Lori Holden, 46, of Denver, Colo., remembered fourth-grade as the year she was forever labeled a "nerd, or a dork, or pick the pejorative of your choice." It was a label that stuck until college.
At 46, now with a successful life, Holden said she is perfectly fine with her nerdy identity. But after watching her two young children play with others, she took pause.
"It is doing things like telling another child, 'Don't play with that yet, you can't play with that,' and then turning to another child and saying, 'Just you and I will play together,'" Holden said.
"I watch my children with their peers and wonder if I am seeing the early stages of their social-ladder construction," she said.
"I can see this happening at age 4 and 5."
Holden has it right, according to Maurice Elias, professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey and the author of "Emotionally Intelligent Parenting."
"It is true that it's a natural tendency in kids to form groups and have in-groups and out-groups, and you can see that in very young children," Elias said.
A small group of children in preschool might isolate one child. By fourth-grade, Elias said, children become more sophisticated at creating lasting labels for entire groups.
"But age 4 to 5 is when you really want to start to think about this, in my opinion," he said.
Long-term studies show once children get labeled in a group, clique or ladder on the social rung, that status tends to stick all the way through the high school years, Elias said.
"It may be an impulse, but there's no reason why all children, including children that are a little different, can't play together," he said. "The reason we were given frontal lobes is so that we would modify these sorts of instinctual tendencies."
Elias said researchers have learned the drive to exclude can be molded and controlled by teachers so that no strict mini-caste system or pervasive pecking order rules the school.
Elias is part of a burgeoning movement to teach empathy and "emotional learning" in schools across the United States. In 2003, Illinois passed the Illinois Children's Mental Health Act to require emotional learning in schools. Similar legislation was passed in New York State in 2006. Some groups estimate that 10 percent of all U.S. schools now use some kind of evidence-based, emotional learning program.
By 2007, governments in Spain and Malaysia adopted programs for emotional learning.
"In Singapore, it's now been standardized as part of the curriculum there," said Mary Utne O'Brien, vice president of strategic initiatives for the non-profit Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL).
"The international community in Singapore said 'our students are technically brilliant here, they always win national science awards, but they aren't creatively solving problems'," said O'Brien, who is also a professor of education and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
With slipping international rankings in math and science test scores, the United States seems to have the opposite problem.
O'Brien said educators on American soil dealing with behavioral problems were moved to try the emotional learning program.