There are simple but effective steps we can take to nurture shy children’s social skills, says Sue Cowley…
One of the great benefits for young children of going to an early years setting is the chance to play and socialise with their peers. Some of your children will appear to be naturally extrovert. They love to be at the centre of a group and have no trouble being in a busy environment full of people. Other children might prefer to be in a small group, or to play on their own. This may be partly a result of early experiences in the home. For instance, a child who has been brought up in a large family with lots of siblings may well find it easier to socialise than an only child from a single-parent family.
Emma is a three-year-old who recently joined your setting. So far, she has refused to talk to the other children, although she will chat a little with some of the adults. When Emma arrives in the morning, she stands aside from the others, and always chooses to play on her own. You want to help Emma develop her social skills and build relationships with the other children.
Learning how to build relationships with peers and adults is an important part of a child’s early development. By playing with others, children build their language skills and learn how to relate well to others. They develop vital social and emotional skills such as sharing, taking turns and listening to other people’s ideas. It’s important to note that some children with autistic spectrum disorders have difficulties with socialisation. If you suspect there could be an unidentified special need underlying the behaviour, talk with your SENCO about the appropriate intervention and support.
Where a child finds it difficult to build relationships or struggles to socialise:
1. Move slowly: do not rush the child or insist that he or she plays with others, or you risk exacerbating the situation.
2. A child who is new to your setting needs time to settle in. At first the child might appear introverted or withdrawn. However, this behaviour may change once he or she feels comfortable in the new environment.
3. Remember that it can be harder for small children to play with members of their peer group than with adults. At this age, the other children are learning how to socialise as well and may struggle to play in an inclusive way.
4. Practitioners can support the development of social behaviour by modelling ‘good relationships’ for the children. For instance, you could model what ‘good sharing’ looks like.
To support Emma in developing relationships and building her repertoire of social behaviours:
● Focus on building Emma’s bond with her key person so that she feels safe to begin interacting with others. Ensure that her key person is available to meet her when she arrives.
● Follow Emma’s lead, encouraging her to talk about what she’s interested in doing. Model the behaviour you want Emma to develop. For instance, you can help her understand how to introduce herself into a play situation by showing her some phrases to use.
● Start to play with or alongside Emma, depending on her preference. Talk with her to help her build vocabulary around play. Use sustained shared thinking to help her understand how to express her ideas.
● Sometimes children struggle to socialise because they find it hard to read the verbal and non-verbal cues we give to show our moods. Help Emma learn to ‘read’ how other children are feeling by talking about these cues. For instance, you might say, “Oh look, Jenna is enjoying that game; she’s smiling and laughing as she plays”. Talk to all your children about the attributes and attitudes we need to build relationships. What does a good friend do? Why is it important to share and take turns?
● It might help Emma to bring in a favourite toy from home, to give her a comforting and familiar item to refer to in the setting.
● Play small group activities that encourage sharing and group interactions, for instance, parachute games.
● Create situations where Emma can play with one or two other children.
● Help Emma join in with other children’s play, by gently introducing her into their games. You might offer to go with her to sit with a group and play, so she will at first feel as though she’s playing with you.