How to Help Your Quiet Child Connect

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Ask my son about his day at school and you will get a play-by-play of his two recess periods. You’ll find out what they played, who said something funny, who scored a goal (or a run or something else) and who got frustrated with the game. If anyone cheated, you’ll hear all about it.

In first grade, playing with his friends is everything. Sure, he’s a math enthusiast and loves science and history, but recess is by far his favorite part of the day. When the day is done, however, so is he. No need for play dates. No filling the spaces with extra curricular activities. No busy social calendar. Recess has him covered.

I get a lot of questions from parents concerned about their “quiet” or “shy” kids. They worry that their kids struggle to make friends. They wonder if their kids are lonely or sad at school. They don’t know how to help them “fit in” with the other kids.

This is a natural worry among parents of kids with all kinds of personalities. Somewhere deep down in the recesses of our emotional memory banks, we all remember that time when we didn’t fit in or felt left out. We don’t want our children to experience that kind of hurt. We want to fix it before it happens.

Here’s the thing: More often than not, the so-called “shy” and “quiet” kids in question are actually perfectly content. It’s their loud, talkative and highly social parents who worry.

Here’s the other thing: There is a difference between a child who struggles with mild social anxiety or has difficulty engaging with peers and introverted children.

One more thing: Try to avoid the labels. “Shy” can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Identify formation starts early and takes time. A kid who is always called “shy” will eventually act the part.

Introverted children enjoy downtime. They like to be alone and draw energy from doing various quiet activities on their own. For introverted kids, school is a real energy zapper. They need after school time and weekends to recharge. They aren’t avoiding other kids, they’ve just had their fill.

As for the kids with mild social anxiety or the kids who tend to be quiet in groups, you can help them practice a few skills to make the process of connecting easier (and less anxiety producing).

Respect their preferences.

Not every kid wants to play every sport and join every group. Some kids genuinely prefer 1:1 play. I was that kid. I loved afternoons with my best friend but dreaded birthday parties and group play. I wasn’t anxious about fitting in, I just preferred a smaller environment.

Understanding and respecting your child’s preferences is crucial. Forcing your child to fit some mold won’t help your child connect with others. In fact, it will have the opposite effect. Instead of forcing your kid to attend every party or meet large groups of kids at the park, ask your child who she wants to play with and start there. Also? Step back and let the kids play. Quiet kids need time to develop relationships. Micromanaging the play date or planning big outings are counterproductive.

Don’t push.

You can’t force your child to want to have play dates and make new friends. If you do, your child will likely feel anxious about the whole process of making friends.

Put your needs (and feelings about it) aside for the time being and provide support. Ask about friends here and there, but resist the urge to pepper your child with questions about the lunch table, recess and the latest activities the kids are doing.

Teach a few “meet and greet” skills.

When children end up on my couch for “difficulty making and maintaining friends”, I find that many of them need help with social interaction skills. They either steamroll conversations in and effort to be heard or they stare at their feet and wait for the moment to end.

Try these tips to help your kids meet new people:

  • Notice the eyes: Instead of hissing, “look up” every time your child meets someone new, prepare your child in advance by teaching her to focus on the color of the person’s eyes. Zooming in on this detail can make the meeting feel more manageable.
  • Loud and proud: Quiet kids tend to have quiet voices. Practice speaking in a hour voice at home by pretending to use a microphone to give a speech about Lego building. Instead of saying “speak up” when your child talks to others, get low and whisper, “loud and proud” as a reminder.
  • Be curious: Sometimes kids worry about how they will answer questions when they meet new people. Teach your kids to be curious about others by asking questions to start a conversation. This decreases some of the anticipatory anxiety that can crop up in social situations.

Practice conversational skills at home.

Ever been stuck in a group at a party where one group member talks on and on and always finds a way to circle the conversation back to his own interests? Many adults lack basic conversational skills. Excessive chatter is simply a coverup.

