My 5-year-old daughter, Belinda, is very shy. She gets nervous in social settings, such as church trips and the playground. Last year, she was in a fairly structured half-day pre-kindergarten, but she is still standoffish socially. Every night since school started, she says going to the lunchroom upsets her tummy. I feel so bad for her. Should I talk with her teacher? Do you think she has a learning disability?
Definitely talk with her teacher and the school counselor. There’s nothing in your e-mail to suggest that Belinda has a learning disability. She sounds like an introverted kindergartener who needs practice in developing the social skills that lead to friendships. Here are some strategies to help her work out her anxieties.
“It is not uncommon for young children to dislike or avoid unstructured settings,” says Diane Stephenson-Moe, a counselor at Jeffers Hill Elementary School, Columbia, Md.
The first thing to rule out is bullying by peers, says Stephenson-Moe, which unfortunately can occur even in kindergarten. “Is she the target of any teasing or threats? This often causes children to hesitate to engage in social situations. If so, enlist the assistance of teachers and administration to resolve the problem.”
If bullying is not the issue, then teach Belinda how to interact with other children. “We often assume that kids just know how to socialize, but it is a learned skill,” says Stephenson-Moe. “It’s a patient process of building her confidence.”
Stephenson-Moe suggests the following:
– First, explicitly teach Belinda social skills through modeling: how to initiate and maintain conversations with children and adults, extend an invitation to play, join children already at play and read body language. Enlist the teacher’s help so you can reinforce each other’s work and praise Belinda’s successes. “These skills are key not only in making new friends, but also in getting along with people in general,” says Stephenson-Moe and most early childhood educators are trained to teach them, so its likely her teacher can show you how if you’re unsure.
– Second, prepare Belinda for events she will encounter to build her confidence. Take the cafeteria, for example. Kindergarteners often get nervous because it’s noisy, or they don’t know the kids they’re sitting with, or they are unaccustomed to making quick food choices (”pizza or chicken nuggets?”) in the lunch line. When you patiently prepare Belinda for these situations and choices, she may get more comfortable.
Third, involve Belinda in extra-curricular activities that will develop her interests as well as friends. “Sports, dance, theater, Girl Scouts — these would allow her to enjoy structured activities and interact with children who share a common interest,” notes Stephenson-Moe.
Fourth, ask her teacher to let you know when Belinda makes social progress, such as volunteering an answer in class, joining a team or developing a new friend so you can provide positive feedback. This lets Belinda know you’re cheering her on, and it also lets the teacher know that you want to work with her.
Don’t hover over Belinda or answer questions for her, advises Stephenson-Moe. “The last thing shy kids need is to think that they aren’t capable of thinking or speaking for themselves. They will, in time.”
Shyness doesn’t go away overnight and some children will always be a little more reserved than others. But with modeling, patient preparation, coaching, and positive feedback, Belinda will grow socially and gain friends. The year is young and so is she!