Social Stress at School Has a Negative Effect on the Brain Development of School Pupils
Social exclusion among classmates has damaging and long-term effects on the development of a child. It affects the structural development of the grey matter in the left anterior insula (part of the cerebral cortex) of school pupils. This is one of the most significant findings in a study that approaches the question as to how much the perception of belonging and social exclusion at school is related to the structural development of adolescents’ brain. The study was published in the international journal ‘Child Development’ (http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13613).
Previously, only few longitudinal studies have examined the relationship between social stress factors (e.g. peer victimisation) and the structural development of adolescents’ brains. Structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data and analyses can be used to deliver important findings on how social factors affect brain development. Several functional brain development studies have already shown that school belonging and social exclusion are related to brain activity in the areas of the so-called social brain, which is linked to the navigation of complex social environments and makes it easier to interact and cooperate with others. Together with colleagues from Charité Berlin https://www.charite.de/en, educational scientists and neuroscientists from the University of Greifswald examined data from brain scans and questionnaires from 71 secondary school children.
The researchers have managed to identify specific regions of the social brain. These are relevant for social acceptance and exclusion. The findings were combined with data from accompanying questionnaires. More specifically, the work analysed the influence of belonging and social exclusion at school, taking into account the stage of puberty and related changes in various regions of the brain. Results showed a connection between social exclusion (and non-belongingness) and the volume of grey matter in the left anterior insula.
From the middle of Year 9 to the middle of Year 10, the reduction of grey matter diminished, the more the school pupils experienced social exclusion. Normal brain development in adolescents is characterised by a reduction of grey matter and thinning of the brain cortex, which makes the brain function more efficiently. These results suggest that unfavourable social factors can impair the development of the brain and underline the significance of an integrative school climate that is characterised by high quality relationships and a low level of social exclusion.
In summary, the current study shows that social exclusion at school affects the structural development of the grey matter in the left anterior insula of school pupils. Teachers and teaching assistants should be aware that social exclusion in the classroom has damaging and long-term effects on the development of a child. It can influence the maturing of the social brain in such a way that it impairs a school pupil’s interaction and cooperation with others. This study therefore contributes towards our understanding of the maturing of the brain in terms of its social functions. It delivers information on how it is possible to support the development of the social brain and, as a result, how to foster social competency at school.
The study was financed by a grant of 800,000 euros from the Volkswagen Foundation as part of the research project SELF (Socio-Emotional Learning Factors) http://www.self-projekt.de/?lang=en, led by Diana Raufelder.
The study was published in the prestigious international journal Child Development:
For more information about the study, please contact Prof. Dr. Dr. Diana Raufelder.
Contact at the University of Greifswald:
Prof. Dr. Dr. Diana Raufelder
Department of Educational Science
Chair of School Pedagogy
Ernst-Lohmeyer-Platz 3, 17489 Greifswald
Tel.: +49 3834 420 3710