Teaching toddlers social skills
April 22, 2010 7:58 PM   Subscribe

What should I be doing to help my toddler learn how to greet / join in with his classmates?

My little boy (2 years, 5 months) attends nursery school in the mornings. He's been going since last August, so has known his classmates for 8 months now. He has some problems with one of his teachers who has an authoritarian style that is different from what he's used to at home, but overall, he seems to enjoy his time there and frequently tells me 'more school!' when he's not there. All of this is to say that I don't think there's anything in particular at the school that is a cause of the behaviour I'm about to describe.

First thing in the morning, when we arrive at school, my son sometimes has a problem entering his classroom, and these times seem to coincide with the times when a lot of his classmates have already arrived and are inside the class playing. He'll just stand in the doorway with a sort of glazed look on his face and not seem to know what to do. If the authoritarian style teacher tries to force him to go in, he pitches a foot stomping fit and the other kids gather around and stare at him. If it's his other teacher taking him in, she generally just talks to him and reminds him of all the fun things he's going to do and the distraction seems to help him get over what looks to me to be a sudden bout of shyness. I don't get to take him in to the class, as all the kids leave their parents at the front gate, but I can see the doorway that he goes through so have observed some of these episodes.

Another example occurred this morning. His class was meeting at a local park instead of the school. I drove him there and from the car he could see his teachers and the assistant and a few of the kids and he started hollering (happily!), then grabbed my hand and pulled me running towards them after we got out of the car. Once we were within about 20 feet of them, though, he stopped running, ducked behind me, buried his face in the back of my legs, and we scrummed the rest of the distance. One of the teachers tried to jolly him out of hiding by playing a 'Where's [child's name]?' game, but it really just took a bit of time for him to warm up to the situation, then I left and he reportedly (according to him too) had a really fun morning.

I don't think it's really an option (from the school's perspective) for me to just hang out with him at school every morning until he settles in like I did today at the park, so I'm looking for whatever else I can do to help him with this situation. Some of the distraction techniques his teacher uses seem to help him get over the initial hump, but I don't think they're doing anything to teach him the actual social skills he needs that would remove the hump altogether. One of the assistants sometimes tries to tickle him and play with him to jolly him up, which I have a big problem with as I see it as disrespectful of his feelings and doing nothing to help him learn what he's feeling, why he might be feeling that way, and how to cope with it.

One thing I've tried to do is be a bit more outgoing myself in front of him. We also play school with his Little People set, and I've started trying to incorporate a bit of the kids arriving at school scenario into the play to try and work through it that way. I'm going to talk to his teachers about the issue as I think they just chalk it up to him being difficult and not wanting to go to school which in my opinion isn't actually the problem.

Is there anything else I should be (or shouldn't be) doing to help my little boy's social skills advance? Feel free to assume that my own social skills aren't all that crash hot at times and I have a tendency to be tongue tied around other people. Also, I do understand that toddlers shouldn't be expected to have great social skills, what I'd like to know is what I should be doing to help him in his process of learning them. Thanks!
posted by toodles to Human Relations (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
it really just took a bit of time for him to warm up to the situation . . .

Some people are like that. And it's ok. It sounds like once he warms up, all is fine. Some people are more observers than joiners and participators or they take longer to warm up to situations - any situation, no matter how many times they've encountered the situation. And that's ok.

I worried about my (almost) 7 year old boy not joining in enough or playing. He would just sit back and observe. When we take him to school in the morning, instead of playing with the other kids he goes and stands in line until the bell rings. That's just his thing in the morning. He does play during recess and will come home and tell me all about chasing girls, playing soccer and other activities. I also think that he's a bit different when his father and I aren't around. When we are present he tends to stick around us. Sounds like your guy is similar:

then I left and he reportedly (according to him too) had a really fun morning.

I also have a three year old that whenever any one talks to him or makes eye contact will immediately duck behind me and hide. He's very quiet in school, his teachers tell me. But he plays nicely - loves to play in the toy kitchen. He only wants to interact with other children he knows quite well - like our neighbor who he sees quite frequently.

I'd suggest that with people that are interacting with your child - teachers and whatnot - that a "heads up" that he takes a little while to warm up would suffice. If they work with children, they should know that some kids do take a little while to warm up.

It sounds like you're doing a great job trying to help him through play and making him comfortable in situations. However, I just want to reiterate that it's ok if it takes a while for him to warm up - even if he's been attending the school for months and months. Each day is a new day and he'll have to warm up each time. It's ok if he's not a social butterfly. It really does sound like he's doing well - he interacts and plays, but just takes some time to warm up.
posted by Sassyfras at 8:59 PM on April 22, 2010

Have you thought of arranging a series of playdates with his classmates? Also see if you can host events at your house for several classmates. This will get him more comfortable with his classmates in a safe setting (home) and build his social capital with them as well. If I were you, I would say a word to the teacher and assistants about how to encourage him to enter into the class in the way that is most comfortable FOR him as it sounds like they are not always aware of what works best for him.
posted by zia at 1:40 AM on April 23, 2010

My daughter often does something similar (she recently turned three) when we drop her off at daycare - my story about it is that it's just part of the "theatre" of her drop-off process.

Sometimes the other kids will crowd her as soon as she arrives and she's not too keen on that - she wants to join in on her terms. Maybe the hiding thing is her way of asserting her control, though it seems weird from an adult's perspective.

She also shows "shyness" behaviour around people she doesn't know, but there are signals that it's a different thing from her daycare actions. At daycare it's more playful.
posted by lowlife at 6:53 AM on April 23, 2010

One of my earliest memories was of going to preschool in the morning and hiding behind my mom until I had to go into the room. I think it is normal, but along with my anecdote is the fact that I have pretty sever social anxiety as an adult.

