How to prepare a shy child for school

Shy children can face some extra challenges at school, but here are some ways that may help them flourish.

Starting school is a rite of passage for children. And while some kids simply can’t wait to walk through the gates for the first time, others are reluctant for all sorts of different reasons. 

For shy children, the idea of school can be particularly daunting.

If your child is a bit shy and they are gearing up for going back to school, here are four tips that might help.

1. Start socialising early

Encouraging your child to socialise is important – but with well-thought-out boundaries. “It’s important to give your shy child time to feel comfortable and adjust to any social situation they’re in,” says Dr Julie Green, executive director of the Raising Children Network. “At a play date, for example, encourage your child to play where they can see and hear you,” she suggests. “Invariably, as a child gets more comfortable the parent can move away for short periods. You might stay the first time, and then gradually remove yourself from the situation so the child can venture out and immerse themselves when they’re ready.” 

Action: Organise regular play dates for your pre-school child, either at home or at a friend’s house; consciously move away from the action once your child has warmed up. 

2. Prepare them in advance

Shy children tend to struggle with the fear of feeling embarrassed or rejected, says psychologist John Malouff, an associate professor at the University of New England. “They’re afraid they will say or do the wrong thing and that others will react negatively,” he says. 

Parents can help by ‘rehearsing’ different scenarios with their child, such as the classroom show-and-tell. “It’s really beneficial to rehearse these kinds of situations with your child so when it’s their turn, they’re a little bit more prepared,” says Green. 

Both she and Malouff strongly encourage parents to talk to teachers about their child’s shyness. “Some teachers mistake shyness for autism, deafness, or defiant behaviour,” says Malouff. “Talk with them and come up with a plan to help your child build social confidence and skills.”

Action: Ask your child’s teacher when show-and-tell is likely to happen, and in the lead-up, get your child to practise their presentation a couple of times.
Two kids drawing

3. Spread their wings

They might be reluctant at the start, but it’s a good idea to sign your shy child up for extracurricular activities such as Scouts or Girl Guides, or swim club and art classes, as it’s another chance for them to extend their peer group. “They give a child another arena to interact with other children and to practise their social skills in a manageable way,” says Green. 

It’s a good idea to prepare your child for the activity by “Tell[ing] them what it is, what the venue is, how long you’re going to be there, and when you’ll be going home,” says Green. “These small manageable steps help them adjust to new situations.”

Action: Enrol your child in an after-school activity, get them to join a sports team, or sign them up for a class where there’ll be plenty of other kids. Give them the opportunity to ask lots of questions about the activity so they have an idea of how it might play out.

4. Praise and reward them

Most kids like to be told that they’ve done well. This is particularly important for shy children in relation to their social interactions, says Malouff. 

“Praise the child for interacting with others,” he advises. “Try to help your child make progress in measurable ways such as speaking first to another child or responding when grandma says hello… and make sure you celebrate these triumphs.” He suggests a simple reward program such as Bold With Gold – a gold star (or a treat like stickers) every time they exhibit outgoing behaviour.

Action: Set a goal for your child – like talking to a new person every day, then reward as you see appropriate.

Strategies such as these, along with huge doses of love, encouragement and empathy, can have a positive impact on a shy child. But when is shyness simply shyness and not something more? “If a child’s shyness is significant – social situations are causing real distress, for example – and it’s not changing over time, then it might help to talk to a professional,” advises Green.
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