen & Williams, 2012). In addition, Williams (2001) points out that silence is powerful, leaving ostracized individuals without explanations for its occurrence and defenseless in stopping it. Even bystanders are not immune to this pain; observing the ostracism of another individual can elicit vicarious distress in the observer (Wesselmann, Williams, & Hales, 2013).

Studying Ostracism in Children

Laboratory researchers have studied ostracism in both face-to-face and e-based situations (e.g., Internet chatrooms, text messages, and online computer games), and found similar negative effects (Williams, 2009). The e-based situations are particularly interesting given the significant amount of time school-age youth spend interacting over these media. One particular paradigm—Cyberball—is effective for studying the effects of ostracism in multiple age groups. Cyberball (Williams, 2009) is a simple online interaction in which participants play a basic ball-tossing game with other players whom they believe to be real people. In reality, these other players are computer-controlled and programmed to toss the ball between all players equally (the inclusion condition) or to throw only between each other and ignore/exclude the participant for the majority of the game (the ostracism condition). Even minimal interaction in this brief computer game is sufficient to induce the negative effects of ostracism, and it mimics a situation that many school-age children face on the playground (readers may recall the childhood game of keep-away or monkey-inthe- middle). For these reasons, several researchers have advocated this paradigm as a primary method for studying ostracism in children (Scheithauer, Alsaker, Wölfer, & Ruggieri, 2013). Studies have found that not only does ostracism in Cyberball show the typical need threat and mood effects that occur in adults, but ostracism also seems to adversely affect children's cognitive ability (Abrams, Weich, Thomas, Colbe, & Franklin, 2011; Hawes et al., 2012).

Cyberball is the most common method of studying ostracism in a laboratory setting, and is the method we primarily use in our own labs. Cyberball has been used to study ostracism successfully both within psychology (clinical, cognitive, developmental, educational, industrial/organizational, and social psychology) and other disciplines (neuroscience, medicine, pediatrics, and psychiatry). An estimated 20,000+ participants (ages 5–85 years) have played Cyberball in more than 80 countries, and a continually updated list of publications using Cyberball is kept (http://www1.psych.purdue.edu/~willia55/Announce/Cyberball%20Articles.htm). The newest version of Cyberball recently went “live” online and is available for free download (https://cyberball.wikispaces.com; Williams, Yeager, Cheung, & Choi, 2012). This new version can be run either locally or hosted on a Web server and works on personal computers, iPhones, iPads, and other smartphones and tablets.

Long-term ostracism. Much of the research on ostracism has focused on single episodes in an experimental setting. Unfortunately, some people (whether adults, adolescents, or children) chronically experience ostracism in multiple aspects of their lives. For these individuals, the typical negative consequences of ostracism become even more dangerous: perpetual need threats lead to feelings of alienation (versus belonging), depression (versus self-esteem), learned helplessness (versus control), and worthlessness (versus meaningful existence; Williams, 2009). Individuals who face chronic ostracism may be motivated to harm themselves or others in an effort to receive any form of acknowledgement—even negative attention may be preferable to the social death that ostracism symbolizes (Williams, 2001; Williams & Wesselmann, 2010). Because data suggest that children and adolescents may be impacted more negatively by ostracism than adults, these extreme outcomes may more likely occur among youth than adults. Indeed, a case analysis of 15 post-1995 U.S. school shootings suggests that chronic ostracism was a major contributing factor in 87% of these cases (Leary, Kowalski, Smith, & Phillips, 2003). Taken together, all of this evidence suggests that chronic ostracism should be considered a major concern for school psychologists, educators, and parents.

What Can Practitioners Do?

Given the potential severity of ostracism's negative effects on children's functioning, it is imperative that schools focus on identifying and helping those students experiencing this treatment. Saylor et al. (2013) recently reviewed the literature on ostracism among children and highlighted research findings that may be especially relevant to school psychologists' efforts. With regard to overall bullying, youth with special needs (including developmental disabilities, emotional or behavioral disorders, and medical conditions) are at greater risk for peer victimization than those without special needs. Studies focusing on ostracism per se specifically mirror these trends, with some additional interesting findings. Notably, a recent study comparing the occurrence and effects of ostracism among students with various special needs (e.g., learning disabilities, behavioral disorders, and mental disorders) found that children diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorders were more likely to be ostracized when compared to children with other special needs or those without a diagnosis (Twyman et al., 2010). A small number of qualitative studies have also shed light on the ostracism experiences of students with special needs. Some of these studies have found that teachers, as well as students with disabilities, attribute the occurrence of ostracism to a student's disability. Specifically, teachers have reported the cruel reality of a student's disability being the main reason for their social isolation from other students. Thus, school psychologists are advised to pay special attention to the social treatment (and ostracism in particular) of these students within their schools.

