How can I support my shy child to make friends?

My five-year-old is in junior infants. She is very shy and seems to be finding it hard to make friends. When I drop her off at school, the other children are chatting and playing with each other, while she seems very reserved and doesn’t join in.

At home she is a happy girl and plays well with her cousins, but I have a sense she is not as happy in school. From the little she says about what happens in school, I think she finds the yard times particularly hard and I worry that she might be getting pushed around.

She seems to want to make friends at school but seems to be finding it hard. I worry a lot about her and her lack of confidence, and want to know how to help her. Up until starting school she had been quite protected, as I am a full-time mum. She went to a small Montessori for two years, where she was happy. I have two younger children at home.

Starting school is a big developmental step for most children. They have to move from the relatively protected environment of a preschool, creche or being cared for at home to the more demanding environment of the classroom, where there are higher numbers of children, more structure and less individual support.

A child starting school is also a big step for parents, as they can no longer be physically there to protect them and have to help them manage by themselves and to cope with whatever problems come up. In particular, lots of children, like your daughter, can find the social side of starting school a challenge, especially if they are more reserved or shy by nature. However, there are lots of things you can do to help.

Talk to her teacher
It might be useful to talk to her teacher to get a full picture of how she is getting on at school. The teacher may have similar concerns to yourself or she may be able to reassure you that your daughter is mixing and getting on well in the classroom. 

Given your worries about the yard it is probably best to raise these directly with the teacher. Children have the most freedom at yard time and this can present a particular challenge. However, teachers can help to reduce any problems that might occur. 

In addition, if your daughter is finding it hard to make friendships in the classroom, the teacher can pair her with other children who might be potential friends or let her adopt a “helping” role in some activities where she has particular strengths. In resolving school-based problems, it is always crucial to try to work positively with the teacher and school staff.

How much of a problem is it for your daughter?
It is important to take a step back to wonder just how much of a problem it is for your daughter. While some children might be reserved in group social situations, sometimes this is a strength, meaning that they are cautious and thoughtful about how they respond (as opposed to being impulsive or pushy). Equally, reserved children might perform better one-to-one or where they are involved in activities they enjoy and can be happy with a small number of close friends.

Coach her in advance
If you feel your daughter needs some support in social situations, do not draw attention to her shyness but instead encourage her to try out social strategies. For example, when meeting new people, rather than saying “Don’t be shy”, coach her in advance about positive options that she can use to break the ice, such as “why don’t you show Julie your art set/ tell her where you went over the weekend”.

Arrange playdates
If she is finding it hard to make friends at school, you can arrange play dates with potential friends. To make a play date go well it takes a little bit of skill and good hosting from the parents. Make sure:
– It is mainly one-to-one (by keeping younger ones occupied).
– They have plenty of interactive and attractive toys to choose from.
– You give them space to play alone, but are also there to support if needed.
– You have time to prepare your child (what she will play with, and so on) and to talk after about how things went.

Teach Social Skills
If you feel your daughter lacks specific social skills at making friends then you can encourage her to learn these. For example, a lot of reserved children feel self-conscious and find it hard to get started when meeting someone new.

Teach her different strategies to get started such as saying something you like about the other person (“that is a nice bag”), making a connection (“I have the same colour bag at home”) or asking a question (“what classroom are you in?”). There are also many good child-centred story books and TV programmes that emphasise good friendship skills.

Remember that friendships are important for young children, and having just one or two good friends in the classroom could make an enormous difference to your daughter feeling settled and confident.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, November 2011. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.