"Good morning, Steven. I am so glad to see you," I said, reaching out to the 4-year-old. Steven is our newcomer. In fact, this is his first experience in an early childhood program, so I shouldn't be surprised by his reluctance to respond. Still, this morning I wondered again how we could win this boy's trust. Steven senior and junior were walking hand in hand toward the little one's cubby. Neither had responded to my greeting, although the parent offered a brief apologetic glance. There is a shyness in his dad's eyes as well, I thought.
Happily, though, neither father nor son has any hesitancy about interacting with the other. And Steven seems at ease with the children. This morning, he smiled and willingly accepted Ralph's invitation to "do blocks and trucks." The two boys were soon engaged in an animated discussion, interrupted only by Steven's hugging his dad good-bye. After so few days, he has done well with separating. But Steven still won't look any unfamiliar adult in the eye. The family has been thinking of having him join the group that travels here by school bus. However, the driver has made no headway in befriending Steven. Even the driver's offering to show him how the bus doors open and close, and inviting Steven to try it with him, didn't do the trick. We're all rather stymied in our efforts to befriend Steven. Are we trying too hard or not hard enough?
THE PARENT'S STORY
It was my wife's idea to have Steven start preschool so he'd get ready for kindergarten. But I am wondering if he is still too young to be so far from home. We have a family farm quite a ways out of town. It's a long ride in and back. And there's always plenty for Steven to do there. He plays nicely with his cousins and younger brothers, even helps me with little chores. Most of all, I worry because Stevie acts so different in school. At home, he is full of fun. He's warm and friendly with his relatives, both grown-ups and kids. Here, he seems scared of the teachers, although he won't talk about it, and he doesn't object to coming to school. Of course, these are probably the first unfamiliar grown-ups my boy has been with since the day he was born. Then, too, morning arrivals at school are a bit tough for my wife and me-so many new people, including parents, drivers, and teachers. And Steven won't look at or answer any of the adults. It's upsetting to see him so uncomfortable. What can we do to help?
Dr. Brodkin's Assessment
Steven's reaction to starting school provides a helpful glimpse of the two equally important influences on a child's behavior: temperament and experience. This 4-year-old may be predisposed to shyness with strangers, since his parents also find meeting new people somewhat challenging. Patience and time are probably what's needed, so no one should feel compelled to turn things around in a great hurry.
What the Teacher Can Do
The key to winning any child's trust is patience and respect for his or her individuality. In other words, just be there whenever Steven is ready to interact, and do so on his terms. For example, the teacher might tone down her genuinely warm greetings and approach Steven with a gentle "Hi" and a kind smile. Don't avoid him, of course, but do give him space. And befriend Steven's parents, putting them at ease. Let them know that their son's reaction to starting school is very understandable, and, whenever possible, compliment their child. With the right little hints, you could earn an invitation to visit their farm. That might involve taking the class on a field trip and allowing Steven to lead the tour. Bridging his two worlds in this way could boost the child's confidence.
What the Parent Can Do
Steven's mom was wise to decide on this year of preschool as social preparation for kindergarten. And it is likely to be a successful effort if the parents and teachers work together. There is already so much to be pleased about in Steven's adaptation to school. Best of all is the fact that he's making new friends. While large groups of strangers are intimidating to Steven's mom and dad, they might do well to befriend one or two parents of Steven's playmates. They could invite Ralph and his family over for a cornhusking, for example. Cider and doughnuts shared on the farm may go a long way toward cementing friendships for both children and adults.