Everyone knows what it feels like not to belong, not to be welcome. Sometimes we feel rejected, left out, or hurt by lost friendships and partner relations. Now scientific literature corroborates that social rejection affects the brain in similar ways that physical pain does. Social rejection really does hurt! This is important information to consider as schools reopen, whether remotely or in person, especially for students who may already feel a lack of belonging or are marginalized.
In an important study scientists used MRIs to watch where subjects’ brains activated when they were reminded of a painful breakup or social rejection. People described the feeling of being socially isolated or rejected as “feeling hurt.” And indeed, the MRIs revealed that the parts of the brain that activate when we feel physical pain are the same areas that activate when we feel left out, socially isolated, or rejected. Merely being excluded from a game caused subjects to react similarly.
We already know that constant physical pain is traumatic, and can cause students to lose focus on learning, engage in behaviors that are often misunderstood, and pull away from relationships. This study indicates that intense social pain and lack of belongingness are similar forms of adversity.
What does this tell us about students who are excluded or left out in school settings due to perceived differences? Researchers tell us that members of marginalized groups—particularly students of color– often question their value in mainstream settings and feel as if they don’t belong, especially in settings in which they have historically experienced discrimination. Social rejection or isolation is a systemic problem for students who may feel left out or that they do not belong due to their race, disability, gender identity, culture of origin, ELL status or sexual orientation. This study begs the question: Does this mean their pain centers are constantly activated?
As students return to school, this study and an understanding of the impact of trauma on learning, behavior and relationships should cause us to prioritize first and foremost re-connecting with students who may have been feeling disconnected from their teachers and their caring school communities. Whether students return in person or begin to work remotely we must make sure each and every student feels a sense of belonging!
We must redouble our work to ensure that all students, including those who feel different, are genuinely included by students and educators. It gives us even more reason to create trauma sensitive schools where everyone, staff and students, feel safe, welcomed, and connected to warm relationships in a caring community.