It's easy to see how third grade spells new social challenges: smack-dab in the middle of elementary school, third graders are eager to be bigger, older, and cooler than can be. For this reason, third grade is the time when the social attitudes that will characterize the years to come, are defined. Whether it's games, clothes, or groups, third grade is when some kids begin to be “in,” while others are “out.”

According to experienced elementary school counselor Mary Pat McCartney, third grade is the time when social relationships become exclusive. “You can really start to see the development of some cliques,” says McCartney, and exclusion begins to become a social practice. “Kids are more in charge of organizing social activities and picking teams, and you start to see students being left out.”

Chief among a third grader's concerns is the desire to fit in. Children who are “different” - whether this means wearing outdated clothing, keeping to themselves, or generally being reluctant to conform to the group – are more likely to be excluded from social activities and groups of friends. For this reason, third graders begin to strive toward social conformity. “You don't want to be perceived as different because you might be left out,” says McCartney.

Fortunately, parents can help to ease third grade troubles by modeling sympathetic, inclusive social interactions. Although it may be hard for children to understand how others might be feeling, help them by asking how they would feel if they weren't invited to play a game or attend a birthday party. Be sure to show concern and support for others while at home: kids will pick up on angry or dismissive behavior, and take it straight back to the playground.

Don't be afraid to ask your child's teacher or school counselor how your child is doing socially. He or she will have a wealth of information and advice to share with you. Third grade is a pivotal moment: it marks the time when children are simultaneously becoming individuals and striving to remain part of the group. And because this struggle may last until high school and beyond, the social skills your child develops early on will smooth the way for years to come.