Temperament and Parenting

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Shyness & Temperament ONE PARENT'S STORY: How We Helped Our Very Shy Child Adapt to Preschool


We have a daughter who was very, very shy as a preschooler. Anna (not her real name) was a very sensitive baby who seemed to take years to sleep through the night. By the time she was 3 (and technically ready for preschool) she was starting to avoid social contact with anyone new. We were advised not to be pushy by some. Others said: "She has to learn and the only way she can is by being put in new situations". Both kinds of advice seemed right -- our problem was how to find a good compromise.

The local preschool did allow parents to help their children get used to the program gradually, but we knew that even gradual entry would overwhelm Anna. But keeping her back a year wouldn't solve anything, either, as she would not have any opportunities to get used to peers and teachers.

So we looked around and discovered that the local community center had a painting class that accepted children aged three to five, the ages of our two daughters, Anna, and her older sister. It was two afternoons a week and fitted with her older daughter's kindergarten schedule. We met with a teacher and explained our situation. To our relief, she knew about shy or "slow-to-warm-up" children because she had one! She agreed to do her best health to help Anna fit in.

Anna I didn't seem to mind at all being left at school with her sister. She went very quiet and sat very close to Jenny all the time. But she stayed and she painted and, by the end of the two-month program, she even answered the teacher's questions. So we signed for girls up for the next session, with the same teacher.

This time there were new children to get used to and Anna was fine.

Then the fall came and Anna could no longer go to programs with Jenny, as Jenny was at school all day. But she seemed happy when I told her she would be going to the same preschool that Jenny went to. We were lucky, again. Jenny's old preschool teacher remembered Anna, who had been a toddler in a stroller when we picked Jenny up. The teacher immediately bonded with her as she had really liked Jenny. Anna could sense that she would be safe with this teacher and she entered the program very happily.

We were not surprised to learn, although Anna rushed eagerly into preschool when we dropped her off, during the program she stood on the sidelines watching. The teacher didn't want to push her to participate, but we didn't want Anna to learn that being a loner was the best way to get attention. So we asked the teacher if Anna ever talked to any of the other children and to let us know which children. The teacher indicated that Anna and another girl often played near each other and occasionally chatted. So we waited for the other child's parents to turn up one day and promptly introduced ourselves and invited them over for coffee.

The next thing we knew, Anna had a friend to go to preschool with. What a difference it made! But still Anna's social skills did not seem seem to spread beyond that relationship. By the end of the year, we have enough concerns to enroll Anna in the special needs integrated preschool.

We had many opportunities to observe Anna in the school which had see-through mirrors. She seemed perfectly happy but just didn't socialize! The teachers were much more concerned with the atypical children, however. Normal Anna was left her own devices. But in this setting, for the atypical children seem more normal socially, and Anna looked autistic. We were worried enough to call in the health department psychologist. He was concerned enough to do an immediate psychological assessment.

We learned that Anna was definitely not autistic. Her shyness was related to her temperament and her extreme sensitivity to stress. We were told not to allow her to avoid social situations but to help her learn ways to socialize. We thought we had been doing this, but the psychologist pointed out that, and unless the adults in the situation know how to coach children in social skills, the children will not necessarily just pick them up. He said that not all teachers have been trained to do this, not even special-needs teachers, to our surprise.

I returned to the integrated preschool and asked if I could participate in the program. They welcome to me, and I had many opportunities to watch Anna and her classmates and teachers. Time and time again, opportunities for Anna to socialize were missed. So I started cueing her and the teachers picked up what I was doing. I think they thought she was just shy and would eventually thaw. But we saw that she needed to be prompted with suggestions like: "I bet Justin would like to play with that, to or how about asking Susie if she has seen that book?" These methods worked very well and we enrolled Anna in kindergarten with the confidence that we now knew how to help her develop socially. Since then, we have not hesitated to give teachers tips about our daughter. Anna is in the fifth grade, and in her own words, has "several best friends".