Helping your child prepare for and excel in preschool when they have social fears can be challenging. If you want your child to reap the benefits of preschool, but worry about whether or not your child will actually have a good experience in a program, you should know there are some ways that you can help your child to overcome extreme shyness or social phobias. In the event that your shy child does struggle in a social preschool environment, your reactions and support as a parent can really make a difference for future school experiences.
1. Recognize that social anxiety is real.
Some parents may struggle to understand why a child fears large social groups, especially if both parents are extroverted and comfortable conversing with others. However, many children suffer from real fears about confronting and speaking with others. Once you accept that your child's shyness is not just a "phase" or something they need to "get over", you can start helping them devise strategies and goals to better interact with their peers and overcome their fears. Common fears for a preschool aged child might include the following:
- talking to strangers.
- voicing an opinion in a large group of people.
- eating or playing in front of others.
- working in groups of peers with whom the child in unfamiliar.
Many children are extremely sensitive to failure and social criticism, and the above activities open up more opportunities for negative performance, which is why chronically shy kids will avoid them.
2. Refrain from criticizing a child for anxiety.
If your child struggles to express himself or herself in a social environment, the worst thing you can do is to be negative about how they perform. For example, if your child does not acknowledge the preschool teacher, or plays alone during flex-time, you should not comment about how you wish you child would have done better, or about how they are being rude by refraining from speech. These will only increase fear and timidness, and make a child feel even more badly about their performance in social situations.
Instead, use encouraging reinforcement, and be sure you choose a preschool program that will do the same. If your child does open up and volunteer information, be sure the teacher praises your child for his or her contribution. If you are volunteering in the classroom, point out the positive things that your child contributes to the social environment after the school day is over.
3. Set small goals with your child.
Once you acknowledge that your child has specific fears that prevent him or her from engaging fully in a preschool environment, you can sit down with them and help them to understand their fears. If you find out, for instance, that they are worried about saying the wrong thing or that they are uncomfortable with so much attention, you can help build your child's confidence by practicing and setting goals. A four-year-old child may not have the tools to do this alone, so you will need to show them what to do. For instance, you could
- help your child memorize specific phrases to use. For example, teach your child to say simply "Yes, please," and "No, thank you," and "Can I have a turn?" Then, use preschool-specific situations where he or she could use this phrase, answering questions like "Would you like a snack?" or responding to statements from peers like, "These are my blocks." If they already have a small arsenal of words to use, they may be less anxious to speak in the moment of need.
- set small achievements for each preschool day. For example, you could ask your child if they will be comfortable saying hello to three people during the day. Help your child decide who the people will be, and role-play with your child on what to say and how to respond. Reward your child with praise or a small treat if they are able to complete their goals. If they don't do it, simply encourage your child to try again later.
- empower your child by teaching them to reassure themselves positively. Preschool children can say positive affirmations to help them to change the way they think. These phrases should be simple, like "I can try," and "I feel calm."
Preschool can be challenging for a child who struggles with social fears. As a parent, there is a lot you can do to help your child become more relaxed and comfortable in social gatherings. Talk to a professional in pre-kindergarten programs for more information about implementing your game-plan for helping your child.