The Teacher's Story

"GOOD MORNING, Paige. What a pretty sweater," I said, smiling into the little girl's eyes. She didn't respond, nor has she ever to my compliments. That's unusual for our little girls. Paige joined us several weeks ago, right after the holidays, and this four-year-old has yet to say more than "yes" or "no" to me.

When Paige interacts with the other children (who appear to like her) she doesn't say much either. She seems to enjoy dress-up and other small group activities with her classmates. However, she spends most of each free-play period involved in solitary activities such as looking at books or doing puzzles.

Last week I was speaking with Paige's parents and asked if she's very quiet at home. Much to my surprise, they both laughed and assured me that she isn't. They told me that at home and with friends, she's quite a chatterbox and very animated. I know that this is Paige's first experience in a group setting. Over the years, I've had other fours who were in preschool for the first time and had some trouble adjusting. But I don't remember any being as shy as Paige. I just wonder if everything is OK with her.

The Parent's Story

PAIGE HAS never gone to school before this semester. I'm a stay-at-home mom, and I have enjoyed having her with me. We do lots of fun activities, even visit the zoo and park. But my husband and I decided that, for her sake, Paige should be in a group setting before starting kindergarten in the fall.

I was quite surprised when Paige's teacher asked if she's quiet at home. Paige has always been very talkative and full of life. She started talking at 11 months and it seems to us that she hasn't stopped since. We do a lot together as a family, and she also has regular playmates who are her age and live in our neighborhood. But what Paige hasn't had is experience with large groups of unfamiliar children. Both my husband's family and mine live far away, so we don't have big holiday gatherings with lots of children either. Maybe she is missing something important for her development.

I wonder if Paige might feel overwhelmed by being around so many new kids in a relatively small space. She tells us she likes school, but now I am wondering if she is really comfortable and happy there.

Dr. Brodkin's Assessment

 Paige's mom has probably put her finger on the reason for her daughter's shyness. Being with a group of 15 or 20 children is a completely new experience for this child. In an era when many fours have had previous group experiences, Paige's behavior stands out. Nevertheless, at this point, I don't think there's cause for concern.  

That's not to say her teacher wasn't wise to wonder about her behavior. There is a condition called "selective mutism" in which children not only refuse to speak when they are away from home, but they are often anxious and socially isolated. It's a very rare condition that, happily, Paige doesn't have, since she does have fun communicating with others during at least part of the school day.

What the Teacher Can Do The teacher is on the right track-observing Paige and trying to engage her in conversation whenever an opportunity arises. Paige's primary challenge right now is learning how to fend for herself without Mom or Dad around. The teacher can encourage Paige's growth toward independence by praising her for her interactions with others and guiding her toward more small-group or one-on-one activities.

What the Parents Can Do The most important learning in preschool is social and emotional, so Paige is in the right place at the right time. Her parents were wise to offer her a school opportunity before she started kindergarten. Paige's parents can help strengthen the connection between home and school. For example, they might encourage Paige to have classmates over to play on weekends. Mom or Dad also might volunteer at school. Seeing her parents and her teacher working together can reassure Paige that there is mutual trust between the key adults in her life. That should go a long way toward helping her to feel ready to interact as freely and easily in school as she does at home.