Because ostracism can harm all students, school psychologists may consider using screening measures developed for schoolwide implementation with all students regardless of their academic, social, or developmental needs. One such measure, the Bullying and Ostracism Screening Scale (BOSS; Saylor et al., 2012) is available as a 16- item self-report measure that can be administered to students ages 8–18 years. This scale can provide schools with an indicator of their school climate and students' experiences with social, physical, and cyberbullying, as well as ostracism. For example, responses on the BOSS have been found to correlate with the Bully Victimization Scale (Reynolds, 2003), a common measure of school-related bullying. At the individual level, the BOSS may provide school personnel with insight into a student's specific social experiences. Additionally, educators may consider using the BOSS at the classroom or school-wide level as a needs assessment to highlight patterns of ostracism and bullying that may be occurring among their students; discovering these patterns will help schools address important issues related to climate that affect students and inform decisions about social–emotional learning curricula.

Individual Interventions. Once school psychologists have identified chronically ostracized students, the natural question is how can these students be helped? Basic research on ostracism suggests that there are several avenues to encourage recovery. First, teaching these students to not ruminate on their ostracism (Wesselmann, Ren, Swim, & Williams, 2013) or to positively reframe the way they think about the experience may help (Lau, Moulds, & Richardson, 2009). Students can also be encouraged to remember times when they had positive interactions with others as a means to increase feelings of belonging when social interactions are not readily available (a technique known as social snacking; Gardner, Pickett, & Knowles, 2005). Other research suggests that even positive interactions with pets can facilitate recovery from ostracism (Aydin et al., 2012). For students with a religious or spiritual affiliation, encouraging these students to seek solace in these affiliations may help them deal with ostracism (Aydin, Fischer, & Frey, 2010; Wesselmann & Williams, 2010). In addition, ostracized students may benefit from support groups in which they can discuss their experiences with others who can relate to what they have experienced—even positive social interactions via anonymous online support groups can help people feel less marginalized (McKenna, & Bargh, 1998). The only caveat is that if the students become chronically ostracized in both online and face-to-face environments, this intervention approach may backfire and perpetuate their feelings of resignation and hopelessness. While all of these interventions are supported by research, they do not help to prevent ostracism from occurring in our schools. This harmful behavior flourishes in school environments that allow it, and practitioners' energy should be focused heavily on changing the school climate that supports ostracism (Kärnä, Voeten, Poskiparta, & Salmivalli, 2010).

Institutional interventions School psychologists can, and should, play an integral role in addressing this issue at a school-wide level. Saylor et al. (2013) suggest that school psychologists can offer individual interventions for victims, bullies, and families by offering a safe place to talk about social bullying and ostracism along with providing consultation to school staff on prevention and intervention tactics. School-wide prevention programs may be appropriate for schools that have identified issues with social bullying and ostracism, and many schools already have adopted these types of programs. Information regarding successful implementation of these programs is provided by NASP in A Framework for School-Wide Bullying Prevention and Safety (Rossen & Cowan, 2012).

School psychologists have a unique opportunity and responsibility to address the issue of ostracism in school when working with individuals and, perhaps more importantly, at the level of school climate. It is imperative that the painful consequences of ostracism are not overlooked in favor of combating more visible bullying and physical aggression, as ostracism may be more hurtful. For example, when recalling the ostracism she experienced in high school, one woman reported, “That was a very low point for me in my life and on the 153rd day, I swallowed 29 Valium pills. My brother found me and called an ambulance” (Williams, 2001). This woman's experience with chronic ostracism was painful enough to drive her to attempt suicide. Thus, while it is certainly true that “sticks and stones” can break one’s bones, the lack of words may hurt just as much—if not more.


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Ashley M. Leja is a doctoral student in the school psychology program at Illinois State University. Eric D. Wesselmann, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology at Illinois State University. His research investigates the experience of ostracism and how and why groups ostracize their members. He also conducts research on religion and spirituality, stigma, and social influence.