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.
Reading, and Writing and ... Social Utopia?
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.
Stemming Social Ladders Internationally
"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.
"It was a bunch of teachers saying these problems get too big for us to handle by the time kids get older," O'Brien said. "We'd be much smarter to give children the emotional tools to start out in school in the first place.
"We don't think of these things as an intelligence, we think of them as skills that can be taught."
As Holden guessed, the social hierarchy does start at a very young age and, as she hoped, there might be something she and the children's teachers can do about it.
"As a parent, you want to work on both ends of it," Holden said. "You don' want them to be a mean person, but you don't want them to be a victim of a mean person."
What Parents and Teachers Can Do About Social Ladders
Elias said some researchers have shown that children do have a natural temperament that might lead them to exclude or be excluded. But these temperaments are like a "factory preset"
"Kids will try on different behavior, their temperament can lead them to start somewhere," Elias said. "Some kids can start out by being shy, some kids can start out by being very directive and bossy."
Teachers Impact the Cliques in a School
Depending on how on how far the behavior gets them, the child might adjust the degree of their natural temperament, Elias said.
"The most powerful factor in that is the environment," said Elias.
Parents and teachers needn't make children play with everyone, but social learning experts say that not tolerating emotionally aggressive behavior in the same way of enforcing a rule of "no hitting" can go a long way. So, too, can encouraging children to recognize similarities in their classmates.
"Even when we see these longitudinal studies that kids retain these attributes over time, but we don't know what the adults did during that time," Elias said.
Since the mid-1990s, groups like CASEL and others have done intensive studies about which social interventions work. Even something in kindergarten as simple as the seminal book "You Can't Say You Can't Play," by Vivian Gussin Paley, can have a lasting effect in students.
But despite the reports of classrooms with happier, more congenial children, researchers like Elias and people at CASEL weren't universally sought after by schools.
Why Care About the Social Ladder Anyway?
"We had parents say, 'In our neighborhood, if you teach my kids this, they're going to be sliced and diced on the street.' This is not the way we live," O'Brien said.
"It is a question as to whether the little lambs from these schools are brought to slaughter later," O'Brien added. "But more it's administrators fearing that this was not the role of the school."
Even in more touchy-feely districts, O'Brien said, many administrators balked at trying to spend money on programs for empathy and emotional learning when the district needed to compete in academic arenas.
That is, until more studies showed a link between the emotional learning programs and higher performance in academics.
O'Brien and her colleagues met Friday with representatives of the U.S. Department of Education in talks about incorporating standards in the federal levels for emotional learning programs.
"They have a profound impact on their behaviors, it affects academic achievement and standardized test scores," O'Brien said. "Once the academic link was established, it really became a point of entree."