The transition back to school can be challenging for children as they have spent the summer having fun, and have probably spent more time with their parents during the summer then during the school year. It can be difficult for any child to get back into school mode, and especially for children who are shy, socially anxious or slow to warm up to new situations. Children may have had a wonderful summer, love their camp and have made a lot of friends. They may have enjoyed their previous school year and had a meaningful relationship with their teacher. However, some children, because of their inborn temperament, have difficulty adjusting to new situations. It is difficult for them to jump back into a world of structure and expectations.
Keep in mind that shy children often tend to be “observers”. They cautiously approach situations and sometimes can be slow to accept new people and experiences. Remember, that behavior in shy children is due to feeling uncertain and unsafe in new situations rather than to being judgmental or mean.
Here are some ways to prepare your child for the transition back to school:
Make a checklist that your child sees often which outlines how to make friends. Shy children usually prefer environments that are predictable, so having a list to consult offers concrete suggestions that your child knows in advance that he/she can try. You can put laminated notes with reminders of the list in your child’s backpack or lunch bag. Your child may want to draw visuals to go with each behavior on the list, in order to personalize it. Here are some suggestions for the list:
1. Smile. Smiling shows people that you like them. People tend to like others who seem to like them. The secret to friendship is showing someone that you like him or her.
2. Accept and give compliments. Shy children sometimes have a difficult time giving and accepting compliments. Parents can model how to give a compliment and how to say, “Thank you” when given a compliment.
3. It is all about others. All children (and many adults!) need to learn how to ask questions of others and not talk about oneself (as fun as that may be). Prepare your child with a list of questions, for example:
“What is your favorite subject?” “What class are you in?” Help your child learn to ask questions that show interest in the other person and then how to continue the conversation once given an answer. Role- playing in advance helps the child keep the behaviors in mind when they are actually in the social situation.
4. Invite another child to do something together. When you invite someone to do something with you, you show that person that you like him/her. For example: “Erica, will you sit with me at lunch today?” Additionally, making a plan in advance with another child for unstructured times such as lunch helps children feel more secure.
Model pro-social behaviors when you interact with your friends. You may want to have a double play date, with your child and his/her friend and the friend’s mother. You can play games together with the parents modeling appropriate socials skills such as eye contact, turn taking and sharing. Model that you talk nicely about others and that you don’t gossip.
Help your child find ways to shine. Does your child know all about the planets and constellations? Perhaps your child could talk about that during science class.
Help your child find at least one special friend. Research shows that children who have one special friend feel more comfortable in academic and social situations because they have a safe base to rely on. Encourage your child to feel comfortable with at least one other child to start with, and as that friendship helps your child adjust to a new situation, encourage your child to reach out to others.
Model adaptive social behaviors. Modeling prosocial behaviors is very important for an adult to do with the child. Open up a supportive (non- critical) dialogue like the following, “Michael, I noticed that you looked down when George was trying to talk to you. Were you aware that you did that? What type of message do you think that gave him?” Help your child think of ways to hold their eyes or body to show that they are paying attention to the other person. Your child can practice with you or in front of a mirror.
In the weeks before school, encourage your child to invite less familiar classmates to play dates. Make sure to structure the play dates with an age appropriate activity such as baking cookies or bowling; supervise the play date to make sure all is going well; keep it short and sweet so that it ends while the children are still having fun. You can role play and rehearse with your child how to ask a friend over, what to say if the classmate says no (an adaptive response would be “ok, maybe next time”) and how to interact during the play date. Make sure to put away any toys that your child doesn’t want to share before the play date begins.
Finally, if your child’s shyness is very intense and persistent and really gets in the way of forming social relationships, you may want to seek professional help. There are social skills groups that can teach children friendship skills in an interactive, social environment.