I don't think you ought to worry about it, but I would focus on trying to set up play dates regularly with his friends from school to help him further acclimate to being around people.
posted by BobbyDigital at 7:20 AM on April 23, 2010

It sounds like he's slow to warm, which is totally fine as long as no one really makes a huge deal over it. The teacher who employs distraction seems to be doing the best thing for him: not addressing the shyness, pulling him out of it, and not forcing the issue. I mean, of course you can speak about it to him (once he's old enough to understand what's being talked about), but it's not his fault he's shy and in my experience you can't teach someone to not be shy or slow to warm. All you can do is do what you're doing now, which is great. You're using play to teach him, you don't seem to be making a big deal out of it and you're recognizing that he may need occasional help settling in.

Set up one-on-one play dates with his classmates and see how that goes. Talk to his teachers if you think that will help. Maybe the authoritarian teacher thinks he's being obstinate and just needs a heads-up on his shy personality (though if she hasn't noticed it by now...she might just not be a great teacher).

Mostly, don't worry too much about this. He's only 2 1/2. The way he is now is likely not going to be the way he is at 4 or 6 or 24. Kids are so changeable and so adaptable. As long as you keep listening to him and letting him be who he is, he'll be fine.
posted by cooker girl at 8:10 AM on April 23, 2010

I agree with the one-on-one or smaller group playdates. A lot of people - kids AND adults - get intimidated by having to join in a large, noisy group. This is why group facilitators often have a large group do "break out" smaller group chats. Your little one might be a lot more comfortable socializing with one other child or in a small (2-3) group. It's like playing in the shallow end before diving into the deep - it gets your kid used to socializing.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:09 AM on April 23, 2010

My lad (2 and a bit) does the same every now and then. We get to nursery and he hides behind me or behind the bookshelves. I think he's playing though, as he often has a bit of a smirk on his face. Other times, he charges straight in. I think it depends on which other kids are there, and how many of them there are.

I wouldn't worry about it too much. Don't force him. If he's enjoying the rest of his time there, it sounds normal enough. (Not that I'm any sort of child psychologist, of course)
posted by ComfySofa at 9:25 AM on April 23, 2010

nthing the playdate answer.

One thing that various toddler books have emphasized is that sociability w/ peers changes with age -- first you play *next* to other kids (but not really with), then you play one-on-one, then with slightly larger groups, and so on. It seems pretty normal to me for 2 1/2 to be a "moving from playing next to" to "playing with one other kid" stage, regardless of any natural shy tendencies, and playdates are a good way to get comfortable with the one-on-one playing. I would expect this to change over the next 9 months or so, and see playing in larger groups happen naturally.
posted by feckless at 12:45 PM on April 23, 2010

What, he doesn't cry and cling to you? He's doing great!

Okay, seriously, I understand what you are asking. My daughter went from crying/clinging to being kind of slow to warm up, to now (not quite 3 years old) being glad to arrive at daycare.

Although I dislike categorizing children, I have read that "slow to warm up" is actually a common "type." These kids are a little discombobulated by change, but they overcome it relatively quickly.

I would add a couple of things to the great suggestions above. First, tell him it's okay to feel shy. FEEL shy. Perhaps don't say that he IS shy, like it's an irrefutable fact of his being - this was done to me and it really colored how I saw myself throughout my childhood.

Second, let him know why he is going to school. Either because you want him to have fun and play with kids, or because you have to go to work, or both. You wouldn't believe how many kids at my daughter's daycare come up to me and say sadly, "MY mommy went home." And I say, "Are you sure? Didn't she go to work?" (I know most of the parents.) My own daughter was confused about this for a while, too. She thought I was dropping her off, then going home to do fun things by myself. When she became verbal is when I figured this out. Knowing that I had to work (and showing her my office) helped her understand why we were being separated during the day.

I'm also going to agree with the above posters who say that the situation will improve when the kids grow out of parallel play and start playing together. My observation of the kids in my daughter's class is that this happened between the ages 30 and 36 months.
posted by Knowyournuts at 1:53 PM on April 23, 2010

You could try little scripts. When he arrives and sees his teacher, he can say 'good morning, miss x"; when he first sees one of his classmates he can say 'hi billy, what are you doing?'; when he meets a new person he can say 'hi, my name is joey' or whatever. This seems to be what my sister's doing with her son of about the same age, and he applies these scripts with vigor -- even to the point where he'll say 'hi truck', 'thank you, truck', and 'bye bye truck' to a toy truck at suitable moments.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:38 PM on April 23, 2010

(And I guess the way she's inculcating the scripts is in the same way you teach him to say thank you, where you model doing it yourself with a singsong voice and a "now you say it" look at him.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:44 PM on April 23, 2010

One of my friends has three small kids; the eldest (6yo) recently began at a Steiner school, which apparently are big on encouraging kids that age to greet, and actually shake hands. My friend said that he's noticed that kids younger than that however aren't into greeting. They just don't get the point. I guess this is like the parallel play thing mentioned above.

Also this is probably crappy advice seeing as you have a small kid, but if it's really worrying you now, could you get him there a little earlier? Or talk to the authoritarian teacher and ask her/him to chill?
posted by 8k at 1:59 AM on April 24, 2010

Thanks to everyone for the comments and suggestions. I think the play dates with his classmates are a great idea. He does have a play date once a week with a neighbor girl but I can see how that wouldn't transfer directly to the classroom in the same way that some one on one time with his classmates would.

We do generally get to school early, but I think we're going to specifically try to make that the case now (well, as much as possible with a toddler anyway!). And I will talk to his teachers, although it hasn't been successful in the past...but there's probably a whole 'nother AskMe lurking within that!
posted by toodles at 8:03 AM on April 24, 2010

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