Teach your child the art of sliding in and out of conversations. This is best done at the dinner (or breakfast) table. If your quiet one tends to watch without comment, stop and point out times to slide in with a comment or question and slide back out.

Practice ice breakers.

Sometimes the hardest part is finding something to say. I often encourage my kids to follow these two tips when meeting new kids:

  • Find out one interesting thing about the other child. Your child can practice simple questions like “do you have a pet?”, “do you play a sport?” or “what’s your favorite thing to do after school?”
  • Share one interesting thing. When the other child answers a question, your child should practice responding with his own interesting fact (“I have a dog, too!)

While these ice breakers might sound simple, many kids freeze up in large groups or new social situations. Practicing at home helps.

Friends make school more fun and actually help kids feel more confident in the classroom. But social interaction skills don’t come naturally to every child. Some kids need a little extra help at home!

For more great tips on helping kids connect with others, pick up a copy of THE HAPPY KID HANDBOOK!

 

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Baby Bullies or Lessons on Friendship?

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It seems that talk of bullying is everywhere right now, and for good reason.  The statistics are staggering, the lack of response is concerning, and kids simply don’t know where to turn to get help.  When tragic stories hit the news, awareness is raised.  And while awareness is a crucial first step toward making great change, it can also cause parents to panic.

Although it seems that some parents sweep bullying under the carpet, others seem to be looking for it around every corner.  I can’t blame them.  When you hear the stories about kids who were taunted and teased for months and years with little support from the school – you shudder.  The truth is that no one is immune to bullying, and that’s a scary fact for parents to face.

But not every child who teases a few times is a bully and not every negative peer interaction is part of a larger problem.  Sometimes kids just don’t get along.

I’ve heard a few stories about “preschool bullying” lately.  When one child struggles in preschool, parents seem to quick to label that child a bully.  And while I agree that bullying can and does happen in the sandbox, I worry that we might be too quick to slap a label on children when what is really needed is help.

Preschoolers are impulsive by nature.  When you look beyond the race to academic excellence for just a moment, you are reminded that the purpose of preschool is socialization.  It’s a first school experience – a time to learn to relate to others.  Yes, there are letters, numbers, and a little bit of writing thrown in for good measure.  But preschool, when you really break it down, is about learning social skills.

Before we start labeling kids bullies, we might want to step back for a moment and refocus our efforts on teaching social interaction skills.

Bullying, by definition, consists of an imbalance of power.  It includes unwanted, aggressive behavior and is repetitive in nature.

Impulsive behavior seen in preschoolers can include hitting, biting, yelling, kicking, and grabbing.  It might seem as though one child is targeting another, but it’s important to address the social skills before labeling a child.

Teach empathy:

We can’t simply expect young children to think about others before they act, we have to teach them to do so.  We have to use simple language to illustrate what happens when one friend hurts another.  “When you kicked John it hurt him and he thought you didn’t want to be his friend.  Kicking hurts.”  Long explanations are generally lost on preschoolers, but short and to the point helps them connect the dots.  “When you say you’re sorry, John knows that you care about him.  When you help him up, he feels happy.”  Kicking hurts but helping feels better.  That’s a lesson a preschooler can internalize.

Basic rules:

Most preschools have a few basic rules for kids to follow.  Look around the classroom or ask the teacher to find out what rules are being followed at school and reinforce them at home.  Consistency is essential to internalizing positive behaviors.  When kids know what to expect and how to proceed, they feel confident and make positive choices.  Try to use the same language your child’s teacher uses when talking about friendship and feelings.

Increase the playdates:

If you feel that your child is being targeted by another child, playdates are probably not at the top of your to-do list.  The truth is that preschoolers need practice when it comes to being a good friend.  While they have time to socialize in the classroom, they also need smaller group play to work on the fine details of sharing, keeping their hands and feet to themselves, and using friendly words and voice tone.  **Note:  Preschool playdates require close supervision – put the smartphone away!

