"I got new sneakers!" Jessica proudly announced to her friend Alison. Meanwhile, Jake and Louisa hurried to the water table to try out Jake's yellow tugboat. Alex and Michael sauntered over to Anthony's cubby, and the threesome were soon building with blocks. I was enjoying all of their morning chatter until I caught sight of a child who wasn't a part of this social scene.
I've been more and more concerned about Anna's avoidance of joining the group. Although she's been here for two months, the bright-eyed 4-year-old still usually chooses to be alone. This morning, I watched her head toward her favorite spot, the far corner of the room, to create a track for racing cars. When it was ready, she held a race by herself. Crouched on all fours, Anna provided both the power and the sound effects: "Zzzzooooom!" The blue car in her right hand overtook the green one in her left hand. And she would have gone on happily amusing herself throughout free play if I hadn't decided to encourage her neighborhood friend Gabrielle to join her. "Let's see what Anna is doing here. I think she may need an extra pair of hands," I said, hoping to break the ice. Anna permitted Gabrielle to play the car-racing game, but rejected my suggestion to invite others over, too.
In the beginning, I thought Anna's behavior was a sign of some difficulty in separating, so I encouraged Mrs. Linsel to stay in our classroom. Then I realized that separation wasn't the main issue. Anna seemed to avoid group activities whether or not her mom was close by. She would play by herself, only occasionally responding to my encouragement to participate in group games. All along, Anna has been especially ill at ease during outdoor free play. Just this afternoon, she was startled by a group of children buzzing by on their tricycles. When some others shouted to the riders, from perches on the jungle gym, the noise and activity obviously upset her. Anna cringed as a classmate brushed by her to chase a ball, and it was then I decided it's time to have a chat with her parents. Maybe together we can figure out how to help Anna feel comfortable in a group of children.
THE PARENT'S STORY
I thought that Anna had gotten over her shyness. She has been telling me how much she likes school. And she often plays with a school friend who lives in our neighborhood. Gabrielle and Anna like to help me weed in the garden. Sometimes they ride trikes or play with their blocks and dolls. And Anna is delighted when she's invited to have lunch at Gabrielle's house. Occasionally, another child from their class or the neighborhood visits, and everything is fine.
But yesterday I realized that it's not always so fine. It was Gabrielle's birthday. When Anna and I arrived at the party, we saw 10 or 15 children running and shouting in the festively decorated basement. Some were bouncing balloons or having a tug-of-war with crepe paper. Anna took one look at that scene and backed away. She stood in the doorway for the longest time, until my coaxing brought her in. But even when the party got calmer and more organized, Anna didn't join any games. I asked myself why. She is so cheerful and talkative at home or when she plays alone with Gabrielle. I decided Anna must have just had a bad day. But this afternoon, the same thing happened. We went to the park, where there were many families that we know. I was pleased to have a chance to chat with friends, but Anna refused to join the other children, even though she knew most of them. My daughter played all by herself in the sandbox until it was time to go home. Why does she still avoid being with groups of children? Maybe the teacher can help me understand this.
Dr. Brodkin's Assessment
Some children take a long time to warm up to group play. Often, these are imaginative youngsters who, like Anna, are quite content to amuse themselves. They may be completely at ease with one or two good friends, but overwhelmed by a large group's noise and activity levels.
Children from small families and quiet homes may be particularly sensitive to the mayhem at big parties. But while Anna was the one who made her feelings known, there probably were others who also felt uncomfortable at Gabrielle's party. That's why the old formula-invite one more child than the age of the birthday boy or girl-is still a good one.
Anna is not ready to cope with the many sensations she experiences in a crowd. The sounds, movements, sights, and physical contact apparently overwhelm her. She will need a gradual introduction to group events.
What the Teacher Can Do
Anna should be allowed to play in her safe corner with only one friend at a time for at least a few weeks. Encouraging Gabrielle to join her was a good idea. Once she is as at ease playing with Gabrielle in school as she is at home, the teacher can bring one more child to join them. She should hold off on introducing Anna to larger-group experiences until she seems ready. In the meantime, activities such as snack time might be arranged with smaller groups. And if the teacher allows time for low-key group activities while Anna gains confidence, she is more likely to move on to more active group play.
What the Parent Can Do
Mrs. Linsel can be reassured about her daughter's developing social skills. Happily, she does make friends and enjoy them. It's just that she needs time and a gradual introduction to the many stimuli involved in large-group events. An occasional game of musical chairs with Gabrielle and just one other child may help.
Mrs. Linsel should be patient and continue to encourage Anna's friendship with Gabrielle. The more time Anna spends with one or two familiar children, the more at ease she will be with others. It's fine for Anna to play quiet games that she likes. She'll grow into more exuberant activity at her own rate. With her parents' and teacher's gentle guidance, she will eventually discover that group play can be another one of life's real pleasures.
Read on for more advice on a child who shuns groups.