One Child's Triumph Over Shyness
Shyness and kids seem to go together. It’s not unusual to see a little one cling to her mommy or daddy when she is introduced to a new person or situation. Nonetheless, we also expect that kids will eventually leave this behavior behind as they grow. For many children, however, overcoming shyness can be a long, difficult process.
Our 6 year-old daughter Jennifer struggles with shyness. Thinking back, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when her shyness kicked into high gear. As a toddler, she was extremely friendly and outgoing, and always had an enthusiastic “hello” for anyone who passed her way. Yet, somewhere around the age of three, she suddenly became introverted and uncomfortable in new situations. Still, at home, and with family and close friends she was as vocal as any other 3 year-old.
At first, my husband and I assumed Jennifer was going through a phase that would pass as quickly as it appeared. After all, we had already survived the “I don’t want to sleep in my crib” phase, the “I’m afraid of having an ‘accident’ so I need to go to the bathroom every 15 minutes” phase and the “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish is the only bedtime story I want” phase. Surely, we would get through this one, too.
The good news is that we did, in fact, get through the shyness phase. Getting through it, however, was a long journey punctuated by many small milestones and just as many frustrations.
My husband and I really didn’t recognize Jennifer’s shyness as being problematic until a few weeks into her pre-kindergarten year. Jennifer had turned four about a month before school began, and so was one of the youngest in her class. Despite this, she was extremely bright and an enthusiastic learner. On her first day, there were the tears and reluctance to go into the classroom that one would expect from almost any four year-old. Fortunately, the second day and the days that followed went much more smoothly. Each evening, Jennifer gave us a recap of her school day and shared anything she learned: songs, a new game, and other tidbits. Given her happy demeanor, we assumed all was well. So, you can imagine our surprise when about a month into the school year, her teacher took me aside and told me that Jennifer has not uttered a word to anyone. Amazingly enough, Jennifer managed to communicate. In fact, she became very adept at finding non-verbal ways to let her teachers know if she needed anything, but she wouldn’t speak.
Later that evening at home, Jennifer confirmed what her teacher had told us: she had not spoken to anyone in the classroom since the first day. Her reasoning? She was afraid of being laughed at. Needless to say, we were at a loss.
In the following weeks, my husband and I frantically racked our brains trying to recall any circumstance that may have triggered this fear. At the same time, we tried to reassure Jennifer and convince her that her fear was unfounded. Still, she wouldn’t speak.
It wasn’t until after the New Year that Jennifer’s voice began to slowly emerge. By the spring, she was talking to everyone in the class, including her teachers. Even so, her teacher recommended that we consider delaying kindergarten for a year to give Jennifer the opportunity to fully overcome her shyness. Buoyed by her recent progress, my husband and I decided that Jennifer would do just fine in kindergarten and proceeded to make the arrangements for her to begin in September.
There was just one thing in our way: kindergarten screening. Let’s just say that Jennifer didn’t pass. In fact, she never made it into the room. Once her name was called, her feet became firmly rooted to the floor and she refused to move. We took that as a sign that perhaps it wasn’t time for kindergarten after all. And so, on our way out of the school, we stopped by the principal’s office and signed Jennifer up for another year of pre-k.
Let the Debate Begin
The decision to delay kindergarten has long been the subject of intense debate among educators, child psychologists and other early childhood experts. Not to mention our family. “How can you do that? She’s so bright!” said some. “It’s the best thing you will ever do for her,” said others.
In the end, the question of whether or not to delay kindergarten, particularly in the case of a shy child, can not be categorically answered. There are many factors which will determine if the extra year will indeed benefit the child.
“It depends on at least two factors,” says Dr. Donald K. Freedheim, professor emeritus and founding director of the Schubert Center for Child Development at Case Western Reserve University. “Where will the child be, if not in kindergarten and the cause of the shyness. If a shy child is in a comfortable and enriching environment, it may well be best to keep him there before moving on to kindergarten. With an extra year to develop some maturity, and hopefully, some confidence in oneself’” Dr. Freedheim continues, “the child might do much better by waiting.”
Dr. Alice Sterling Honig, professor emeritus of childhood development at Syracuse University offers a different point of view. Delaying the start of kindergarten can deny the child the experience of a “loving, interesting, developmentally growth enhancing and brain enhancing early education.” Further, says Dr. Honig, the shy child will lose the chance to “slowly learn how to trust and make a friend or two among the children and with the adult “stranger” who will become her trusted teacher.” Finally, according to Dr. Honig, the shy child’s already fragile self-esteem may be further damaged: “The message from her parents is that they do not trust her gently and slowly to become able to adapt at school.”
So, how do you decide what’s right for your child? Unfortunately, there’s really not a checklist for situations like this. While consulting the experts may yield some additional knowledge about how to best deal with the shyness issue, you will have to rely on a combination of input from your child’s teachers, your own instincts and yes, even your child, to decide if holding her back will help her better deal with her shyness.
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