Saying no:

There are times when kids need to use a strong voice to say “no”.  When kids are taught to say “no” in a firm voice when others are hurting them, they are more likely to stand up for themselves.  Role play (or use puppets to illustrate) different scenarios when it is acceptable to say no.  Don’t just talk about it, show your child how to use body language and a firm voice.

Getting help:

Somes kids are quiet and prefer to fly under the radar.  These kids might be reluctant to seek help when something goes wrong at preschool.  Encourage your child to signal the teacher when he needs help, and help him practice asking for help.  Again, use role play or puppets to actually show your child how to seek help.

And, by all means, don’t expect your preschooler to advocate for herself just because you practiced.  Ask for a meeting or phone call with the teacher so that you can share your concerns and figure out a plan.

Talk to the other parents:

If there is a problem between your child and another, talk to the parent.  Reach out and try to problem solve.  You never do know what someone else is dealing with until communicate.

Increase the compliments:

Compliment your child often and teach her that compliments make others feel good.  Practice complimenting other people and point out the smiles that people have after being complimented.

Read a few books:

There are some great books available that address early friendship skills.  Get them.  Read them often.  Keep increasing your social skills library!  Below are a few of my favorites (but I could go on for days):

 

 

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Beyond the Pencil Grip: Tips for Kindergarten Prep

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It’s almost that time of the year again…the time when parents everywhere start questioning whether or not their kids are truly ready for Kindergarten.

 

You can search for “signs of Kindergarten readiness” and find several well-organized lists of skills that most Kindergarten hopefuls have mastered.  You can print them out, check them off, and feel good for a minute when you realize that your child can hold a pencil, identify several shapes and colors, and recognize her name on paper.

 

 

But the truth is that all kids are different, and scoring well on a checklist doesn’t necessarily paint the complete picture.

 

Emotional readiness plays a HUGE role in Kindergarten.  Many kids will shift from small preschool classrooms to much larger Kindergarten classrooms.  They are not as likely to receive the same 1:1 interaction to which they’ve grown accustomed.

 

That doesn’t mean that they aren’t ready; it simply means that you need to prepare.

 

Riley, the life of the party at home, is quiet in large groups and reluctant to assert her needs, even when under stress.  She would rather move on in silence than have all eyes on her.  While she is more than ready for the intellectual stimulation of Kindergarten, we are spending this summer working on her emotional readiness.  It’s tough being an introvert in an extroverted world…believe me, I know.

 

Below are a few tips to help increase your child’s emotional readiness for Kindergarten:

 

Express emotions:  In this results oriented world full of competitive child rearing, sometimes teaching feelings identification is forgotten.  The truth is that kids need to learn how to label and express their feelings so that they do not resort to hitting, punching, biting, or screaming.  Slow down when you read and point out facial expressions.  Talk about how the characters in the book can ask for help, feel better, and get their needs met.  Invest in a feelings faces chart or make your own with a snapshots of your child acting out various feelings (or have your child draw them).

 

Ask for help:  Assertiveness can be difficult for adults, so it stands to reason that it seems impossible for some kids.  Kindergarten students need to be able to ask for help when the going gets tough, both with academics and social issues.  Praise your child when she asks for help.  Practice with relatives, friends, and neighbors.  When you see your child struggling to seek help, get low, whisper words of encouragement, and help her find her voice.

 

Practice delayed gratification:  It’s no big secret that larger classrooms = increased wait time.  Despite what you might hear on the playground, the vast majority of Kindergarteners do not understand the concept of time just yet.  If you have an impatient youngster on your hands, now is the time to start practicing delayed gratification.  Try to avoid the infamous, “just a minute”, and be specific instead.  Use the timer on your phone or, better yet, a sand timer or kitchen timer to teach your child the meaning of three minutes, five minutes, ten minutes, etc.  While she waits, provide gentle reminders that you will be there when the timer beeps.

 

Focus on cooperative group play:  Due to her reluctance to assert her thoughts, needs, and feelings in large groups, Riley tends to get lost in the crowd.  Group activities are often the focus of Kindergarten.  It’s a good time to organize small playgroups at your house.  Have a few activities available (board games, art projects, doll house) but step back and let the kids direct the play.  Be available to help, but encourage the kids to compromise.  The more they practice working in groups before the start of school, the more comfortable they will feel when school actually begins.

 

Teach social skills:  Some kids will know several other kids in the classroom from preschool, while others will feel like the new kid.  The first day of a new classroom can be overwhelming at best.  Trust that the teachers will spend those first few days helping the kids connect and make friends, but prepare your child in advance.  Let your child show her personality.  Let her choose her clothes, backpack, and school supplies.  Use visits to the park to practice making introductions, playing together, and asking questions.  Teach your child to look for a friendly face.  It’s always tempting to dress our kids to perfection on the oh-so-important first day, but when you’re forced to be someone else, it can be very difficult to truly make a friend.  Let your child shine.

 

A couple of details to teach your child:

*Your (and your spouse’s) first and last name

*Home address (# and street)

*Phone number

*Any allergies

 

Your child will learn how to draw shapes, identify colors you’ve never even heard of, and probably read.  Try not to worry about where your child falls on the academic spectrum and focus on building up her emotional readiness instead.  She will thank you for it (someday).   

 

 

 

 

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Friend Finder! (Tips for teaching social skills)

A few weeks ago I wrote an article about helping your shy child interact with others.  It was met with many thanks, but also a few requests of a different kind:  “What if my kid is the opposite?  How do I stop him from trying to befriend EVERYONE?”  There are always two ends to the spectrum, and for every seemingly shy child on the playground there is another child who follows everyone around until he/she finds a friend.  I recently had dinner with an old friend who has a daughter a few years ahead of mine.  As we chatted about how alarmingly fast the kids have grown we recounted the story of how her daughter used to run up to every other kid on the playground and say,
“Hi! Do you want to play?”  She often faced defeat because preschoolers generally favor a more delicate approach.  My friend once looked up at me and said, “I don’t know how to tell her to do it differently”.  My response?  “At least she’s initiating friendships”.  It’s hard to watch when your child faces rejection from other kids.  It’s also hard to stand back and watch when you know that approaching a different kid, or introducing yourself in a different way might make a big difference.  Riley is really into big girls right now.  She has a hard time understanding that six year old girls don’t necessarily want to play with four year old girls.  I won’t stop her if she really wants to talk to a group of older girls at the park, but I will try to nudge her in a more age appropriate direction.  Developing social interaction skills is a long process.  Just when they start to get the hang of things they move up a grade and somehow the rules change.  It’s a lifelong process, really.  The good thing about the overt child is that he/she is not afraid to try.  The tricky thing is that not everyone is looking for a friend every time they go to the park.  Some kids stick to one close friend, and others prefer to play alone.  Kids work on social interactions skills as part of any preschool program, and even in hour-long classes, but social skills require a lot of work.  The practicing doesn’t end just because they are home for the day.  While shy kids need to work on slowly leaving their comfort zones, overt kids need to learn about timing, choosing wisely, and social boundaries.  Below are some tips to help you help your child achieve social success:

1. Make a checklist: Preschoolers love lists.  Lists fit into their need for predictability in life.  If it’s organized in some way, it makes more sense.  Come up with a social skills checklist that you can review together before you send your child out with other kids.  Keep it simple.  Here is an example:

  • Find a friendly face
  • Smile
  • Say, “Hi my name is…”
  • Offer to share a toy to play together

2. Teach Reading Facial Cues: Preschoolers often struggle to understand how other people are feeling.  In fact, many struggle to identify their own feelings.  By nature, toddlers and younger preschoolers are fairly self-centered.  They have a lot of learning to do; they are often too busy to think about others.  Around four, they start to show more empathy and think about others.  But they still need to learn how to read facial cues.  Facial Cues Collage: Cut a bunch of different faces from magazine photos and have your child glue them onto a paper.  Help your child study the faces to determine how each person might be feeling.  Write the feelings underneath.  Practice in the mirror: Sit in front of a mirror with your child and make various feelings faces together.  Make a game out of it and try to figure out what each face means.  Feelings Chart: Have you bought one yet? Post up a feelings faces chart in the most used room of your house and review it often.  The best time to teach kids about feelings is when they are calm and happy.

3. Polite Behavior: Practice what you preach.  Even kids who don’t have to use any table manners at home instinctively know to use them at school, but try to set some limits about basic manners.  Yes, I know that boys will be boys at times.  Liam is living proof of that.  But that doesn’t mean that a gentle correction is out of line.  Some behaviors are just off-putting to other kids.  Your list might be a bit different, but try to set limits on the following:  Spitting, sticking out the tongue (many kids actually interpret this as “mean”, excessive burping (at least teach them to say, “Excuse me”), grabbing toys without asking, and physical aggression.  As always, please and thank you are always appreciated by others. And remember that politeness starts with you.

4. Teach Boundaries: Some kids struggle with adhering to appropriate physical boundaries because they just don’t understand them.  They honestly don’t know what it means to be “too close” in proximity to someone else.  Preschoolers tend to stick very close in some situations, but when meeting new friends it helps to understand boundaries.  Hula Hoops: The small, preschool size hula-hoops are actually perfect for teaching appropriate physical space.  Have your kids hold hula-hoops around them and then walk toward each other until the hoops touch to show appropriate space.  If you find them getting too close in a situation, “hula-hoop” is an easy clue to remind them to step back.  Knock First: Many kids are so used to going wherever they please in their own homes that they forget to knock on closed doors when on playdates or in other places.  Teach them to knock on a closed door.  Ask First: Grabbing almost always leads to trouble.  No one likes to have a toy taken without any warning.  I wish I didn’t have to teach this skill all day every day, but it’s part of having a 2 year old and a four year old.  Teach them to ask first.  When they forget, return the toy and have your child apologize and then wait for a turn.  Or choose another activity.  Close Walking: Kids really dislike when other kids bump into them.  Some kids just crave tactile input and like to be close to others, but they can be taught to allow appropriate space with others.  Play follow-the-leader, but ask each kid to count to three before starting.

5. Practice: Get ready to play some pretend and practice how to act when meeting new people and making new friends.  Host Pretend Tea Parties: Or whatever kind of event appeals to your child.  Set up the scenario, make the introductions, practice boundaries and physical space, and remember those manners!  Stop frequently to check and see how the guests might be feeling.  Ask your child to think about whether or not any corrections need to be made.  Make Videos: Break out that Flip camera and start capturing those pretend interactions.  Watch the videos back and review your checklists.  Help your child determine whether or not he/she made an appropriate introduction, adhered to boundaries, allowed others a chance to talk, etc.  Structure Playdates: The best practice is always with other kids.  Try some 1:1 playdates with a child who shares very similar interests and structure the time.  Make a list of activities and set a timer.  Check regularly to make sure that your child is allowing appropriate space and sharing appropriately.

6. Books: “Today I Feel Silly and Other Moods That Make My Day” by Jamie Lee Curtis is always a winner when it comes to helping kids learn about different emotions and reading facial cues.  “Hands Are Not For Hitting” by Martine Agassi is one of a series that also includes, “Words Are Not For Hurting”, “Teeth Are Not For Biting”, and others.  These are great books for teaching basic social skills.  They provide helpful alternatives to each negative behavior.

 

Social interaction skills are generally a work in progress for most kids.  There is always something to be learned.  If you focus on a few basics on a daily basis, you can help your child achieve social success at the playground, in preschool, and just about everywhere else.

What strategies do you use to teach social skills?